Ever heard of a pangolin?
Neither had much of the staff at Brookfield Zoo – at least until last year, when it acquired 13 of the animals.
“Very few people understand what a pangolin is,” said Bill Zeigler, senior vice president of animal programs for the Chicago Zoological Society, which operates Brookfield Zoo. “Even here, when I talk to people about pangolins, they look at me and say, ‘Oh, you mean penguins?’ And I say, ‘No, pangolins.’”
Often referred to as scaly anteaters, pangolins have a cone-shaped head, long grasping tail and are covered with sharp, artichoke-shaped scales. They have long, muscular tongues covered with sticky saliva used to scoop up ants and termites – lots of them: Adult pangolins can eat up to 20,000 ants and termites a day, amounting to more than 7 million ants and termites every year.
As for those scales, a baby pangolin’s scales are soft but begin to harden within days of its birth. Young pangolins do not walk for several weeks but cling to their mother’s tail to get around.
The animal’s debut at Brookfield Zoo comes as pangolin species fight for survival. Last April, the zoo welcomed its group of white-bellied tree pangolins as part of an initiative launched with a handful of other U.S. zoos to save the animal, which has been identified as the most trafficked creature in the world. One of the pangolins, a young male named David, can now be seen in the zoo’s “Habitat Africa! The Forest” exhibit.
Over the past 10 to 15 years, more than a million pangolins have been poached from the wild and used in the illegal bushmeat trade, in Asian medicines and for their scales, which are made into jewelry.
Anti-poaching efforts have mostly failed, as pangolins are relatively small in size and therefore much easier to traffic than rhinoceros horns or elephant tusks, for example. Today, all eight species of pangolins – four native to Asia and four to Africa – face extinction.
“It’s easy to hide them, and it’s easy to move them through the black market without being very noticeable,” Zeigler said. “Now, you have this international market, and it gets worse.”
What’s so unique about pangolins that makes them the world’s most trafficked animal? In reality, nothing, Zeigler said.
In Asia, ground-up pangolin scales are often used for medicinal purposes – similar to rhino horns – even though there’s no scientific evidence to support the practice, Zeigler said.
“When you analyze these horns and scales, they’re just made of keratin, which is what your nails are made of,” he said.
The demand for pangolins is nonetheless intense. Zeigler said poachers in Africa confiscate 2,000 pounds worth of pangolin scales at a time. Given that an average pangolin weighs 4 to 5 pounds – its entire body, that is – poachers are capturing large quantities of the animal at once.
Based on the number of pangolins that have been lost, the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Pangolin Specialist Group estimates that a pangolin is snatched from the wild every five minutes.
To boost conservation efforts before it’s too late, Brookfield Zoo has partnered with zoos in Pittsburgh, Memphis, Columbus, New Jersey and Texas, along with the nonprofit Zoologica. The zoos are working to establish a sustainable population of white-bellied tree pangolins in order to better understand the animal.
The project includes studying pangolins’ reproductive physiology, diseases and behavior – tasks that are extremely difficult in the wild, according to information provided by Brookfield Zoo. In the past, pangolins did not thrive in institutions, but research efforts since have improved pangolin caretaking techniques, the zoo said.
The U.S. zoos are also working with zoologists and students from the University of Lomé in Togo, one of the West African countries where pangolins live, to strengthen conservation efforts there.
Zeigler said specialists at Brookfield Zoo have spent the past year studying and collecting data on the zoo’s 13 pangolins. Besides the young male pangolin David, the zoo does not plan to exhibit any of the other animals.
“Our goal is more on the science and reproductive side of the project, and it’s critical we create an environment conducive to that,” Zeigler said. “These are sensitive animals.”
Pangolins are also nocturnal, another obstacle to exhibiting them. Zeigler said pangolins are known to be loners, or at least not gregarious among their peers in the wild.
Some of the pangolins at the zoo, however, have taken to their human caretakers.
“What’s really amazing to me is that some of these animals have really unique personalities,” Zeigler said, “and some of them really like people.”
By the fall, Zeigler said the zoos participating in the pangolin project hope to solicit research proposals from field biologists to study pangolins in the wild.
Follow Alex Ruppenthal on Twitter: @arupp
March 28: The ethical debate over zoos – and whether animals belong in them – has resurfaced over the past year, and now Brookfield Zoo is joining the discussion.
Dec. 28: The newborn female Bornean orangutan joins five other orangutans living at the Brookfield Zoo.
Sept. 30: The Shedd Aquarium is calling on President Barack Obama to sign legislation that aims to curb the highly lucrative, international business of illegally trading endangered and threatened animals.