Pangolins: Armoured but vulnerable

Pangolins: armoured but vulnerable

Written by Supernova

Feb 14, 2022

Pangolins: A rare animal

You’ve not seen a rare animal until you’ve seen a pangolin.

It’s secretive, solitary and mainly nocturnal. But these characteristics are not the only reasons that pangolins are a rare sight.

Pangolins are, unfortunately, the most trafficked animal in the world and threatened 
with extinction!

The word ‘pangolin’ comes from the Malay word ‘pengguling’, which means ‘rolling up’. 

Uniquely, pangolins are the only mammal covered in scales. Of the eight species of pangolins in the world, four species are Asian and four are African. Only the Temminck’s Ground pangolin (Smutsia temminckii), also called the Cape pangolin, is found in South Africa. This is its remarkable story.

Pangolin basics

Pangolins are insectivorous, feeding on ants and termites. They use abandoned burrows of aardvarks, porcupines, warthogs, and even termite holes as shelter. Pangolins are expertly adapted to their way of life.

They are picky about which ant and termite species they eat, and may not always eat the most abundant species.


The Ground pangolin lives in savannahs and woodlands around our northern borders. 

Uniquely armoured 

Pangolins have a hard, plate-like scales

Their hard, plate-like scales are brown-grey and overlap, covering the whole body, except their bellies, which is sparsely covered in hair. 

The scales consist of keratin, the protein that also forms your hair, nails and rhino horns. These scales are so hard, a lion will struggle to bite through it! As protection, the pangolin rolls up into a tight, near-impenetrable ball, protecting its soft belly. 

Pangolins Ant-eater anatomy

An extended tongue can be over 40cm longer than the pangolin’s body length! 

A very good sense of smell makes up for its poor vision and hearing. They can sniff out ants and termites even under the soil’s surface. 

Pangolins don’t have teeth, but a really long, sticky tongue with which they catch insects. Soil and small stones also get stuck to the sticky tongue and help to grind up the food.

To prevent troublesome ants and termites crawling in while feeding, pangolins can close their ears and nostrils. 

Pangolins use their large, curved claws and powerful forearms to dig up ant and termite nests. The pangolins use their claws to tear off tree bark to reach the yummy ants underneath.

Adults grow up to 1.2m and can weigh between 7-12kg.

The front legs are shorter than the hind legs. This is why the pangolin walks on its hind legs with its front legs held up against its body. To help pangolins up steep slops, they use their front legs.

Curious lions, leopards and hyenas sometimes play with rolled up pangolins. Lions can’t bite through the hard scales and they are rarely able to uncoil a pangolin to make a meal of it.

Although rolling into a ball protects them from predators, it unfortunately makes it easy for humans simply to pick them up and smuggle them! Some cultures mistakenly believe that pangolin scales and body parts are medicinal. This drives pangolin poaching.

Pangolins roll into a ball for protection

Endangered species

Pangolins are also hunted for bushmeat and are considered a delicacy in some Asian countries, which will pay high prices for it. This also encourages pouching. Combined with the pangolins’ slow reproduction rate, it results in all eight of the pangolin species becoming vulnerable to extinction.

Although illegal poaching and trading is by far the biggest threat to pangolins, some are also accidentally killed on our roads, while others are electrocuted on game fences. Instead of moving away from an electric shock, pangolins tend to curl around the electric wire, so they’re eventually shocked to death.

They can secrete a strong stinking fluid to mark their territory or scare off enemies. 

Pangolin Action

The leading reason for this species’ demise is their scales. Even though these animals are such a rare sight, you can contribute to the conservation of this unique species.

Keep your eyes peeled when on a night drive and report your pangolin sightings to the African Pangolin Working Group ( Record as much information as possible and have your camera ready!

Sign the petition at

As a school science project, you can try to design an electric fence that is pangolin friendly to help reduce the number of pangolin mortalities.

Learn more about pangolins and spread the word about the dangers they face!

If we put some educated thought into it, we can ensure that pangolins remain part of our abundant biodiversity.

Is it not time that the plight of the extraordinary pangolin becomes headline news like that of the rhino and other well-known threatened species? 

A pangolin can chomp an estimated 70 million insects per year.


Pangolins love to eat ants. We love to look at them. Observing an underground ant colony in the wild is not possible. That’s why we’ve made an ant farm. Now we can stare at them to our hearts’ content.  


1. One large jar and one smaller container that fits inside the large jar. 

2. Use soil that you find close to where you collect your ants. 

3. Ants

An empty jar

Step 1

Make tiny holes in the lid for air. Fix the smaller container in place. This is so that the ants burrow near the glass.

A jar filled with soil

Step 2

Fill your jar with soil. 

Honey to catch ants

Step 3

Catch some ants. 

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