This Rolly Mammal Has Been Spotted In Its Home for the First Time in 24 Years

long tailed pangolin phataginus tetradactyla, mangamba, littoral province, cameroon
Rolly Mammal Seen Home For First Time in 24 YearsFabian von Poser - Getty Images

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  • For decades, the giant pangolin (Smutsia gigantea) has been recognized as locally extinct throughout the country of Senegal.

  • However, at 1:37 a.m. on March 8, 2023, a trail camera in the country’s Niokolo-Koba National Park captured the rare creature meandering along a dry riverbed.

  • The discovery points to the importance of camera trap surveys, and will hopefully help drive resources to the protection and restoration of the giant pangolin—in Senegal and throughout western and central Africa.

In Malay, the word pengguling means “one who rolls up.” It’s the perfect namesake for the pangolin—one of the most captivating mammals on Earth. Looking like a kind of armor-clad anteater, pangolins famously curl up into tight balls as a defense mechanism, and their numbers include eight species stretched across three genera (Manis, Phataginus, and Smutsia). Sadly, almost all of them are recognized as threatened, endangered, or critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), due in large part to their meat and scales being prized for medicinal properties in certain cultures.

That’s especially true of the giant pangolin (Smutsia gigantea). The largest of the eight species, it can stretch up to four feet long, and retains the unfortunate distinction as one of the most trafficked species in the world. This has caused the giant pangolin, as well as other pangolin species, to become extinct across much of its natural range along the African equator.

Since time immemorial, that range included the West African country of Senegal. But no one had spotted a giant pangolin in the country since 1999—that is, until just last year. During a camera trap survey conducted from February to May of 2023 at the Niokolo-Koba National Park (a UNESCO World Heritage Site located along the banks of the Gambia River), scientists working with Panthera Senegal spotted a giant pangolin wandering along a dry river bed. The cameras timestamped the encounter at 1:37 am local time on March 8th.

The last time giant pangolins were spotted in the country was during a similar monitoring survey at the same national park. Now, 24 years later, the research team—along with other international researchers—reported another pangolin encounter in an article published in the African Journal of Ecology in mid-May of this year.

“Pangolins have generated great interest in recent years, largely due to the unprecedented scale of trafficking the species experiences,” the authors wrote. “Such rediscoveries not only underscore the importance of systematic biodiversity inventories, but also the critical value of West Africa's large protected areas.”

While thought to be locally extinct in Senegal, giant pangolins do live beyond its borders in the humid forests of western and central Africa. However, even in these areas, deforestation and animal trafficking have pushed the giant pangolin into a “vulnerable” conservation status. So, the discovery of the species in a country that’d essentially written the mammal off as extinct can have huge ramifications for conservation efforts in the region.

“This sighting offers a glimmer of hope for their survival in West Africa and can be used to raise public awareness about the plight of pangolins,” Alain D.T. Mouafo, a member of the IUCN’s Pangolin Specialist Group, told New Scientist.

The hope is that African pangolins will fare better than their Asian cousins, almost all of which are critically endangered. The awareness that these fascinating creatures are still living in areas where they were previously deemed extinct should only help their chances of survival.

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