Pangolins are special: a story

Pangolins are not party animals. They mostly live alone. But they’re always ready for creatures that might bother them, because they have their own armour and they wear it full-time. So pangolins aren’t easily scared. They grow up feeling tough.

   When Pinpan was born he was extra-small. He was no longer than an avocado, skinnier and not much heavier. His baby scales were white and soft, but they soon hardened. For a while his mother fed him in the burrow, and if she smelled or heard anything that worried her, she wrapped her body right around him and sealed it up like a spiky parcel. Pinpan clung to his mother’s tail when she moved around. He felt safe and snug, and he wasn’t ready to investigate the outside world, not yet.

   The first time Pinpan left the burrow he rode on his mother’s back. He liked the outside air: the smells in it, and the feel of it on his face. It made him frisky.

But when he waved his tail at a furry animal swinging from a vine, his mother shook her head at him.

   “Pinpan,” she said, “Pangolins are shy.”

   “Oh,” said Pinpan, disappointed.

   He was looking forward to making friends. Pinpan was still small but suddenly he felt brave as well as hungry. It was fun to catch wriggly ants on his long sticky tongue, and he felt very grown-up when he swallowed stones too, so that (conveniently) they could grind up the ants inside him. The world around him seemed enormous and exciting. Soon Pinpan didn’t need his mother anymore and he couldn’t wait to explore.

   “Pinpan,” said his mother, “You have a lot to learn.”

   “Yay!” cried Pinpan. He hurried off to start learning, but his mother called him back.

   “Not from me,” said his mother. “It’s time you visited Grandma Pangolin. She was once an adventurer. She can teach you what to fear.”

   “No she can’t,” said Pinpan, feeling bigger than a pangolin could ever be. “I’m not afraid of anything.”

   “That’s why you need to see Grandma Pangolin,” his mother told him. “Follow me.”

   When they reached her burrow, Pinpan’s mother told him to keep his senses wide open and pay attention, because it was “full of surprises!”

   She turned tail and left him to make his way in. The burrow was a deep one, and Pinpan sniffed new smells as he clawed and shuffled down and down… until he smelt Grandma Pangolin, and heard her call his name.

   “Pinpan,” she said. “Settle down. You’re very bouncy. I used to be eager to meet the world, just like you, but the world doesn’t always wear a smile, you know.”

   “I do,” said Pinpan, “on the inside. It might not show.”

   Grandma Pangolin nodded. She might be smiling but Pinpan couldn’t tell. “Pangolins are special,” she said. “Sadly, pangolins are not the only creatures that think so.”

   Pinpan was puzzling over that when Grandma Pangolin batted something towards him with her tail. It felt light and a bit squishy, and Pinpan could smell just a hint of sweetness. Just as his tongue shot out, Grandma swiped it out of reach.

   “Humans,” she said. “They carry things, empty them and dump them. I’ve seen a stream where hundreds of these squishy tubes bob and bump around each other so the water can’t flow, can’t breathe. And they don’t die into the earth like flowers. They live forever.”

   “Humans live forever?” asked Pinpan.

   “No, Pinpan, these things humans make. Not just tubes but all sorts.”

   “Why?” asked Pinpan. “Why do they make them, and dump them?”

   Grandma Pangolin shook her head and tapped it with a claw.

   “You mean humans are silly?”

   Grandma nodded slowly, as if her head felt heavy all of a sudden. “And they grind nasty, angry smells into the air when they ride around on wheels, and spill black poison on the ground.”

   That did seem silly. For the first time, Pinpan noticed that Grandma Pangolin was sitting comfortably inside a big black ring with a fiery smell. She told him it came from a wheel.

   “Yuk,” said Pinpan, because his tongue had accidentally stroked it and he didn’t like the taste.

   “Keep away from wheels,” said Grandma Pangolin.

   “But I’m tough,” said Pinpan, proud of his scales and showing her how quickly he could tuck his head under his front legs and make a ball.

   “Tough enough for lions, maybe. But not when it comes to humans,” she told him.

   Pinpan didn’t like the sound of humans, but he wasn’t scared of them all the same. Especially if they were so silly.

   “Can I go now, Grandma?” he asked, impatiently.

   “I’ve one more thing to show you,” said Grandma Pangolin, “and it isn’t pretty.”

   With her tail she pushed something towards him – something that clattered a little, and smelt familiar. Lots of things, in fact, piled up like an anthill. It was a heap of pangolin scales.

   “They’re so pretty,” said Pinpan. “Pangolins are beautiful.”

   “Indeed we are,” agreed Grandma Pangolin. “When we wear our scales. They belong to us and we need them.”

   Pinpan didn’t understand. No pangolin would take off its scales. That would hurt and it wouldn’t be at all safe. He couldn’t imagine what he’d look like without his but it made him feel quite ill when he tried.

   “Where’s the pangolin,” he asked, “without its scales? Is it alive?”

   Grandma Pangolin just sighed.

   “Humans?” he guessed. All the bounce had gone from his voice.

   “Humans,” said Grandma Pangolin.  

   “But why?”

    Grandma Pangolin tapped the side of her head with her claws and shook it sadly. “They think we’re special…”

   “When we’re dead?” mumbled Pinpan.

   “Exactly, little one. So now that you know the worst,” said Grandma Pangolin, “don’t forget it. Humans aren’t safe.”

   Pinpan thought, I’m not scared of humans. Whatever they are, wherever they are, whatever they do. But he didn’t say so. He just thanked Grandma Pangolin and left the burrow much more slowly than he’d arrived. Perhaps he wouldn’t start exploring just yet. It was snuggly in his mother’s burrow, after all. Maybe he would dig his own quite close by.

   For a few weeks Pinpan got used to being alone in the world above ground, and sniffing all the green growth. He got used to the smells and sounds of the creatures that flapped in the air and the bendy creatures without legs that slid along the ground like water. He kept himself to himself, except when there were ants to eat. Then, just as he was beginning to think maybe he was shy after all, and staying safe was a good plan for a sensible pangolin, everything changed.

   Pinpan had heard plenty of animal noises but not this one. It sounded sharp on the air, and fast. He could hear four feet running, and smell fur and a drippy tongue. And there were different noises, higher in the air, from other creatures that sounded bossy. Pinpan supposed he could hide in a hollow tree but his own burrow was best. Thinking about Pikpa, a fine young pangolin he’d sniffed around here not so long ago, he hoped the humans had useless noses. Maybe that was why they brought the furry animal with them, to trail pangolin scent.

   Pinpan was still heading home when he smelt something else, something bad. It was the bitterness of smoke. Then he heard a sound he knew well – not a pangolin grunt or snort but a huff that meant help. It burst out of the ground as if a pangolin had been dragged from its burrow. Next there was a thwack that made Pinpan shudder. Not far away, the earth shook with footsteps that pangolin feet couldn’t make. There was a rattling and clicking and he could tell from the huff that followed that a pangolin wasn’t safe in her burrow but trapped, and… swinging in the air? Hanging, but not from a tree? Where were they taking her?

   Humans! Grandma Pangolin had warned him, and she had been right. Pikpa was in danger, but what could Pinpan do?

   Now Pinpan recognised another smell. As he remembered the black bendy ring in Grandma Pangolin’s collection, he heard wheels spin and grind. Somewhere above them there was bumping and sliding, and rattling. If only pangolins had teeth, Pikpa could bite her way free. But they were taking her away, faster than a pangolin could run. Then dust sprayed up as the wheels stopped, as if stuck on a rock. The humans didn’t sound happy, but then neither did Pikpa.

   All the human noise was useful. It muffled the sound of Pinpan scampering at top pangolin speed towards the thing on wheels. He flung his scaly body up just high enough to cling on underneath. Wrapping his tail around it, he held tight just as a groaning became a roaring. The world began to rush past Pinpan, dust clouding and everything green streaking along as if all the trees and bushes were joined together in one. So many smells passed by his snout: water, sweetness, tasty ants scratching about below him, out of reach. And he had no idea where he was being taken, or what he could do when he arrived. He hoped the drippy, furry, noisy creature with the humans couldn’t tell the scent of one pangolin from another.

   He supposed this was an adventure.

The girl didn’t speak one word on the way to the market. Instead she pretended to be asleep, like her uncle’s dog. She hadn’t wanted to go with them, however much money her father said they could make, because pangolins were strange and wonderful, and people should leave them alone. Pangolin scales couldn’t be magic cures for anything. Her mother said they were just like fingernails and no one would pay big money for those.

   “It’s putting pangolins in the markets with bats and all sorts that made people ill,” her mother had told her, because she’d heard it on the radio from a scientist. “Your father will catch the virus and we’ll all die. Money won’t save us.”

   The girl didn’t want to die but she really didn’t want to help catch pangolins, for their scales or for their meat, virus or no virus.

   “Stop sulking,” said her father.

   No, thought the girl. Not until you stop this. It’s wrong and it’s a crime and what if we both end up in prison? But she said nothing, and made a little snoring sound as she turned her head away. She remembered her mother saying it wasn’t her father’s fault. She blamed the rich people in other countries, with their big houses, fancy clothes, fast cars and silly ideas. They were the ones who turned pangolin scales into treasure and poor men into criminals.

   The girl would never do this again. She didn’t want to go to the horrid market and see animals shut in little cages or hear them struggling and crying out. Part of her wanted to jump off the truck and run away.

   There was a jolt and the rattly old truck lurched. Her uncle’s dog barked. The truck stopped and her uncle began to shout. Her father shouted back.

   “Get out,” he told her, trying the engine.

   The girl jumped down. It was when she sat on scrubby grass at the foot of a tree that she saw something underneath the truck. It was something the two men mustn’t see, or the dog either. The little pangolin must have hung on all this way to try to rescue the others in the back of the truck. And he would need some help. But what if her father and uncle spotted the pangolin on their way round the side of the truck to lift the bonnet and look at the engine? They’d celebrate their luck! He would be one extra pangolin to beat into a ball and shut in a cage where it had no room to stretch.

   The girl sat down beside the truck, right in front of the clinging pangolin, hoping her body hid it completely. The men were too busy arguing to notice her. Once they had their heads under the bonnet, quarrelling over what was wrong with the engine and whose fault it was, she climbed as lightly as she could onto the back of the truck. She picked up a cage in each hand and carried them between trees. There she set them down and unfastened the lids so the scaly animals could squeeze out and scamper away.

Pinpan knew Pikpa was still above him in the back of the truck because he could smell her. Using his tail, he climbed up from underneath the truck until he was high up in the trailer. Carefully, firmly, he began to nudge the box with his snout. When it reached the side of the trailer all he had to do was tip it until it fell over the edge. As the cage fell onto the grass, the furry animal with the fat tongue yelped and jumped about on the car seat. But it was shut inside. Pinpan jumped down and nudged the cage further away towards the bushes. His snout was so low and so busy that it was a while before he realised he was looking at two smooth, furless feet.

   “What’s going on?” cried the girl’s father. “What’s all the noise?”

   “And what’s wrong with the dog?” asked her uncle.

   “I think I saw a lion!” the girl cried, standing in front of the pangolins – the brave one who had just landed and the one still trapped in a cage.

   “No!” said her father, as if it was a question.

   The dog was barking wildly. The girl held herself, arms crossed, and shook as if she was as terrified. She pointed in the other direction, away from the pangolins, where there were bushes tall and wide enough to hide a lion. Her uncle was still working under the bonnet but her father looked nervously for a glimpse of a golden brown mane or tail. The girl started to whimper as if she’d seen both.

   “Try the engine now!” her uncle told her father. “Let’s get out of here.”

   The moment her father hurried into the driver’s seat, the girl unfastened the catch on the lid of the cage. The scaly prisoner scrambled free. Beside the pangolin that had pushed her cage out of the truck, she scampered away. Their tails waved behind them as they ran, but the girl dared not watch, or smile. As her father pushed the truck from behind, the engine came to life at last.

   “Get in!” yelled her father, and she climbed up beside him.

   “She must be right about the lion,” said her uncle. His dog, still barking, was looking frantically into the forest.

   The girl looked back too. She was hoping the pangolins were far away, out of sight and out of danger. Before long, the dog settled as the truck trundled along, and the men relaxed, talking about the money they would make for the three pangolins they’d caught. Not far to the market now…

   The vehicle that blocked their way was as dangerous as a lion. Out of it stepped two men in uniform who said they needed to search the truck. The girl saw the panic in her father’s eyes, and her uncle’s too, in spite of their fake smiles. Another man in uniform stood tall beside the truck, guarding them with a gun at his waist. The girl saw sweat shine on her father’s forehead. She knew he thought they would soon be under arrest, and thrown into prison.

   “Not the girl,” he told the warden. Leaning his head out of the window he called back to the others. “It wasn’t my daughter’s fault.”

   “What wasn’t?” asked the warden, frowning as he walked back to the front of the truck. “There’s nothing in the back,” he told the others. “Not so much as a single pangolin scale.”

   “Pangolins?” cried the girl’s father, who really did sound surprised. “Of course not.” He wiped the sweat from his forehead with the back of his wrist.

   “I love pangolins,” said the girl. “They’re magical.”

   Her father and uncle nodded as if they agreed.

Pinpan waved goodbye to Pikpa with his scaly tail. Perhaps they’d meet again one day.

   “Thank you!” she said, with a friendly grunt.

   Pinpan felt suddenly shy, and tired. He’d had an adventure but he was glad it was over. He’d learned so much since he left his burrow, and now he had something important to tell Grandma Pangolin.

   Humans weren’t all the same. They weren’t as special as pangolins but some of them were wise, and almost as brave.

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