The precious Pangolin

In 2016, Taronga Conversation Society Australia launched its Legacy Species Program – a commitment to the conversation of 10 species over the 10 years. Five are Australian species and five are international species, one of which is the Sunda Pangolin.

Found in Asia, pangolins are the most trafficked mammal in the world. there are eight different species (four each in Africa and Asia), with the Sunda and Chinese Pangolin now considered Critically Endangered by the International Union for Conversation of Nature.

It’s estimated that more than 10,000 pangolins are seized by authorities every year. Experts suggest the illegal trade is actually much higher. Most pangolins are shipped to China and Vietnam, where their meat and scales are in high demand.

The only Zoo Nutritionist in Australia, Taronga’s Michelle Shaw is working with animal protection organisation Save Vietnams Wildlife (SVW) to identify where trafficked pangolins are coming from. This project could have significant implications for the illegal trade of these animals.

Pangolin diet studies

In 2017, Michelle and her project partners at Taronga – Dr Phoebe Meagher and DR Lydia Tong and UNSW’s Centre for Ecosystem Science used stable isotope analysis (a non-invasive technique) to study the chemical make-up of echidnas brought in to Taronga Wildlife Hospital after receiving an injury. An echidnas quills (and pangolin scales) are made up of keratin and store ‘signature’, or record of the animals diet. By looking at this signature, Michelle and her team were able to demine what echidnas had been eating and as a consequence what environments they had been living in.

By studying the signatures of pangolin scales confiscated in Vietnam, the team is hoping to see what was in the diets of these animals, and distinguish which countries they came from. Although pangolin trade has been banned internationally, huge amounts of pangolin scales are seized every year, and very little is know about which species are most at threat.

Working with ‘Safe Vietnam’s Wildlife

Michelle will be travelling to Vietnam in June to work with Save Vietnam’s Wildlife. While there, she plans to collect pangolin scale samples so her team can begin studying them. Michelle says that determining which areas are the most affected by trafficking could allow authorities to target specific areas in which to crack down on illegal trade.

‘We aren’t sure how specific we will be able to be‘ says Michelle ‘with birds you can determine if they were at a specific watering hole and you can map their migration. But with pangolins, we might only be able to confirm on which continent that animals ate its last meal.’

When they confiscate these large shipments of scales we will be able to tell the difference between the African, Chinese and Sunda pangolins. We will be able to see were those trade routes are and where is most at risk. The Wildlife Witness App will also be really useful to locate the final destination of scales aren’t confiscated and tracked them back to their origin‘ Michelle says.

While in Vietnam, Michelle will also be working with Save Vietnam’s Wildlife to improve the health of the pangolins in their care. Hundred of rescued trafficked pangolins are taken in by SVW every year. providing enough food for these animals is a huge drain on resources for the organisation. SVW brought in thousands f kilograms of frozen ant eggs and silkworm larvae last year, and employees also collect natural diet items for the pangolins by hand.

Fast Facts

A walking pinecone.. These scaly anteaters could be seen as a walking pinecone or modern day dinosaur. Pangolins are nocturnal like a bat, covered in tough reptilian scales, with the snout of an anteater, the digging claws of a wombat, the climbing prowess of a possum and a long sticky tongue that would rival any amphibian in the animal kingdom.

Most trafficked mammal! Pangolins have a reputation that precedes them as the most trafficked mammal on earth, yet many people have never heard of them. It is estimated that more than one million pangolins have been taken from the wild globally in the past decade.

12 tonnes – In July 2017, 12 tonnes of pangolin scales were seized at a port in southern city of Shenzhen, China. These scales were likely taken from between 20,000 to 30,00 slaughtered pangolins.

Vetafarm collaborations

Vetafarm and Taronga Zoo have a collaborative partnership to develop feeds for zoos and rescue organisations. One of the products developed in this partnership was the Vetafarm Echidna Diet, based on specifications provided by Taronga’s Nutritionist Michelle Shaw. This diet has improved the health of manged echidnas and reduced the time needed to prepare their diet daily. The Echidna Diet is now being sold to many zoos in Australia and Internationally.

With Vetafarm’s support, Michelle will be working with SVW to improve the health of rescued pangolins through nutrition and dietary husbandry advice.

What can you do to help the Pangolin?


You can make a donation through The Taronga Zoo website for the Pangolin program. All funds go directly towards saving this unique animal from being hunted to extinction.

Download the Wildlife Witness App, and report any illegal wildlife trade witness. Pangolins can’t report what they see but you can.

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