Pangolin species in Africa

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There are four species of pangolins found in Africa.

These species are the black-bellied pangolin (Phataginus tetradactyla), white-bellied pangolin (Phataginus tricuspis), giant ground pangolin (Smutsia gigantea), and Temminck’s ground pangolin (Smutsia temminckii).

The African pangolin species are native to 15 African countries dispersed throughout southern, central, and east Africa

The giant ground pangolin is the most widespread of the two tree species, occurring widely in West and Central Africa, where it inhabits forests, dense woodlands, and even secondary forests and agricultural lands (especially oil palm plantations)

The Cape pangolin is known to live in burrows already dug by aardvarks and aardwolves.

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Conservation Efforts for African Pangolin Species

Pangolins are the most trafficked mammal in the world, and all eight species of pangolins are threatened with extinction

The four African species are classified as vulnerable. To protect pangolins in Africa, various conservation initiatives and strategies have been implemented.

Some of these initiatives include:

  1. Securing protected areas where pangolins live: African Parks is creating safe havens for pangolins by securing protected areas where they live, and working extensively alongside communities and governments to ensure the provision of a safe and suitable habitat for the long-term survival of pangolins.
  2. Training rangers and wildlife authorities: Conservationists are training rangers and wildlife authorities to identify and intercept pangolin trafficking, and to rescue and rehabilitate pangolins that have been confiscated from illegal traders.
  3. Community-based conservation: ZSL is pioneering two community-managed pangolin conservation areas to protect wild pangolin populations.

    They are working with the local community to help people achieve their career goals, so they don’t have to work in the illegal wildlife trade.
  4. Researching behavior and ecology: Scientists are researching the behavior and ecology of pangolins to identify ways to ensure their survival.

Despite these efforts, pangolins still face many challenges.

Some of these challenges include:

  1. Demand for pangolin scales and meat: Demand for pangolin scales and meat is driving pangolins toward extinction.

    Large-scale trafficking is driven by a belief that pangolin scales have magical and curative properties and demand for their meat.
  2. Lack of information: Pangolins are secretive, solitary, and mostly nocturnal, and many mysteries remain about their natural history and behavior.

    We do not even have a solid estimate of how many pangolins remain in the wild.
  3. Illegal trade: Pangolins are illegally traded for their scales and meat, and wildlife authorities are constantly seizing live pangolins from illegal traders.

Despite these challenges, there have been some successes in pangolin conservation efforts.

For example, in 2016, pangolins gained the highest levels of protection under the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) with the decision to uplist all 8 species to Appendix I.

International trade in pangolins for commercial purposes is prohibited by law. In 2019, African Parks and Tikki Hywood Foundation pioneered a partnership combining expertise and resources to boost the protection of pangolins in Africa.

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Pangolin Trafficking in Africa

Pangolins are the most trafficked mammal in the world, and all eight species of pangolins are threatened with extinction. Pangolins have long provided meat and traditional medicine for people in Africa and Asia.

Recently, however, demand for pangolin scales has grown to the point that geographic boundaries are blurring. T

he illegal trade in pangolins is only growing, and organized international criminal networks that previously dealt predominantly with African elephant ivory are increasingly turning to pangolins

The Wildlife Justice Commission identified 27 countries and territories involved as sources, transits, or destinations for pangolin scale shipments.

Six places in particular were linked to 94 percent of the overall contraband: China, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Singapore, Nigeria, and Democratic Republic of Congo

Nigeria, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo act as transit countries and logistical hubs for pangolin and wildlife trafficking more generally

The transnational network of illegal pangolin trafficking is highly mobile with new trade routes emerging every year. Enforcement approaches will need to be adapted to keep pace with the changing nature of the trade

Ivory traffickers appear to be involved in the pangolin scale trade, often transporting shipments of ivory and pangolin specimens together

Pangolins are poached every three to five minutes, and the proceeds of wildlife trafficking contribute to violent conflict in Central Africa

The hunt for animal products continues unabated, with little consideration for the consequences this has in terms of biodiversity and the potential for violent conflict.

Pangolin Habitats and Range

Pangolins are found in a variety of habitats across Africa, including forests, savannas, and grasslands.

The four African species of pangolins are the black-bellied pangolin, white-bellied pangolin, giant ground pangolin, and Temminck’s ground pangolin

The giant ground pangolin is the most widespread of the two tree species, occurring widely in West and Central Africa, where it inhabits forests, dense woodlands, and even secondary forests and agricultural lands (especially oil palm plantations)

The Cape pangolin is known to live in burrows already dug by aardvarks and aardwolves. The white-bellied pangolin is found in a variety of habitats, including forests, savannas, and grasslands

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The black-bellied pangolin is found in a variety of habitats, including forests, savannas, and grasslands. The Temminck’s ground pangolin is found in a variety of habitats, including forests, savannas, and grasslands.

Habitat loss and fragmentation are significant threats to the survival of pangolins in Africa

The major threats to pangolins’ survival in the Murchison Falls Conservation area are habitat degradation and deforestation caused by infrastructural development

Pangolins are losing their habitats due to human activities such as logging, mining, and agriculture, which are leading to habitat fragmentation and degradation

As a result, pangolins are losing their food sources and shelter, and are becoming more vulnerable to predators and poachers

Climate change is also exacerbating existing threats and causing species to migrate or adapt to changing environmental conditions, which can lead to disruptions in fragile ecosystems and threaten the survival of even more species.

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Pangolins and Ecosystems

Pangolins play important ecological roles in African ecosystems, and their decline can have significant consequences.

Here are some of the ways pangolins impact their ecosystems:

  • Pest control: Pangolins are natural pest controllers, consuming large numbers of ants and termites. In fact, it is estimated that a single pangolin can eat more than 70 million insects in a year. By controlling insect populations, pangolins help to maintain a balanced ecosystem and prevent damage to crops and other vegetation.
  • Soil aeration and nutrient cycling: Pangolins are also known as “ecosystem engineers” because they excavate deep burrows for sleeping and nesting, which can help to aerate the soil and improve its quality. By digging into the ground to create living spaces and to access their insect meals, pangolins turn over organic matter and mix up soil to bring nutrients back to the surface to help with new growth.
  • Prey for predators: Pangolins are prey for a variety of predators, including lions, tigers, and chimpanzees. By providing a food source for these predators, pangolins help to maintain a balanced ecosystem.

The decline of pangolins can have significant consequences for African ecosystems.

Here are some of the potential impacts:

  • Increased pest populations: Without pangolins to control insect populations, there could be an increase in pest populations, which could damage crops and other vegetation.
  • Soil degradation: Without pangolins to aerate the soil and mix up nutrients, soil quality could decline, which could impact plant growth and the health of other organisms in the ecosystem.
  • Disruption of food webs: The loss of pangolins could disrupt food webs in African ecosystems, potentially leading to imbalances and declines in other species.

Overall, pangolins play important roles in African ecosystems, and their decline could have significant consequences.

Protecting pangolins is not only important for their own survival, but also for the health and well-being of the ecosystems they inhabit.

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Pangolins in African Culture and Traditions

Pangolins have cultural significance in many African societies, including traditional beliefs, rituals, and the use of pangolin products in traditional medicine.

Here are some examples:

  • Traditional medicine: Pangolin scales and other body parts are used in traditional medicine in many African countries, including Ghana and Sierra Leone. In Ghana, pangolin scales are used to treat rheumatism, convulsions, and for spiritual protection. In Sierra Leone, pangolin body parts are used extensively and frequently by traditional medical practitioners. However, the use of pangolin products in traditional medicine is a major threat to pangolin populations, as it drives demand for their scales and other body parts.
  • Spiritual beliefs: In some South African tribal societies, the pangolin is revered. In other African cultures, pangolins are believed to have supernatural powers and are used in rituals and ceremonies.
  • Financial rituals: In Ghana, pangolin scales are also used in financial rituals, where they are believed to bring wealth and good luck.

The cultural significance of pangolins in African societies can have both positive and negative impacts on pangolin populations.

On the one hand, cultural beliefs can help to protect pangolins by discouraging people from hunting or killing them.

For example, in Zimbabwe, chiefs are reviving traditional beliefs and practices to protect the country’s last pangolins

On the other hand, the use of pangolin products in traditional medicine and other cultural practices can drive demand for their scales and other body parts, which can lead to overhunting and poaching

Therefore, it is important to raise awareness about the threats facing pangolins and to promote alternative sources of traditional medicine and cultural practices that do not involve the use of pangolin products.

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Research and Monitoring of African Pangolins

Recent scientific research on African pangolins has focused on tracking studies, genetic research, and efforts to better understand their behavior and ecology.

Here are some examples:

  • Tracking studies: The AfriCat Foundation has launched the AfriCat Pangolin Project aimed at studying all details of life for the ground pangolin in Namibia. The overall aim of this project is to understand the activity patterns, population dynamics, prey selectivity, and overall ecology of wild pangolin within ONR and to gather further information about their behavior and survival strategies. Tracking studies can help researchers better understand the movements and behavior of pangolins in the wild, which can inform conservation efforts.
  • Genetic research: Genetic analysis has been used to identify African pangolins and their origin in illegal trade. This research can help to identify the geographic origin of pangolins in the illegal trade and inform law enforcement efforts to combat trafficking.
  • Understanding behavior and ecology: There has been minimal research completed within Namibia, for this reason, AfriCat is launching the AfriCat Pangolin Project aimed at studying all details of life for the ground pangolin in Namibia. The end goal of collecting this data is to shed light on biological baseline knowledge and to create conservation guidelines for ground pangolin which can be applicable across their range. Research on the behavior and ecology of pangolins can help to inform conservation efforts and better understand the role of pangolins in African ecosystems.
  • Traditional medicine: Research has been undertaken to better understand the use of pangolin products in traditional medicine in Ghana. This research can help to inform efforts to promote alternative sources of traditional medicine that do not involve the use of pangolin products.

Scientific research on African pangolins is important for informing conservation efforts and better understanding the role of pangolins in African ecosystems.

However, pangolins are highly under-researched, and more research is needed to better understand their behavior, ecology, and the threats they face.

Pangolins and Zoonotic Disease

Pangolins have been identified as potential intermediaries in the transmission of zoonotic diseases, including coronaviruses, and this has implications for public health in Africa and globally.

Here are some key findings from recent research:

  • SARS-CoV-2 transmission: Research has suggested that pangolins may have played a role in the transmission of SARS-CoV-2 from bats to humans. While the details of the transmission process are still unclear, pangolins are believed to be an intermediate host for the virus. This highlights the potential for pangolins to act as intermediaries in the transmission of zoonotic diseases.
  • Other viruses: Pangolins have been found to carry a number of other viruses, including human parainfluenza 3, human respiratory syncytial virus, and murine respirovirus. The presence of these viruses in pangolins identifies these mammals as a potential source of emergent pathogenic viruses.
  • Risk of transmission: The trading of live pangolins or products derived from their scales or flesh increases the risk of cross-species transmission of viral infections. People need to be made aware of the potential for viruses in pangolins to emerge as human pathogens, and must be prohibited from capturing and eating them.
  • Increased risk of zoonotic disease transmission: Activities that increase human-animal interactions, such as wildlife trade and habitat destruction, increase the risk of zoonotic disease transmission. The presence of resilient wild animal species, including pangolins, in human-dominated landscapes and even expanded their range because of this, increases the risk of zoonotic disease transmission.

In conclusion, the potential role of pangolins as intermediaries in the transmission of zoonotic diseases highlights the importance of protecting pangolins and other wildlife to prevent the emergence of new diseases that could have significant public health implications.

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