The Anomalous Pangolin

Man holding a pangolin in Sierra Leone, by Alfred Weidinger.

This cross between a cat and a pinecone is a pangolin, a nocturnal mammal that eats ants and lives across much of the Global South. Pangolins are interesting to anthropologists because they tell us something about how we classify things, and how we react to things that can’t easily be classified.

Mary Douglas was anthropologist who wrote about the Lele people of Central Africa in the 1950s and 60s. She was particuarly interested in how people classify things and what it says about our cultures. She thought that because we feel strong emotions towards things that we can’t classify, we can sometimes consider them taboo or somehow special.

Douglas wrote that the pangolin was a special animal to the Lele she worked with because it didn’t easily fit into their system of classifying animals – it was scaly like a fish but it climbed trees, and it could give birth to a single baby like a human instead of a litter. Because of this, it was seen as a sacred animal that could act as a mediator between humans, animals, and spirits. The sacrifice and eating of pangolins in a ritual was believed to help men hunt for food and help women concive children.

A baby pangolin snuggles up to their mother in the grass.
Mother and baby Philippine pangolins, by Gregg Yan.

Sadly, everyone else seems to want to hunt pangolins too. They’re the world’s most trafficked animal, illegally poached for meat, skins, and traditional medicine, particularly in China. Loss of their habitats is also endangering them. However, people are trying to help them. This September, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora officially banned any commercial trade of pangolins.

No wonder this pangolin is celebrating!

An energetic pangolin plays in a muddy puddle.