The Pangolin

East African Notes and Records is another new blog from my East African, via Cambridge in the UK, friend Martin Walsh.

Martin and I share a common interest in east African local bird knowledge, a topic on which he has worked for many years.

Martin has also done a lot of research on many other taxa in east Africa and beyond, including the charismatic and distinctly strange Pangolin – about which I know very little…apart from the occasional and absolutely fascinating anecdote from Martin.

Martin hasn’t posted any of his papers on the Pangolin – an enignmatic creature steeped in mystery and African tradition – but you find one of his articles on this animal here.

In this paper on theĀ  local knowledge and belief systems about the Pangolin in Tanzania in east Africa he discusses the role that Pangolin sightings and behaviour have in local environmental and political events:

In many villages in south-central Tanzania encounters with Ground Pangolins (Manis
) are treated as highly auspicious events.

In some places these rarely seen creatures take centre stage in communal rituals in which they are asked to divine the future.

Their behaviour in these and other contexts is closely observed, interpreted
and speculated upon by ritual specialists and the general public.

It is used to predict and with hindsight explain major environmental and political episodes (floods,
drought, famine, warfare) as well as more modest incidents in the life of the

Failure to respect the ritual status of pangolins (for example when they
are killed for their scales) or failure of the ritual process itself (which often happens
when they escape from captivity) are also analysed within the same interpretive
framework, and used retrospectively both to explain and lay the blame for misfortune
(Walsh 1995/96; In press).

There are four species of Pangolin found across Africa and the Ground Pangolin, also known as Temminck’s or the Cape Pangolin is found in eastern and southern Africa. Though widespread it is rare and very difficult to find. It is hunted by humans for its scales and for use as jewellery, clothing and as love charms.

It has a very effective defence mechanism – when threatened it rolls into a tight ball, presenting only a hard scaly ball, using the sharp scales on it’s tail to slash at attackers.

The eminent anthropologist Mary Douglas worked with the Lele people of the Congo and wrote about their beliefs about the Pangolin. John Durham summarises Douglas’ understanding of the Pangolin cult thus:

…the pangolin or scaly anteater… is a creature that evades Lele animal categorisation in several ways. It has scales like a fish, but climbs trees; it looks something like a lizard, but is actually a mammal; unlike other small mammals, it produces offspring singly and when threatened rolls itself into a ball rather than running away. Although the creature is normally regarded as totally inedible, members of a Lele pangolin cult celebrate rituals in which they eat it, so as to access the fertility inherent in its anomalous nature and be able to pass that fertility on to their people.

Douglas finds parallels between the Lele pangolin cult and on the one hand shamanism as described by Eliade and on the other hand the Christian understanding of Christ as a ‘voluntary victim’ [p 170] on behalf of humanity.