The mammal most hunted by humans is not the tiger, rhino or elephant but the pangolin. The Chinese pangolin is one of only eight species in the order Pholodia, which means ‘scaled animals’. This animal also goes by the name of scaly anteater because, although not closely related to anteaters, it specializes in eating ants and termites solely. In Mandarin, the peculiar-looking Chinese pangolin’s name ‘Ling-Li’ has the meaning ‘hill carp’ due to its brownish-yellow scales looking like those of Chinese carp, while in Cantonese, ‘animal that digs through mountain’ is the meaning of the name.
Chinese pangolins live in the east and south of East Asia (Nepal, Bhutan, India, Thailand, Myanmar, China and some others). They are found across a wide range of habitats including coniferous, tropical, evergreen and bamboo forests, agricultural fields and grasslands.
The Chinese pangolin is a nocturnal and solitary animal, and despite being highly terrestrial, it can climb trees and swim capably. Occasionally, when walking, it will rise onto its hind legs, with its body more upright, holding its forelegs in the air, and this is also the position used when it attacks a termite nest. The pangolin uses its long claws to excavate a burrow, where it sleeps in the daytime, emerging early during the evening to forage. Having poor vision, the Chinese pangolin relies on its sense of smell to find prey. These animals are not aggressive, and, when threatened, it can roll up into a ball so that only its scaly parts are exposed, thus protecting it from predators.
Little is known about the mating system of Chinese pangolins, as they are very secretive and hard to observe. Mating occurs from late summer to early autumn, when males fight over access to females. This means that the species may exhibit a polygynous mating system. Chinese pangolins spend winter in deep burrows beside a termite nest for a food source. Females bear a single offspring at this time, which is reared during winter in the burrow, coming out with its mother in spring. When outside the burrow, a young pangolin is carried on its mother’s tail. This species is thought to become sexually mature at around one year old.
Hunting is the primary threat facing the Chinese pangolin, which has been hunted intensively for its meat, considered a delicacy, and its skin, blood and scales, used for traditional Chinese medicine. Disturbance of this species’ habitat does not seem to have had a large impact, as long as its food source of ants and termites is not lost.
The species is considered very rare. The IUCN Red List and other sources do not provide the Chinese pangolin total population size. Currently this species is classified as Critically Endangered (CR) on the IUCN Red List and its numbers continue to decrease.
Being insectivorous, these animals affect insect populations in their range.