When people think about endangered species, many immediately picture well-known animals, such as the gorilla, the Asian elephant, the tiger, and the black rhino. Pangolins, also known as “scaly anteaters,” aren’t often at the top of the list. And yet, they should be, because more than 100,000 of these small mammals are illegally poached and traded each year. Pangolins are the most trafficked mammal in the world.

Most people are not at all familiar with the eight species of this rare and charismatic animal which are distributed throughout Sub-Saharan Africa and Eastern Asia. Pangolins are nocturnal and reclusive. Some live in underground burrows, while others climb trees. They feed primarily on ants and termites, along with other native insects, and have large front claws to help them dig.

The most obvious characteristic of pangolins is that they are covered with scales made of keratin, the same protein that makes up human ­fingernails and rhino horns. When threatened, the pangolin rolls up into a ball with the scales facing outwards, creating a formidable deterrent to predators.

You may wonder why these “scaly anteaters” are so sought after by poachers. The demand for pangolin as a food source dates back hundreds of years in both Asia and Africa. They have been considered a delicacy in Asia. More importantly, like rhino horn, pangolin scales have been sought after by East Asians for medicinal properties.

In reality, pangolin scales are ineffective in curing illnesses, but ancient beliefs have driven the demand for the scales to the point where all four Asian species of pangolin are now listed as critically endangered. With continuous demand and the decline of the Asian species, widespread poaching of African pangolins has increased dramatically. In addition to the demand for scales, bushmeat poaching in Africa has also risen both locally and to serve the Asian market. Driving additional demand for the scales has been their use in the jewelry and art areas. In Asia, due to the scarcity of the Asian species, pangolin jewelry products are considered symbols of wealth and pangolin meat brings prestige to both those who serve and eat it.

It is estimated that over the past 10 years, more than 2 million pangolins have been poached from the wild, putting them at imminent risk of becoming extinct throughout much of their range.

The plight of the pangolin has spurred Brookfield Zoo Chicago, along with four other zoological institutions in the United States, to take action. Our institutions have formed the North American Pangolin Consortium, and we are using research to build understanding and awareness to aid in the worldwide conservation of pangolin species.