Karnataka Science and Technology Academy

Department of Science and Technology, Government of Karnataka

Indian Pangolin – Most endangered animal on earth

11 min read

Dr. Ramakrishna Ph.D., D. Sc.
Fellow, Karnataka Science and Technology Academy
Former Director, Zoological Society of India

World Pangolin Day 2024 will be observed on February 17th. It is an annual event held on the third Saturday of February to raise awareness about pangolins and the threats they face globally. Pangolins are highly prized commodities, often illegally trapped, trafficked, and killed for their scales by organized crime networks on a large scale. This is driven by the demand in the traditional medicine market in Asia, where pangolin scales are unfortunately believed to be a cure-all, and pangolin flesh is considered a delicacy.

The name Pangolin is derived from the Malayan phrase ‘Pen-Gulling’ meaning rolling ball, while the term Pholidota come from the Greek word meaning ‘Scaled animals. Eight species are known throughout the world, four species are distributed in Africa and the remaining four are distributed in Asia. Of the four Asian species, two are found distributed in India. Indian pangolin Manis crassicaudata occurs across the Indian subcontinent (excluding parts of the Himalayas and the north-east, where the Chinese pangolin Manis pentadactyla is found distributed).

Taxonomy (Where it stands in the Animal Kingdom)

Scientific name: Manis crassicaudata (É. Geoffroy, 1803)
Common name: Indian Pangolin, Scaly Anteater (Kannada: Chippu Handhi)
Scientific name: Manis pentadactyla (Linnaeus, 1758)
Common name: Chinese Pangolin

General characters


Indian Pangolin (Manis crassicaudata) is a large anteater covered dorsally by 11-13 rows of scales, weighing 9 – 18 kg having a length head and body: 60-70 cm. Elongated tapering body, covered with large overlapping scales made of keratin, except on snout, chin, sides of the face, throat, belly and inner surface of limbs. Scales on the body can be regarded as hairs or spines enormously enlarged and flattened. The movable scales with sharp posterior edge attached at the base to the thick skin from which they grow. The shape and topography of the scale’s changes with the wear and tear. Colour of these scales vary from different shades of brown to yellow. White, brown or even black bristle like hairs covering the scaleless areas of the body. These scales help pangolin for protection against predator and insect bites. Eyes are small, with thick heavy eyelids and have poor vision, so they locate termite and ant nests with their strong sense of smell, limbs with five clawed digits, hind legs are longer and stouter than forelegs, adapted for digging. Each paw has five toes, and their forefeet have three long, curved, claws used to demolish the nests of termites and ants and to dig nesting and sleeping burrows. Tail thick and tapering, pangolins have amazingly long, muscular, and sticky tongues that are perfect for reaching and lapping up ants and termites in deep cavities. Skull oblong or conical without teeth. Female with two mammae in the thoracic region.

Chinese pangolin (Manis pentadactyla) is 48 to 58 cm long and weighs between 1.8 to 7 kg. Males and females vary visibly in size and can easily be distinguished as the male is much larger. Its entire body, except the snout, inner limbs and lower stomach is covered by pale or yellowish-brown scales.


They live in open and grasslands (scrub forest, rainforest, tropical forest, moist forest, dry deciduous, wet forest, semi-evergreen forest and near human settlement (Chakraborty & Ramakrishna, 2002). Indian pangolin is a habitat generalist species and found across many terrestrial ecosystems (Roberts, 1997). They are an obligate myrmecophagous (feeding on ants, termites, protects forests from termite infection; ex. pangolin weighing 3 kg can consume more than 0.30 kg of termites in one meal), occasionally supplement with various other invertebrates including bee larvae, flies, worms, earthworms, and crickets) and fossorial (digging burrows) species. Over 30

species have been reported to use the burrows made by Chinese Pangolin, including mammals, birds, reptiles and invertebrates, for different purposes (Sun, et al., 2021). In the ecosystem, they act as a natural pest controller by exclusively feeding on ants, termites and insects; and also act as habitat engineers as their behaviour of digging a burrow (with long-sharp claws of fore legs, acts as thermal refugia for a range of commensal taxa) for shelter helps soil to aerate and rotate mineral cycle, by excavating burrows, they likely affect soil processes, including turnover of organic matter and may act as bioturbators. (Maurice et al., 2019). The Red weaver ant (Oecophylla smaragdina) is one of the favorite foods of Indian pangolin (Mahmood et al., 2013). Indian pangolin is a nocturnal species so they primarily rely on their sense of smell to locate insect nest (Mohapatra and Panda 2014).


This species (Indian Pangolin; Manis crassicaudata) is distributed in South Asia from northern and southeastern Pakistan through much of India, south of the Himalayas (excluding far northeastern portions of the country), southern Nepal, and Sri Lanka. Widely distributed in India from the Himalayan foothills to the far south, except the far northeast. There are records from Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand, Delhi, Rajasthan, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Chhattisgarh, and West Bengal. There are historical records from Kanyakumari and Kerala; the species also occurs in Tamil Nadu. In Sri Lanka, the Indian pangolin is found locally throughout the lowlands, up to 1,100 m asl, coinciding with the range of termites (Phillips 1981), also in Sind, Balochistan, some parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhawa and Punjab, including the Potohar Plateau of Pakistan (Roberts, 1997).

Chinese Pangolin (Manis pentadactyla) is a Critically Endangered species found distributed in northeastern states of India, Bangladesh; Bhutan; China; Hong Kong; Lao People’s Democratic Republic; Myanmar; Nepal; Taiwan, Province of China; Thailand; Viet Nam. Chinese pangolins are nocturnal, solitary animals that spend most of their time on the ground, but they are also good climbers. Chinese pangolins appear almost helmeted, smaller scales than the Indian pangolin, a larger ear pinna, a post-anal depression in the skin, and a narrowing near the distal end of the tail. In India, the species is reported from Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim, Tripura, and West Bengal. The range of Chinese Pangolin overlaps with the Indian Pangolin in Bihar, West Bengal, and Assam (Challender, et al, 2019) in India.

Current status

The IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List (Species Survival Commission) Categories and Criteria are intended to be an easily and widely understood system for classifying species at high risk of global extinction. According to IUCN Endangered category, being precautionary, it is suspected that populations may decline by 50% in the future over a time frame of three generations (i.e. 2019– 2043) due to overexploitation. The species is targeted for local consumption across most of its range and is increasingly targeted for international trafficking – mainly its scales – to overseas markets, mainly China (www.iucn.org, 2024).

The species is also included in the CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) list, designating it as a protected species in all range states. Faced with the threat of extinction, CITES strictly prohibits international trade in specimens of these species unless the import serves a non-commercial purpose, such as scientific research. In such exceptional cases, trade is permissible only if authorized through the issuance of both an import permit and an export permit (or re-export certificate).

Since 2016 (effective as of January 2017), all international commercial trade in wild-caught pangolins has been banned under their CITES Appendix-I listing at the CITES Conference of the Parties(https://cites.org/eng/app/appendices.php). The species also well protected at national level under ‘Schedule-I’ of Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 of India (highest level of protection by the act). Offences related to species listed in Schedule I are punishable with imprisonment between a minimum of 3 years and a maximum of 7 years as well as a fine of no less than INR25,000 and subsequent offences the fine is enhanced to one lakh Indian rupees.

Chinese Pangolin (Manis pentadactyla) is placed under the Critically Endangered category of IUCN, Appendix – I of CITES and Schedule – I of Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972.

Despite protective measures, pangolins in India are widely exploited and traded both domestically and internationally. There has been a rise in the trade of live Indian pangolins as even locals who find a pangolin in the wild look for buyers in the anticipation of high monetary returns. This has led to confiscation/seizures of several Indian pangolins which are kept in poor conditions and starved for a long period of time due to extremely limited or faulty understanding of their ecology (Wildlife Conservation Trust, 2022).


The Indian Pangolin is primarily threatened by overexploitation including hunting and poaching for both its meat (Commonly known as Bushmeat) and scales which are used and consumed at a local, subsistence level, but increasingly for illegal international trade. The species is majorly threatened due to overexploitation for the illegal international trade for scales & other body parts and regionally for superstitious believes (Bhandari et al., 2019). Major threats to pangolins in India are hunting and poaching for local consumptive use (e.g. as a protein source and traditional medicine) and international trade, for its meat and scales in East and South East Asian countries, particularly China and Vietnam. There is now greater evidence of its inclusion in illicit international trade, in particular its scales, from both India and Pakistan, with Myanmar and China comprising the most likely, final destinations (www.wwfindia.org).

Pangolin scales and bushmeat has a great demand in international market for traditional Chinese medicine, delicacy of bushmeat and luxurious products. Pangolin meat is considered a delicacy in some countries notably in China and Vietnam. It is believed by the Traditional Chinese Medicine and Asian traditional medicine from scales and other body part of Pangolin used to cure aphrodisiac and other human diseases, though the evidence for such beliefs is lacking.

The flesh of pangolins is relished by some tribal communities. Hunting during ’Shikar Utsav’ in some northeastern states (Biate, Dimasa and Karbi tribes in Assam State), and other tribal dominated states of India on a particular day of the year poses serious threat. Pangolin scales are also used in rituals and as decorative items amongst local communities (Mohapatra et al. 2015). In Africa, pangolin scales are used in treatment of spiritual ailments, in addition to the preparation of charms, warding off evil spirit and witchcraft. Pangolin oil is used in traditional medicinal practioners, related to skin and subcutaneous tissue. Bones were prescribed for treating Musculo-skeletal and connective tissue disorders (Maxwel K Boakye et.al., 2014).

Trade Data

Within the Indian limits, domestic trade of pangolin parts and products is well known. However, trade pattern is such that it goes undetected and therefore remains unrecorded. In India, they are netted, trapped or snared mostly for their scales used as an ingredient in traditional medicines, believed to cure various ailments, and for their meat consumed as a delicacy and for its alleged medicinal properties (Choudhary, et al., 2018). In the early years, available trade data revealed during the six-year period (1958-64) over 60 tons of scales, representing approximately 50,000 animals were exported from Sarawak Singapore for distribution to Taiwan and Hongkong. Estimate indicate that more than 30,000 animals were killed to meet the increasing demand for traditional medicine (Chakraborty and Ramakrishna, 2002). Across India, nearly 6,000 pangolins were seized between 2009 and 2017, according to a 2018 estimate by Traffic, the wildlife trade monitoring organization. That’s likely just a fraction of the actual trade. India was also identified as an important origin country for pangolins found in illegal international trade from 2010 to 2015 (Heinrich et al. 2017), and Aditya et al. (2021) report a significant increase in seizures during the COVID-19 lockdown from March to August 2020, in comparison to the same period in 2018 and 2019, pre-pandemic. According to Lalita Gomez et.al., 2023, a total of 426 seizures were collated, involving an estimated 8603 pangolins in India from 1991 to 2022. At least 5,789 kg and 4796 individual pangolin scales, 30 kg of meat, 192 live pangolins, 72 claws, 7 skins, 5 dead pangolins, 1 scale ring, 1 skin/scale/bone and 1 trophy were confiscated in these incidents. Traffic India also counted 90 seizures of illegal pangolin products over that period, with more than a third taking place in the northeastern state of Manipur, near Assam. From northeastern India, the scales typically travel to China via Nepal and Myanmar, according to 2015 paper. In India, TRAFFIC has found over 1000 pangolins in the illegal wildlife trade from 2018–2022. Over 880 kg of pangolin derivatives and 199 live pangolins were reported in 342 seizure incidents in the five years. The extent of confiscation of wildlife and wildlife parts can be well understood with the results of Interpol publication of 12th Dec. 2023 wherein they have mentioned “Endangered animals including elephants, rhinos and pangolins, as well as protected timber, particularly tropical hardwoods, have been seized 2114 numbers of endangered animals and plants in a joint INTERPOL – World Customs Organization (WCO) operation to stop wildlife and timber trafficking. According to Indian Express of 17.02.2023, Odisha reported the maximum number of incidents, with 154 pangolins in 74 seizures. According to Nature India of 13.12.2023, there have also been reports of numerous pangolin seizures in the Chandel district of Manipur and the Champhai district of Mizoram, which are known trafficking routes in smuggling wildlife into Myanmar. In addition, pangolin seizures are reported in West Bengal, especially the Darjeeling and Jalpaiguri districts, transit points for Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myanmar, and Nepal. It was followed by Maharashtra with 135 pangolins in 47 seizure incidents. The publication, titled ‘India’s Pangolins Buried in Illegal Wildlife Trade’, has tracked 342 total incidents. Eight incidents of online trading were also recorded. China is still one of the most significant end destinations in the illegal international trade of pangolin.

Population Status: No density estimates are available, however, both the species appear not too rare and frequently sighted in conservation areas by the scientists of Zoological Survey of India and other organisations. Procurement of pangolins in Indian zoos indicate fairly good population. First specimen of Indian Pangolin was received at Nandankanan Zoological Park, Bubaneshwar on 6th January, 1962. Since then, there are 65 (30 males and 35 females) such instances of purchase at the same zoo between 16th January, 1962 to 30th June 1997 and between 1997 to 2014 there are 46 such instances. There are instances of collection in different zoos of India such as Kanpur (UP), Mangalore (Karnataka), Kolkata (WB), Pimpri (Pune, Maharashtra). As on date nearly 42 individuals are recorded in Indian zoos. Recently, records of survey in northern Eastern Ghats landscape in Andhra Pradesh, during December 2017–April 2018, (750 km ² of this landscape) for the presence of the Indian pangolin, using camera traps are available (Vikram Aditya et.al., 2020). According to TRAFFIC factsheet, at least 1203 pangolins have been found in illegal wildlife trade in India during 2018-2022. 342 incidents of pangolin seizures representing an approximately 1025 numbers and 885 kg of pangolins and their derivatives indicates an enormous number of wild populations. Captive breeding programmes have been initiated recently to understand conservation of threatened species, necessitating an understanding of genetic diversity at Breeding Centre in Nandankanan Zoological Park, Bhubaneswar, Odisha, India. Priyan Perera (2022) attempted the first comprehensive study on the habitat occupancy, abundance, and population estimation of Indian pangolins using camera trap data in a tropical lowland rainforest habitat in the southwest of Sri Lanka (4480 camera trap nights at 640 locations in the 2000ha-Yagirala Forest, Sri Lanka) yielded 20 and 35 captures. A total of 15 forest ranges of six forest divisions were searched for the presence of Indian pangolin, out of which occurrence of Indian pangolin was recorded from 13 forest ranges of the studied area in Uttarakhand (Lyngdoh et.al., 2020).

Concluding remarks:

Two species of pangolins are distributed in India, Indian pangolin (Manis crassicaudata) and Chinese pangolin (Manis pentadactyla) having different distributional records, adapted well to human-dominated landscape and modified habitats such as plantation, farmlands near the forest fringe habitat and acts as bio-controlling agents as they exhibit myrmecophagy. Indian pangolin is such a species that is facing a high risk of extinction throughout its distribution ranges due to many stressors. Habitat loss, degradation due to expansion of agriculture, alteration of habitat due to plantations, increase in human settlements, construction of dams, forest fire and pest control practices (CAMP 2005) and hunting for scales and meat (Chakraborty & Ramakrishna, 2002; Mohapatra et al., 2015). Species Distribution Modelling (SDM) and occupancy modelling are commonly used to predict the distribution of a species across geographic space using species occurrence data and environment variables to understand more on its behaviour, reproduction and to arrive at the conservation strategies. Though the species have been assigned different conservation status, it is required to strengthen the monitoring and awareness programmes to minimise the threat of illegal trafficking of the species.

Design & Maintenance : Dr. Anand R, Senior Scientific Officer, KSTA | Copyright © 2019. Karnataka Science and Technology Academy. All rights reserved.

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