David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation

Pangolin Facts

There is an insatiable demand for pangolin parts and products, feeding into an illegal wildlife trade estimated to be worth between $19-23 billion. As the most trafficked mammal in the world, you’d think we’d know all about these scaley insectivores – but we actually know precious little. Here are some pangolin facts to help put that right.

What is a pangolin?

Despite their scales giving them an almost reptilian-like appearance, pangolins are mammals. They represent one of the most ancient mammalian orders – Pholidota, going back nearly 64 million years in the fossil record. All extant pangolins sit within the same family, Manidae. 

Although it was long thought that pangolins were most closely related to anteaters, sloths, and armadillos, genetically, they are much more aligned with modern carnivores, and an extinct group of mammals known as the Palaeanodonta (ancient toothless animals).


pangolins being trafficked illegally every day


an average pangolin can consume up to 70 million insects per year!


species of Pangolin. Four Asian and Four African

How many species of pangolin exist and where do they live?

With eight species of pangolin split across Asia and Africa, there is some variation in the habitat they prefer and how they live:

  • Chinese pangolins are native to northern parts of southeast Asia and southern China. Unlike African species, which prefer lowlands, Chinese pangolins have been recorded at elevations up to 3,000 metres. They also adapt to a wide range of habitats, ranging from grassland to bamboo, coniferous, and deciduous forests.
  • The Philippine pangolin, also known as the Palawan pangolin and even locally as balintong, only now remains in the Palawan province of its island namesake. These pangolins are primarily arboreal and prefer to den in hollow trees or sleep in the canopy. 
  • Indian pangolins are found across India and Sri Lanka. Their preferred habitat is grassland and forest, but they are also well adapted for dry, desert areas too – and have even been found in Sri Lankan rainforest. They have been recorded at an elevation of 2,300m in India’s Nilgiri mountains. They dig their burrows in semi-sandy soil. 
  • Sunda pangolins, or Malayan or Javan pangolins as they are also known, are found in the forests of southeast Asia, including Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia, Singapore, and Vietnam, but also specifically the islands of Borneo, Java, Sumatra, and the Lesser Sunda Islands. They have been known to favour both hollow trees for denning, as well as being capable burrow diggers. 
  • The Temminck’s, or ground pangolin, is one of the most widespread of the African species and is the only one found in southern and eastern Africa. They prefer scrubby, savannah woodland at low elevation. Like most pangolin species, they live in burrows – which have semispherical chambers and can sometimes be large enough for a person to stand up in. Temminck’s pangolins tend to ‘adopt’ the abandoned burrows of warthogs and aardvarks.
  • The giant pangolin has its largest populations in Uganda, Tanzania, and western Kenya, but is thinly distributed across the western coast of Africa too. They prefer forests, rainforest, and savannah as habitat.
  • The white-bellied pangolin (also known as the tree pangolin or three-cusped pangolin) is the most common of the African forest pangolins. They are found through much of central and western Africa, and as far east as southwestern Kenya and northeastern Tanzania. As semiarboreal specialists, they prefer lowland tropical and savannah forests, as well as showing some adaption to commercial plantations.
  • Black-bellied, or long-tailed pangolins are also semiarboreal and favour the same habitat as the white-bellied pangolin but are less widely distributed across central and western Africa
Mark Boyd
David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation

How many pangolins are left in the world?

The honest answer is, we don’t know. Because pangolins live such secretive, secluded lives, no population studies have been able to successfully estimate how many pangolins live in the wild. What we do know is that their populations cannot possibly sustain the decimation of demand caused by the illegal wildlife trade, which rips approximately 200,000 pangolins from the wild every year. That’s one every four minutes.

What is a pangolin’s habitat?

Pangolins are found in a variety of habitats, from forests to grasslands, tropical climates to thick brush. Generally, pangolins live where large numbers of ants and termites can be found to feed their large appetites for insects.

Pangolins that live on the ground usually dig deep burrows for sleeping and nesting that contain circular chambers. Large chambers have been discovered in terrestrial pangolin burrows that are big enough for a human to crawl inside and stand up. Some pangolin species, such as the Malayan pangolin, also sleep in the hollows and forks of trees and logs.

What is a group of pangolins called?

There is no official collective noun for pangolins because they are solitary species. Pangolins are also not very well known.

Where do pangolins live?

Four pangolin species occur across Asia: the Indian pangolin, the Chinese or Formosan pangolin, the Malayan or Sunda pangolin, and the Palawan pangolin.

Four species are found in Africa south of the Sahara Desert: the Cape or ground pangolin, the tree pangolin, the giant pangolin, and the long-tailed pangolin.

What do pangolins eat?

Almost all pangolin species are strictly myrmecophagous – meaning they only feed on termites and ants. Furthermore, they often show specific preferences, and have been observed uncovering termite and ants nests, only to leave the insects untouched if not a species to their liking! 

Some, like the black-bellied pangolin, only eat ants, ignoring termites altogether. 

The Asian species of pangolins show a slightly broader diet, which can include bee larvae, flies, earthworms, and even crickets. 

Most species also consume small stones and gravel, to act as a natural grinder in their stomachs.

How much do pangolins weigh?

Pangolins vary in size – there are three bigger species, the biggest being the giant pangolin, where an adult weighs on average 33kg. Close behind this are the Indian pangolin, which reaches 13kg, and the ground pangolin, which reaches 12kg.

The other four breeds of pangolin are smaller, with the Sunda pangolin weighing 4.9kg, the Chinese pangolin weighing around 3.6kg, the long-tailed pangolin weighing around 2.7kg and the smallest species is the tree pangolin, weighing only 1.5kg.

Gareth Thomas
David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation

Why are pangolins endangered?

Pangolins face threats on a multitude of fronts – but human demand for their parts and meat is the primary reason most pangolin species are classed as critically endangered. Pangolin scales are used in traditional Asian medicine, with other aspects, such as their blood, being used for tonics. As well as a perceived medicinal value, these wines and tonics carry great importance for status and are highly prized by Asia’s rising middle-class and more affluent society segments.

Demand is highest in Asia, and it is the Asian species that have therefore been hit hardest. However, as these animals have become scarcer, the illegal wildlife trade has turned its focus to the African species to continue to supply consumer demand.

The African species are also hunted for the prolific bushmeat trade, as their meat is considered a delicacy.

Pangolins are also losing habitat due to human encroachment, with forestry being turned into agricultural tracts. Some species, such as the Sunda pangolin, are also very susceptible to changes in temperature due to low immunity and are therefore vulnerable to the impact of climate change too.

You can support our work to save endangered animals from extinction by adopting today.

David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation
Photograph by Ulrico Grech-Cumbo

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