Pangolins in Colonial India

The pangolin, or scaly ant-eater, was greatly admired by the British during India’s Colonial Period. This was unfortunate for the pangolin, as the British were notorious collectors of ‘all things bright and beautiful’.

Add Or 4667


The painting above was made in 1779 by Shaikh Zain al-Din of Patna. It was commissioned by Lady Impey, the wife of Sir Elijah Impey, the Chief Justice of Calcutta’s Supreme Court from 1774 to 1782, and is now in the British Library (Add.Or.4667). The pangolin in the painting was part of Lady Impey’s menagerie of exotic animals, and was most likely a taxidermy specimen, not a live animal. When startled, a live pangolin will emit a noxious smelling acid, similar to a skunk’s spray, making it a terrible house pet for a fine lady.


Lord Francis Rawdon Hastings, the Governor General of Bengal from 1813 to 1823, was another pangolin enthusiast. In 1820 he presented King George III with a coat made out of pangolin scales painted with gold. I wonder if George III ever actually wore this coat, which is now on display in the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds. I have no idea how many pangolins were killed to make the coat, but I welcome any guesses you’d care to make.

Today, pangolins are a protected species, but there is still an illegal trade in their meat and scales.  

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