One of the fast disappearing mammalian species of Palawan, the Philippines' Last Frontier, is the endemic pangolin or scaly anteater. The scaly anteater's defensive behavior of curling itself around when threatened is no match to hunter's quest for its meat and as valued aphrodisiacs. The scaly anteater or "balintong" in the vernacular can usually be seen walking slowly but consistently in forests where termite mounds can be found.
Scaly Anteater Characteristics
The scaly anteater can reach measure up to two and a half feet long where the tail is about a third of its body. The dorsal portion or its back is covered by broad, horny, and tough overlapping scales which serve as neck, body and tail protection against predators. At the undersides or the ventral portion, the scales are absent but this part becomes protected once the pangolin curls itself tightly into a ball. The pangolin remains in that position until it senses its predator is gone.
The scaly anteater has a long, pig-like snout that it uses to sniff around looking for its prey - the termite mounds. The scaly anteater has no teeth so it has to rely on its long sticky tongue to feed. The anteater has very small eyes. The pangolin also has small ears with raised skin fold just right behind the eyes. The ears and the nostrils have special muscles that can shut these openings to prevent insects from attacking them. Generally, the scaly anteater is pale yellowish white in color while the scales covering most of its body are translucent. The scales are made up of proteins similar to human hair and nails. Bristles emerge between the scales of the Palawan pangolin just like the other Asian pangolins, unlike those species found in Africa. The undersides are covered with sparse hair. The anteater emits a distinct smell.
The scaly anteater is a nocturnal animal, which means it actively moves at night in search for its food. This behavior also increases its survival chances in the wild.
The scaly anteater's acute sense of smell allows it to locate termite mounds in forests susceptible to termite attack such as the soft woody trunks of the trees locally known as inyam (Antidesma ghaesembilla) and "bangkal" (Nauclea orientalis).
Feeding Behavior and Digestive System
The scaly anteater has three strong and long front claws which are well adapted to digging. The scaly anteater uses this, supported by the likewise strong hind legs, to dig holes and get to the ants or termites in their mounds. Upon reaching the termites inside the mound, the scaly anteater extends its extraordinarily long, sticky tongue to lap up the ants or termites that get stuck.
The scaly anteater's tongue is attached near its pelvis and last pair of ribs. This allows the animal to extend the tongue a long way forward, even longer than the animal's head and body. At rest, the tongue is retracted into a sheath in its chest cavity. The stomach usually contains small stones that help the scaly anteater grind its prey much like the way the bird's gizzard does.
Movement and Territorial Behavior
The scaly anteater can also climb trees and suspend itself among trees using its prehensile (grasping) tail while feeding on termites in tree trunks. Scaly anteaters dig deep burrows for sleeping and nesting. They are also known to sleep in the hollows and forks of trees. The scaly anteaters use their urine and secretions from a special gland to mark their territories. They are also known to scatter their feces to mark these territories.
Pangolins become sexually mature at two years and reproduce usually a single offspring. When threatened, pangolin mothers protect their young by rolling around them. The baby pangolin rides on the base of its mother's tail as she forages for their food.
The scaly anteaters are very important pest control agents in the forest ecosystem. Experts estimate that one adult pangolin can consume more than 70 million insects in a year. Pangolins’ insatiable appetite for insects gives them an important role in their ecosystem: pest control. Estimates indicate that one adult pangolin can consume more than 70 million insects annually.
The scaly anteater described herein is an endemic species of Palawan in the Philippines. This means that the mammal is only found in the islands of Palawan, particularly in the islands of Culion and Busuanga, north of mainland Palawan. Relatives of this species can be found in the Malay Peninsula, Sumatra, Java, Borneo and other parts of Asia.
The local natives have been eating the scaly anteater's meat for generations until it was declared illegal to do so. The scaly anteater, aside from having an edible meat, is believed to be an aphrodisiac. Many people believe that the anteater's bile can cure asthma. Because of these uses, the scaly anteater is traded despite a law (Philippine Wildlife Act or Republic Act 9147) that prohibits its trade because the scaly anteater belongs to the "vulnerable species" category. Vulnerable species is a notch below the "endangered species" level. But it is most likely that the scaly anteater appropriately belongs to the "endangered" level because it can be seldom seen nowadays and is under high human pressure due to demand for its meat, destruction of its habitat and other uses. Also, environmental law enforcement problems exist in their areas of distribution.
Recently, despite heavy fines for transgressors, several anteaters were bagged and shipped for sale in Barangay Sto. Niño in Busuanga, Palawan. And the sad fact is that the local people burn the forests just to capture these animals easily. Thus, not only the anteater's population are threatened but also the ecology of the forest due to unsustainable livelihood activity.
The scaly anteater is difficult to rear in captivity because of its specialized diet. The mammal would try to escape its cage as much as possible and it usually does escape if it can at least squeeze its head through any opening. This is because of the scaly anteater's posteriorly directed scales that will allow allow only forward movement but not backward when it goes through a hole.
Pangolin Conservation Support Initiative