Riaz Cader is Manager – Inbound at Classic Vacations and, on and off the job, continues to visit Sri Lanka’s wilderness areas to pursue his passion of wildlife photography. Riaz strives to work with like-minded individuals in helping conserve Sri Lanka’s last remaining natural habitats and promote responsible wildlife watching practices.
The Thick-tailed Pangolin is an insect eating carnivore and is one of the most elusive creatures that reside in Sri Lanka. Pangolins are widespread throughout the country and have been recorded in the dry-zone scrub jungles, lowland rainforests and the central highlands. Pangolins are nocturnal and are believed to spend the daylight hours inside burrows where they rest all day. Hence, they are seldom encountered apart from the rare instances around dawn or dusk when they forage around searching for insects or cross jungle tracks.
Characterized by its scaly body and thick tail which acts as an effective armour, the Pangolin can curl itself into a ball where the impenetrable scales act as a fortress protecting its vital parts against predators such as leopards. It is also known to secrete a pungent yellowish-liquid from its anal gland when under severe attack, which is its secondary line of defense.
The Pangolin is a specialized insectivore that feeds predominantly on termites and ants. Its small head, well protected eyes and tiny ears enable the Pangolin to search the inside of burrows and holes for insects. Using its long claws, its prey can be dug out of termite mounds, the inside of logs and leaf litter. The Pangolin then uses its specially adapted tongue which it can shoot out to a distance of over 25 centimetres to get hold of any passing ants or termites. A big gash on the side of a termite mound or an ant hill caused by its sharp claws is often an indication that a Pangolin has been present in the area, although Sloth Bears too can leave similar incisions.
The Thick-tailed Pangolin is resident to India and Sri Lanka and is one of eight pangolin species found across Africa and Asia, all of which are sadly threatened by extinction. Over the years, Pangolins have been illegally killed by the locals for the consumption of their meat. In the last decade or so, however, their numbers have plummeted across the globe due to the demand for their scales and meat in traditional Chinese medicine. Although unfounded, there is a belief that their ground-up scales have medicinal benefits such as curing cancer, stimulating lactation and curing Asthma. This has resulted in tenthousands of Pangolins being slaughtered every year and illegally trafficked across to South-East Asia. They are today the most heavily trafficked CITIES protected mammal and as a result, the IUCN has classified all eight species on its Red List of Threatened Species.
The loss of forest cover is another cause of their declining numbers. The increased effects of urbanization include the isolation of forest patches, which have resulted in a greater amount of wildlife including pangolins being killed by collisions with motor vehicles. Pangolins are slow breeding mammals that have only one off-spring at a time each year. Although the exact population of the Thick-tailed Pangolin is unknown, their population is crashing across Sri Lanka. The authorities and conservation bodies need to take urgent steps to educate the public, which can include school children and communities residing around forested areas, to increase the volume of anti-poaching patrols and to impose tougher penalties and longer jail sentences for poachers, if we are to save this fascinating and highly overlooked creature from extinction.