I am, of course, referring to the pangolins. I happened on them almost at random as a case-study for my thesis, but fell deeply in love with them while studying how they became symbols for the relationships between Europeans and their colonies, but that is a piece for another time.
The eight species of pangolins across Africa and Asia are the world’s most trafficked mammals (find out why here). But almost nobody knows what a pangolin is – even the description ‘scaly anteater’ usually causes bemused looks. It’s not like they haven’t been familiar in Europe for hundreds of years. Cabinets of curiosity in Europe almost all had pangolin skins in them in the 17th century, and pangolins had been traded around Asia and Africa for thousands of years. But the creatures these skins came from remained enigmatic. The first accounts of pangolins written by Europeans give a clue as to why….
The first identifiable account of a pangolin in the field was in the Itinerario (1597) of explorer, Jan Huyghen van Linschoten. He described ‘a fish of most wonderfull and strange forme’ taken from the ‘River of Goa’, about the size of ‘a middle sized Dogge’, which ran around the hall ‘snorting like a hogge’. It was covered in ‘scales a thumbs breadth, harder than Iron or Steel’. When ‘hewed uppon’, it rolled into a ball and could not be prised open by force or ‘anie instrument’. It was only when ‘let alone’ that ‘hee opened himselfe and ranne away’. Though Linschoten’s work was very influential for later exporers, it was largely ingored as a work of natural history. It is not the discovery story of the scaly lizard.
Another creature was described by the Dutch physician-naturalist Jacobus Bontius in the manuscripts he produced while working in Java in the 1630’s. The animal was called ‘ Tamach by some, Larii by others’, or Testudo squamata (‘scaled turtle’). It it very likely to be a pangolin, from the sketch accompanying the description. This was a hole-digging ‘somnolent animal’ with a ‘cold nature’, covered in carp-like scales, unlike any other land-turtle. He was given ‘one as a present’, that he ‘kept living some time in the water’. The Javanese ‘call this monster Taunah, which is the same as: digger in the earth, since it digs holes in the ground along the riverbanks, and hides itself in these holes’, and for this reason Bontius said ‘it is an amphibian’. He described how the Chinese physicians valued ‘the scales very much in case of bile-disturbances, dysenterics and cholera, powdering the dried scales for use with wine or rice-water: Bontius could himself testify to their efficacy.
Nearly a century later, in Siam in the 1680’s, the French Jesuit missionary Guy Tachard described a reptilian, scaly herisson (hedgehog) that he encountered, called bicho verghonso (shameful insect) by the Portuguese. It had a snake-like but harmless tongue, and he found it to be cold-blooded when he dissected a freshly killed specimen. Yet, those he had seen alive rolled up when fearful, and from his dissection the creature seemed to eat very little and had young in its uterus. The engraving published with Tachard’s 1689 travelogue pictured a live pangolin with a young one riding at the base of it’s mother’s tail.
Travellers’ interest in the pangolin was still strong a century later. There is an anonymous Dutch picture in the Hague archives of a very lifelike pangolin in rolled-up and unfurled positions. In the 1720’s two colonial descriptions of the pangolin were published. One was by the Dutch minister in Ambon, describing how in ‘Java, Sumatra, and Malakka’ there is an animal they called a Panggoeling, with an extremely hard and scaly hide that the Chinese and Javanese used to make armour and would also eat its sweet flesh. It was about the size of a dog, with a lizard-tongue and shield-like scales. No other animal was so quick at digging out caves and passages under the earth, and had been known to undermine stone floors and buildings in the Dutch colonies. For this reason, it was called the ‘ ‘Ceylonsche Duyvel‘ and in Taiwan, the ‘Taywansche Duyvel’.
Meanwhile, Guinea, the French cartographer Reynaud des Marchais described how: ‘One finds in the woods an animal with four feet that the Negroes call Quogelo. From the next to the furthest point of its tail it is covered in scales arranged a bit like the leaves on an artichoke, but a bit more pointy’. It defended itself when cornered by gathering itself into a ball, presenting nothing but its scales, which were ‘iron-like [ferrées]’, were ‘quite thick and sufficiently strong to defend against the claws and teeth of the animals that attack it’. It ate delicately, extending its ‘extremely long tongue, covered in an unctuous and sticky liquid’ to catch ants at their nests, just like the anteater.
Des Marchais attested that this animal was ‘not the least bit naughty or malign, it attacks nobody’, though ‘the Negroes assault it with baton blows, skin it, sell its white skin and eat its flesh’. This was ‘white and delicate’, despite its diet of ‘musky’ ants. Des Marchais suggested finally, that it ‘would be a pleasure to have one of these animals privately in places where ants are inconvenient, like in Cayenne and in the American Islands, they can destroy enough to reduce the number [of ants] and perhaps exterminate them’.
From the amphibious Javanese Taunah and weaponised pangoelling in China, to the troublesome Duyvel of Ambon and gentle, fearful quogelo of Guinea, the pangolin was a prolific creature that made an impression on many, but it’s nature was, and forever remained, elusive.