The Pangolin, famous for all wrong reasons

Spanish version here

Today is World Pangolin Day. A few years back, I would have to explain what a pangolin is. However, today everyone knows about this curious animal; it shifted from entirely unknown in the Western world to cover the headlines of news all over the planet for its link to the coronavirus pandemic.

Pangolins shifted from entirely unknown to making the headlines

In 2011, I was involved in a tender for designing a new facility in an important Spanish zoo. I was then working in a zoo design firm. We presented a project focused on endangered Asian species. A decade ago, Southeast Asia was already a critical point due to habitat loss and a region that desperately demanded international conservation attention. Our project included several insects, amphibians, the king cobra as the iconic highlight, and finally, a pangolin facility for studying their behavior. Some attendees had a vague idea of what a pangolin was, and others looked at me puzzled. Back then, pangolins were unknown even for experts. This animal was an enigma for me as well, not much was known about its ecology and reproduction, and several studies emphasized their drastic decline and predicted their extinction if threat levels don't reduce.Rescue plans for pangolins were urgently needed.

Figure 1. Pangolin in Singapore. Photo by  Nathanael Maury

The project didn't happen in Spain. Luckily, other institutions were focusing their efforts on this species. Pangolin rescue and rehabilitation programs were ongoing inSingapore and Taiwan. Wild rescued specimens, typically victims of road incidents, are admitted to the rescue facility. After rehabilitation, they are reintroduced and tracked. Meanwhile, the unfit animals for reintroduction are used to conduct behavior and captive care studies to improve the species management knowledge.

Within Asia, Singapore is considered a safe haven for pangolins. Being an advanced country with stringent laws against illegal wildlife trafficking, this small state island is home to one of the largest population densities of pangolins in the world. Their protected areas are, therefore, the ideal location for conducting field research with these strange animals.

Figure 2. Dr. Helen Nash during the release of a rescued pangolin in Singapore. Photo by Wildlife Reserves Singapore

Researchers have closely monitored wild and rescued animals during the last decade to unveil some of the secrets surrounding these unique animals. In 2016 I had the opportunity to join Dr.Helen Nash of the National University of Singapore during a pangolin tracking in the jungles of Singapore (Figure 2). The job was to locate the animals by using an antenna and a receiver to track them subsequently. The rescued animals have small transmitters bolted to their scales before being released (Figure 3). The beep sound emitted by the device indicates the animal's proximity, so we had to keep a certain distance to avoid interfering with their natural behavior, which basically consists of sleeping the whole day and moving for an hour or two at night to eat. We never got to see them well; at best, we could have a glimpse of their silhouette in the dark and collected samples left by the animals once they moved away (Figure 4).

"I'm optimistic that if we keep talking about pangolins, then more people will make choices to protect them"
Figure 3. Transmitter screwed into the scales of a rescued pangolin. Wildlife Reserves Singapore

These studies allowed Helen to make important discoveries about pangolins' ecology and behavior, including the main components of their diet, their habitat preference, among other vital factors to improve the conservation efforts for the species (1–4). After more than nine years studying pangolins in the wild and captivity, Helen and her colleagues have published a complete manual exclusively dedicated to them, with all the necessary information to undertake projects intended to conserve this species (5).

Making the headlines

In 2016, the pangolin made the headlines as the most trafficked animal in the world (6), an unfortunate leadership that exposed its vulnerability. Shortly after, new headlines raised more concerns as tons of dead pangolins and scales were seized in Asia (7–9). The future for this small mammal was looking bleak. But the greatest media attention that pangolins received was last year when it was linked to the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic (10–12), an unconfirmed hypothesis even today (13), but that received substantial public attention nonetheless.  

Figure 4. Pangolin photographed during a tracking. Photo by Cecilia Encinas

After being neglected for decades, the pangolin became famous not for its tongue, which exceeds the length of its body, or the extraordinary scaly armor they wear, but because it became a suspect host of the coronavirus that has put the world in check.

Interestingly, after the covid-19 outbreak, international pressure forced the Chinese authorities to ban the sale of wild meat (14), as well as to remove pangolin scales from traditional medicine (15). These measures would be very positive for the conservation of pangolins if well implemented.  

Figure 5. Tag and device for pangolin tracking. Photo by Wildlife Reserves Singapore

Today Helen tells us to celebrate World Pangolin Day, a perfect excuse to keep them in the headlines but this round for good reasons instead. "I'm optimistic that if we keep talking about pangolins, then more people will make choices to protect them," says Helen.



1. Nash, H. et al. Conservation genomics reveals possible illegal trade routes and admixture across pangolin lineages in Southeast Asia. Conserv. Genet.19, (2018).

2. Challender, D. et al. On scaling up pangolin conservation. TRAFFIC Bull. 28, 19–21 (2016).

3. Lee, P. B. et al. Sunda Pangolin (Manis javanica)National Conservation Strategy and Action Plan: Scaling up PangolinConservation in Singapore. Singap. Pangolin Work. Group (2018).

4. Cabana, F. et al. Feeding Asian pangolins: An assessment of current diets fed in institutions worldwide. Zoo Biol. 36,298–305 (2017).

5. Challender, D. W., Nash, H. C. & Waterman, C. Pangolins:Science, Society and Conservation. (Academic Press, 2019).

6. The most trafficked mammal in the world. BBC News(2016).

7. Griffiths, J. 14 tons of pangolin scales seized in Singapore in a single smuggling bust - CNN.

8. May, T. 9 Tons of Pangolin Scales Are Seized in Hong Kong. TheNew York Times (2019).

9. Mee, E. More than 27 tonnes of pangolins and their scales seized from traffickers in Malaysia. Sky News

10. Briggs, H. Coronavirus: Pangolins found to carry related strains. BBC News (2020).

11. Cyranoski, D. Did pangolins spread theChina coronavirus to people? Nature (2020)doi:10.1038/d41586-020-00364-2.

12. Zhang, T., Wu, Q. & Zhang, Z.Probable Pangolin Origin of SARS-CoV-2 Associated with the COVID-19 Outbreak. Curr. Biol. 30, 1346-1351.e2 (2020).

13. Frutos, R., Serra-Cobo, J., Chen, T.& Devaux, C. A. COVID-19: Time to exonerate the pangolin from the transmission of SARS-CoV-2 to humans. Infect. Genet. Evol. 84,104493 (2020).

14. Gorman, J. China's Ban on Wildlife Trade a Big Step, but Has Loopholes, Conservationists Say. The New York Times(2020).

15. Alberts, E. C. Banned: No more pangolin scales in traditional medicine, China declares. Mongabay Environmental News

Cover picture by Nathanael Maury

Special thanks to Dr. Helen Nash for her valuable inputs, and Wildlife Reserves Singapore for the pictures shared.