Chances are you haven’t heard of them. Pangolins are shy creatures — cat-sized animals, covered in scales from nose to tail. When threatened, they roll themselves up into a ball.

It’s a great strategy for confusing lions and other predators. But poachers are a different story.

Every day, illegal traffickers take advantage of the animal’s docility, plucking vast numbers from forests in Asia and Africa. These quiet, insect-eating mammals end up as dinner, their meat considered a delicacy in countries such as China and Vietnam. Their keratin scales (the same material as our fingernails and hair) are ground into powder and falsely advertised as powerful medicines.

As a result, “the pangolin could go extinct before most people realize it exists,” said CNN columnist John D. Sutter, who investigated the illegal pangolin trade in 2014.

What are pangolins?

Although pangolins are not studied as extensively as elephants or rhinos, the world is starting to learn a lot more about these elusive, prehistoric-looking animals:

A baby pangolin seized from traffickers is shown just before its release into the wild with its mother. (© AP Images)
  • Eight species of pangolins live around the world — four in Asia, and four in Africa.
  • Pangolins have no teeth, but their tongues can extend farther than the length of their bodies.
  • Over the course of a year, a single pangolin can eat more than 70 million ants or termites.
  • All eight species are threatened by wildlife-trafficking networks. Four are endangered, with two critically endangered.
  • Poaching has increased dramatically. The International Fund for Animal Welfare estimates a huge increase in pangolin trafficking, with almost 1 million pangolins sold in the past decade.

“If we don’t act now, demand for pangolin parts will wipe this extraordinary, odd and beautiful animal off the map,” said Sarah Uhlemann of the Center for Biological Diversity.

How can we save pangolins?

Countries around the world are helping protect pangolins with strict trade enforcement. Last year’s Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, which includes five of the most ecologically diverse countries on Earth with important pangolin habitats, contains new tools to thwart illegal wildlife trafficking.

Want to help spread the word about these endangered “walking artichokes”? Celebrate #WorldPangolinDay this year on February 20.