For millions of years, the pangolin’s natural reserve had been its best defence. The only mammal with hard, plate-like scales, it looks something like a badger in chainmail – and at the merest hint of danger, the pangolin simply roles up into a tight ball that is nearly impossible for a predator to penetrate. The shell is so tough that it can even resist the teeth of lions, tigers and leopards.
Not that many scientists have even been able to witness this behaviour themselves. There are eight species of pangolin across Asia and Africa, and they are all nocturnal, and notoriously shy, hiding in burrows and hollow trees for most of the day. Even conservationists working extensively in their natural habitats often struggle to catch sight of one. “I don’t think I’ve ever met someone who’s seen a wild pangolin,” says Timothy Bonebrake, a biologist at Hong Kong University (HKU).
This natural shyness may help the pangolin to hide from a careful conservationist, but it is no match for the more determined poacher. Using its distinctive footprint – the front claw curves inwards as it walks – to identify a local population, the hunter can then use trained dogs to sniff them out of their burrows, or a trap to capture them as they snuffle for food at night. Bonebrake remembers seeing the poachers at the side of the road in Cameroon, holding the pangolins by their tails as they flaunted them for sale.