Endangered 'walking pinecone' mammal spotted after 24 year absence

A giant pangolin in desert sand. It is a massive scaly creature with a long tail, claws, and a slender snout.

Pangolins are the only mammals in the world that are fully covered in armor-like scales. The cute, snouted creatures roll up into a ball to protect themselves and prefer hunting at night, rooting around in the soil for ants and termites to eat. 

They range in size, with some the size of a small housecat, while others — the giant pangolin — can grow as big as a Galapagos tortoise. 

They are also, sadly, the most trafficked wild mammal in the world.

 Although pangolin poaching is illegal, their trademark scales sell for over $3,500 on the black market. Due to habitat loss, deforestation, and poaching, all eight species of pangolins have been struggling for survival across Asia and Africa and are listed on the IUCN Red List as either vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered. 

In fact, giant pangolins were thought extinct in Senegal altogether, until a trail camera spotted the creature in Niokolo-Koba National Park last year. The last time the species had been recorded in the West African country was 1999. 

Mouhamadou Mody Ndiaye, who works at the wildlife monitoring organization Panthera, told New Scientist that his team was stunned when they rewound the trail camera footage. 

They had photographic proof that the giant pangolins had survived 24 years longer than anyone anticipated. 

The trail camera capture of the giant pangolin spotted in Senegal
The trail camera footage of the giant pangolin. Image courtesy of Panthera.

“Nobody suspected that the pangolin is still alive in [this park],” said Ndiaye, who also published the discovery in the African Journal of Ecology this past May. 

“Such rediscoveries not only underscore the importance of systematic biodiversity inventories, but also the critical value of West Africa’s large protected areas,” Ndiaye and his team of researchers observed in their study. 

A ground pangolin curled up in a ball.
A ground pangolin curled up in a ball. Image via Animalia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

For half a century, the giant pangolin was also considered extinct in Kenya. 

Between 1971 and 2018, no one saw hide nor hair (or rather, scale or snout) of the species. After a string of sightings in 2018, local conservationists began tagging the pangolins and monitoring their movements. In 2023, they estimated that 30-80 giant pangolins were still alive. 

Beryl Makori, the project manager of the Pangolin Project, has been working with local farmers of the Nyakweri Forest and advocating for the pangolin’s preservation. 

“I feel we are protecting the last of the pangolins,” Makori told The Guardian. “We will give all it takes for a protected habitat with a viable population.”

Cameroon is also a key habitat for three pangolins: the  giant pangolin, the white-bellied pangolin and the black-bellied pangolin. In 2022, Cameroon launched a nationwide pangolin conservation campaign. 

A close up of a ground pangolin in a rocky habitat
A ground panImage via flowcomm / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

WildAid president Peter Knights, who helped launch the initiative, emphasized the dangers of the illegal bushmeat trade, as the consumption of pangolin meat could result in zoonotic and parasite-borne diseases. 

“Illegal commercial bushmeat trade use can quickly reduce their number and threaten them with extinction,” Knights said in a press release. “Traders note the animals are getting harder to find.” 

The campaign also aimed to inform people of the vital role the mammals play in maintaining a healthy biome. 

“In addition to being a beautiful and intriguing animal, the pangolin has a distinct ecological role,” said Jules Doret Ndongo, Cameroon’s minister for forests and wildlife, going on to explain how pangolins naturally aid in their environment’s decomposition cycle as they dig for ants and termites. 

“[We need] to change the vast majority of the population from the status of consumer of the pangolin, to that of protector.”

Header image via David Brossard / Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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