They look like reptiles, all covered in scales. They look like armadillos, the way they roll up in a ball. They look like anteaters, with those long snouts and tongues. And they look like dinosaurs, lumbering and ancient.
Pangolins are unlike any other animal I’ve ever seen. They’re distantly related to bears and dogs, but they’re in their own taxonomic family. And they’re mammals—the world’s only mammal with real scales.
But when I met pangolins for the first time in real life, what surprised me most was their personalities. Tamuda was bold and stubborn. Luleko was shy and sweet. Both had been rescued from the illegal wildlife trade in Zimbabwe and were recovering in the care of the Tikki Hywood Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to wildlife rescue and conservation. Pangolins are among the most widely poached mammals—their scales are in demand for use in traditional Chinese medicine.
When I looked into their eyes, it seemed that they were thinking no less about me than I about them.
I followed Tamuda and Luleko for hours as they wandered around the Tikki Hywood rehab center. Each pangolin had a human caregiver who helped them look for ants and termites to eat. Sometimes the pangolin would take a sniff, decide that the anthill or termite mound wasn’t right, and move on. Other times, he would use his big claws to pile in head first, leaving only a tail wiggling above ground as he feasted on the insects below.
Another thing I learned about pangolins during that visit was that these guys—Temminck’s ground pangolins—like to roll in manure. We watched one go at it for at least 10 minutes. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen an animal appearing to enjoy itself that much. Lisa Hywood, the founder and director of Tikki Hywood Foundation, says they do it to get rid of parasites. Like taking a mud bath.
For more about pangolins, check out this story from National Geographic magazine. In the meantime, happy World Pangolin Day: Enjoy these photos showing pangolins in all their adorable glory.