For those who watch Come Dine With Me, you’d know that serving pangolin foetus soup as your starter probably wouldn’t score many points. However, this dish is considered a delicacy throughout south-east Asia and China, and has partially led to the decline of all four Asian pangolin species.

Apparently not sated, evidence is amassing that industrial-scale shipments of African pangolins are being ferried across the Indian Ocean to continue feeding those with extravagant tastes. Although China has recently outlawed the eating of 420 threatened species, which includes all eight pangolin species worldwide, the rise of the middle-class predilection for status symbols and prestige will probably ensure a flourishing black market trade in pangolins, much like wealthy consumers in Vietnam are now thought to be driving the rhino poaching epidemic.

Unlike rhinos, however, pangolins are estimated to be the most trafficked mammal in the world, with between 10 000 and 100 000 sold in black markets every year. Unfortunately for Temminck’s Ground Pangolin Smutsia temminckii – the only pangolin species found in South Africa – this is a war being fought on two fronts. While not quite the same twee presentation of a soup starter, pangolin blood, intestines, feet, and scales are consumed in South Africa for their assumed medical properties.

Pangolins, known locally as inkhakha (isiNdebele), kgaga (Sepedi, Sesotho, Setswana), haka (Shona) or khwara (Tshivenda), are caught, bought and traded by traditional healers and punted as curing anything from nosebleeds to cancer. Ongoing research from Tshwane Technical University and the African Pangolin Working Group suggests that all indigenous South African cultures use the pangolin in some form of traditional medicine. The parts are most often burnt and ground to a fine powder; the patients then cut themselves and apply the powder over the cuts for magical protection.

Always on offer at the Mai Mai bushmeat market, which is tucked inside Johannesburg’s inner city, vendors (who grind up the intestines and hang them in the shop to lure customers) sell individual scales for R80-100 each, and advertise that they will confer invincibility, strength and treat low blood pressure. So powerful is this belief in the pangolin’s magical properties, that sangomas will drive any distance back home if they’ve forgotten their pangolin scale, and thieves think they are bulletproof if they have a scale in their breast-pocket.

Bemused, a judge asked an arrested poacher why he thought the pangolin’s scales made him invincible if the poacher had so easily killed the pangolin for its scales. Nonplussed, the poacher replied, “The pangolin did not believe its scales would protect him.”

Therein lies the heart of the problem. Although there is no scientific evidence to support the pangolins_peril_2healing properties of pangolins, and their scales are certainly made of the same non-magical keratin as rhino horn or finger nails, traditions are stubborn and have inertia that can take generations to dispel. Pangolins are now so rare in KwaZulu-Natal that vendors must import them from Mozambique.

Throughout the bushveld regions, where game fence electrification is rapidly increasing as farmers convert from livestock to game ranching, over 1 000 pangolins might be electrocuted annually, as pangolins roll around the strand when convulsed by electrical shocks, and die of exposure or are collected by locals looking to sell them to healers. These threats, coupled with an intensifying illegal international trade, do not paint a pretty picture for our pangolins.

There is a legend that pangolins create thunder by racing across the heavens rattling their scales. Unless future generations can be convinced that these scales do not cure cancer or deflect bullets, and that vegetable soup is preferable to pangolin foetus soup, Africa is set to become a far drier and less interesting place to live.


  • Up to 100 000 pangolins may be sold in black markets worldwide every year.
  • Only one species is found in South Africa – Temminck’s Ground Pangolin Smutsia temmincki.
  • Apparently all indigenous South African cultures use the pangolin in some form of traditional medicine.
  • Individual pangolin scales may sell for R80-100 each, and are believed to confer invincibility, strength and treat low blood pressure.
  • Thieves and rioters think they are bulletproof if they have a pangolin scale in their breast-pocket.
  • More than 1 000 pangolins might be electrocuted annually on electrified game fences in South Africa.
  • These harmless, insect-feeding mammals face a dire future at the hand of man.