The Manis Crassicaudata or Indian Pangolin was formerly known as the scaly anteater. Allow me to introduce this four limbed, nocturnal, burrowing mammal from its very name. Yes, it is called the Indian Pangolin, but let’s not get feisty, it was taxonomically classified in the year 1801 and Pakistan wasn’t made then, hence the word “Indian”. The second and better reason for the name would be because the pangolin occupies only a small geographical range in Pakistan i.e. Jhelum, Gujrat, Northwest Punjab, Kohat, Attock, Khyber, Sindh and Baluchistan, as compared to the geographical range it occupies in India, Nepal and Siri Lanka.
Now, on to its second and more common name, the scaly anteater. From the name it honestly sounds like some grub eating, reptilian type creature but there’s more to it then it seems. It has a disproportionate body, much like a stegosaurus, with a small triangular head, a slightly round body and an excessively long tail. With 15-18 rows of large, brown, shed able scales and bristles covering its entire body, except the underbelly and head, the pangolin is fully capable of its self-defense. And by self-defense, I don’t mean it goes all Kung Fu on its predators. So how does our pangolin, whose length ranges from around 0.84 – 1.2 meters only, do this? Simple. All it does is curl up onto itself in a tight ball and let its scales do the work. Tigers and other larger predators try to gnaw away at these tightly curled up balls but are never successful because these scales are made up of keratin, the most biologically tough protein besides chitin.
Another method of self-defense is the emitting of a yellow, smelly liquid from the anal glands to warn away predators. Thanks to these mechanisms, our pangolin walks away from predators three times its size, free to live another day. I say walks away because it can walk on its hind legs as well.
Besides being scaly, it is an anteater, or in more scientific terms, insectivorous. Its diet comprises of termites and ants, in fact the pangolin can consume up to 200,000 insects per day, almost 70 million per year. And to dig all that food up from the ground and consume it, the pangolin is equipped with 3 very important tools;
– 5 long strong claws on its limbs to burrow into the ground and dig up insect nests.
– A thin, muscular tongue up to 25 cm long which leads directly to the stomach. Once the pangolin digs up the nests it licks over them with its tongue. Sticky secretions on the tongue allow all the insects to stick to it. Amazingly, while it does all this, it shuts its eyes, ears and nostrils to protect itself from bites.
– It has no teeth, so the function of chewing is achieved in the stomach with the help of pebbles, similar to a bird’s gizzard.
And now, onto reproduction and life spans. The pangolin has an average life span of 13 years and is sexually dimorphic. It spends its life alone except during the breeding season, during which it mates. The female has a gestation period of 65-70 days after which it gives birth to a baby pangolin (usually twins), with soft scales and open eyes.
So, all seems well and good with our anteater. It has a good gestation period, lots of food available on earth and it’s protected from predators. It should be heavily populating Pakistan by now. But you haven’t seen one have you? No, most probably not. This is because pangolins are not safe from the greatest predator of all. Man. We have hunted the pangolin to the extent that the IUCN red list of threatened species has now labeled it as an endangered species, whereas only 20 years ago it was of least concern. Humans have been capturing and killing pangolins for their meat, which is high in protein, and for their scales, which have been used for centuries in traditional medicines as aphrodisiacs, relaxants, anti-paralytics, blood thinners and cures for skin infections. It is time we paid attention to the well-being of unique species like the pangolin, before it is too late.
- Elis, Richard. (1938) Tiger Bone & Rhino Horn: The Destruction of Wildlife for Traditional Chinese Medicine. Island Press, Richard Elis.
- Madonald, D.W. (2000) The Encyclopedia of Mammals. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
- Nowak, R.M. (1991) Walker’s Mammals of the World. The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, Maryland.