Sunda pangolin

Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic Photo Ark
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An endangered sunda pangolin, Manis javanica, at the Carnivore and Pangolin Conservation Center in Cuc Phuong National Park, Vietnam.


Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic Photo Ark

What is the Sunda pangolin?

Sunda pangolins are critically endangered. Like their fellow pangolin species elsewhere in Asia and Africa, they are being poached to extinction for their meat and their scales, which are used in traditional Chinese medicine, though there's no evidence they are effective. All eight species of these shy, scaly creatures are said to be the most trafficked mammals in the world.

Pangolins are mostly covered in thick scales of keratin—the substance human fingernails are made of—that protect their bodies from predators like leopards. If threatened, they roll into a ball, like armadillos do, hiding their vulnerable belly and other parts not covered by the tough scales. This defense mechanism makes it easy for humans to grab them.

Diet and range

Besides its scales, the pangolin’s most notable feature is its long snout and tongue. Like an anteater, the pangolin uses its strong front claws to tear into termite and ant mounds, then sticks its nose in and slurps up the insects with its enormously long tongue.

Sunda pangolins are the most widely distributed pangolin species in Asia, ranging across much of Southeast Asia. They have a few differences from their Asian cousins (chiefly, the Chinese pangolin): They have fewer rows of scales on their backs, longer tails, and shorter forelimb claws. They are also more likely to climb trees to reach ant nests, using their prehensile tails to cling to branches. During the day, they sleep in tree hollows or burrows.

Like other pangolin species, female Sunda pangolins usually give birth to one pup at a time.

Threats to survival

Because Sunda pangolins, like the other species of pangolins, tend to be solitary, shy, and nocturnal, there are no reliable population estimates. However, surveys of hunters in various parts of their ranges say they are much more difficult to find, suggesting their numbers have declined significantly. As pangolin populations in Asia decline, wildlife traffickers are increasingly turning their sights to African pangolins.

The international commercial trade in all eight species of pangolin was banned under the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora in 2016.

Pangolins: The Most Trafficked Mammal You've Never Heard Of

What are pangolins? If you’ve never heard of the pangolin, you’re not alone. This shy creature, as big as your cat or dog, is the world’s most trafficked mammal—with more than one million pangolins poached in the past decade. Learn more about the pangolin, why all eight pangolin species are at risk of extinction, and the conservation efforts needed to save them.