Pangolins: Peaceful, poorly understood, and poached

Protecting pangolins is a passion for Canadian wildlife veterinarian Hezy Anholt, DVM, who is currently working in Malawi. She talked with columnist Emily Singler, VMD, about the challenges and urgent need to understand these scaly mammals.

By Emily Singler

Meet the pangolin: the world’s only mammal that is covered in scales! They love to eat ants and termites, and they curl up into an adorable ball if they feel threatened. These scaly anteaters are comprised of eight species native to Africa and Asia.  

Like many wild animals living in these parts of the world, all species of pangolin are threatened with extinction due to poaching for their meat (which is served as a delicacy in some countries) and their scales (which are used in traditional Chinese medicine).  



Pangolins and Covid-19 

Pangolins are poorly understood for many reasons, including their initial implication in the Covid-19 pandemic. They have limited visibility to those outside of the regions where they live, since they do not thrive in zoos and other captive settings. According to Hezy Anholt, DVM, a Canadian wildlife veterinarian currently based in Malawi, there is also misunderstanding about their scales, which have no true medicinal value.  

Veterinary professionals may be interested to know that Yunnan Baiyao Group, the Chinese company who produces the Yunnan Baiyao supplement marketed to prevent and treat bleeding in animals and humans, has also been implicated in the selling and trading of pangolin body parts. 

During the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic when the disease was poorly understood and its origins were being intensely investigated, much concentration was centered on an animal market in Wuhan, China. Multiple species of animals were sold at this market and implicated as possible intermediate hosts capable of transmitting the virus to humans, including racoon-dogs (a fox-like species), bats, and pangolins.  



A misunderstanding that led to stigma 

Anholt said that there was a misunderstanding at a press conference in China where a scientist mistakenly claimed that coronaviruses sampled from pangolins were 99% similar to the human SARS-CoV-2 virus. It was later revealed that this 99% similarity was only across one portion of the genome of the virus.  

“It is unlikely that we will ever know exactly what bat species was the original reservoir host for SARS-CoV-2 or which species served as the intermediate host(s) before the virus spilled over into humans,” Anholt said. 

Anholt, who is currently working on her PhD studying trypanosomiasis in wildlife in Malawi, also participates in wildlife health interventions as part of her work with Worldwide Veterinary Services (WVS). This includes working with the Temminck’s ground pangolin, a species that is expected to experience a 50% reduction in numbers over the next 15 years if current trends continue. She described pangolins as shy, enigmatic creatures who live solitary lives. They have no natural predators other than humans, and their continued existence is threatened by humans who either poach them or encroach upon their natural habitat through increased land development. 


Protection from poachers

Pangolins come to Anholt after they are rescued by local law enforcement from poachers in southern Africa. She works with WVS to complete a three-step rehabilitation process that is labor intensive and expensive.  

First, she works to correct dehydration, hypoglycemia, and hypothermia, along with treating any bacterial or parasitic infections. She said that pangolins are extremely difficult to keep alive in captivity. They often refuse to eat, and the stress of captivity increases their susceptibility to many different disease processes.  

“One could make the comparison that they require the same amount of resources and attention as a severe hepatic lipidosis cat” when they are sick, she said. 

If they survive to eat and drink on their own, pangolins are then transferred back to a diet of ants and termites that they forage in the wild. This often requires a caretaker to help them move around, find the right ant hills, and break them open since the pangolin may still be too weak to do this themselves, Anholt said.  

Finally, they must be reintroduced into the wild. Pangolins very often try to return to the same place where they were first captured, making them susceptible to further harm. To prevent this, rehabilitated pangolins are fitted with satellite tracking devices and introduced into a protected conservation area. They are then monitored for several months to make sure they are getting enough food and staying in areas where they will be safe.  

How to support pangolin conservation 

For veterinary professionals who would like to support pangolin conservation, Anholt said that there are multiple ways to do so. She recommends donation of money and/or veterinary supplies to organizations such as Worldwide Veterinary Services and the African Pangolin Working Group. This can benefit animal care directly, and it can also help finance continuing education for local veterinarians and their staff.   

She cautions against short-term international volunteer trips, as the carbon footprint of international travel often outweighs any benefit provided by volunteers. She suggested that instead, those who are interested look into the Majete Conservation Experience with WVS, a form of ecotourism that helps to fund radio and satellite tracking equipment, and the salaries for highly-skilled wildlife caretakers.  

Anholt said that there is still much to learn about pangolin health and ecology and that there is an “urgent need” for graduate students (which could include interested veterinary professionals) to find ways to ensure this unique and peaceable creature is around for generations to come.  

Further reading 


Photos courtesy of Hezy Anholt 

Disclaimer: The views expressed, and topics discussed, in any NEWStat column or article are intended to inform, educate, or entertain, and do not represent an official position by the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) or its Board of Directors.




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