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NatureLife: The Pangolin and Ecology

By Obiabin Onukwugha and Ngozi Eyeh

The pangolin, known as “Egaba” by the Edo tribe of Nigeria, is a remarkable and unique creature with a rich cultural significance.

Covered in protective scales made of keratin, similar to human fingernails, pangolins are known for their shy and solitary nature.

They have the ability to curl up into a ball as a form of defense, which led to their name, derived from the Malay word “pëngulin,” meaning “roller.”

Ako, as the Yorubas call it, is characterized by its exceptionally long tongue, reaching up to 40 centimeters.

This tongue, accompanied by sticky saliva, allows pangolins to collect ants and termites, making them highly effective insectivores, consuming as many as 70 million ants and termites annually.

Pangolins are classified as mammals and belong to the family Manidae, in the order Pholidota. Some pangolin species have prehensile tails, which aid in climbing trees and navigating their environment, while others are terrestrial or ground-dwelling.

In Nigerian folklore, there is a tradition that pangolins were ordinary animals until they aided a group of ants by providing shelter from a raging fire.

In gratitude, the ants gifted the pangolins with their hard, protective scales, which they had woven together. This myth explains the pangolin’s armored appearance, despite ants becoming their primary source of food.

Pangolins, also known as “Dankunya” in Hausa, play a vital role in the environment as guardians of the forest. They protect forests from termite destruction, contributing to a balanced ecosystem.

Additionally, pangolins help aerate the soil as they dig for insects, improving soil health and nutrient cycling, ultimately enhancing plant growth.

Despite their ecological importance, pangolins are endangered due to illegal trafficking driven by their value as both food and medicine.

In traditional Chinese medicine, pangolin scales, referred to as “Dankunya” in Igbo, are used to treat various ailments, including cancer and inflammation.

Smuggling pangolins contravenes Nigerian law, and seizures of pangolin scales by customs authorities have been reported.

Pangolins have varying lifespans depending on factors such as species and environmental conditions, but they can live up to 10 to 20 years in the wild.

Sadly, many pangolins do not reach their full potential lifespan due to poaching and habitat loss.

Reproduction in pangolins involves sexual dimorphism, with physical differences between males and females.

Mating occurs during specific times of the year when females are in estrus, a receptive state for mating. Gestation duration varies among species but can last several months.

Pangolins give birth to premature offspring called “pangopups,” and mothers provide care and nourishment until the young are more developed and able to fend for themselves. Mothers have specialized mammary glands that produce milk to nourish their offspring.

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