It looks, to quote a source no less sober than National Geographic, like a walking artichoke. It is a mammal with no teeth. A mammal entirely covered in scales. A mammal covered in scales made from keratin, the same substance that produces human fingernails, human hair. Like a human, it is a carnivore. Like an anteater, it is a carnivore. Like an anteater, it consumes thousands of ants and plump yummy termites at a time. And like a rhino or even a tiger, it is nearly extinct.
It is, of course, the Pangolin, the highly endangered species most folks this side of a traditional Chinese medicine cabinet have never heard of. So unusual that it sports its own order, Pholidota, and once so successful as to boast eight species in its genus, the Pangolin is being hunted to expiration in East Asia for its meat and its scales.
You should not be surprised to learn that its scales, as nutritious as torn fingernails and odd bits of hair, are claimed to cure cancer, prompt lactation, cause menstruation, calm nerves, ease arthritis. Its meat is highly prized not because it’s tremendously tasty, but because it’s nearly extinct; the most prized meat of all is fetal.
It’s fair to say that the Pangolin—a small nocturnal animal so closely aligned to the anteater that the two make unlikely fur-to-scale twins—needs a friend. A couple million friends would do.
Which is why the world decided to throw it a party. Saturday, Feb. 16, is World Pangolin Day, one devoted to educating the public about this shy, strange little creature that is 100 percent unable to breed or thrive in captivity.
While there are estimated to be more tigers in captivity now than living in the wild, the Pangolin can’t take the stress of a caged life. It can’t feed properly upon its beloved bugs. It simply expires. Which makes its plight all the more dire.
Once the east Asian clamor for lactation and rheumatism panaceas abates and once rich people no longer need to prove their excellence by dining on unborn animals, the Pangolin could come back. Could come back, it is thought, were it housed and protected, its species coddled. But if you can’t get enough ants to eat and become fatally anxious at the walls of a pen, your type might just go away forever.
And somehow, that just doesn’t seem right.