For the pangolin

by Sam Kriss

Why does one not say, to describe the absolute power of God, “God is small,” “really small,” instead of saying “God is great”? I leave you to reply to this question.
Jacques Derrida, The Beast and the Sovereign, Seminar X


An animal is the living strangeness of the world.

It’s unfathomable that we share the world with these bright, strange, deep, ancient gods. What are these things, with eyes that can look into ours, and bodies that move like ours, but which are so utterly different? How did they get to be so old? A wild animal looks at you from far away, from another world, a place beyond language, history, politics, or time. Even a newborn animal is within eternity, and its eyes are vast with the whole of the universe. But still, they know us. Crows will recognise individual humans. If they like you, they’ll bring gifts. If they turn against you, they’ll spread the word; crows you’ve never met before will croak viciously and swoop to peck your skull. They know what we are, maybe better than we know ourselves.

There’s a kind of automatic theory, in which our Palaeolithic ancestors, the ones who covered their caves with endless patterns of stampeding wild animals, must have worshipped these creatures as gods. Maybe they did; it’s impossible to tell. But see how long it took for the gods of Egypt to wrest off their animal heads. Look at the magnificent Assyrian lion-hunt reliefs in the British Museum, see Ashurbanipal and his retainers with their fixed, calm, empty, ataraxic smiles, and compare the sheer living suffering of the lions, who yowl with pain and fury as arrows split their flanks, or even the horror of the bridled horses. An animal is more real, more human, than humanity itself. We might have it the wrong way round. Maybe the gods, with their names and their rites and their rivalries, are only an echo of the fear and awe with which the first humans beheld the sacred beasts.

That strange world is receding. So many animals are dead. The mammoth is gone. The giant flightless owls that once stalked the forests of the Caribbean are gone. The gorilla-sized lemurs of Madagascar, who lived at the same time as Zhuangzi and Aristotle, are gone. Maybe soon, the pangolin will also be gone, and all we’ll be left with will be the cows, tagged and microchipped, mulched up and turned into hundred-gram increments of edible slurry. Dogs and cats, animals that recognise their names, that you can dress up in costumes, loyally enduring it all.

Why did we have to kill them? Maybe the animal always had a privileged connection with death. Theirs is the spirit-world, the dimensions folded into the cracks of reality. In a sense, they are already dead, already outside the finitude of life and world. ‘Mortals,’ writes Heidegger, ‘are they who can experience death as death. Animals cannot do so. But animals cannot speak either.’ For Hegel, an animal can speak, but only once, as it’s dying. Language depends on the negation of its object, so that it’s ‘transformed into a pure and simple ideal.’ An animal’s noises can only point, not signify: birds chirp a stalking cat, wildebeest low a circling lion; not the general concept of catness or lionosity. But as an animal dies, it cries for an object – itself – that is no longer there. ‘Every animal finds a voice in its violent death; it expresses itself as a removed-self.’ In its dying cry, the animal learns to talk. In this way, the slaughter of an animal is a kind of miracle. It’s the only way we have of really speaking with these strange and wonderful things, sharing a register, inhabiting a single world, in which we live and they die. No wonder animal sacrifice is a central feature of so many world religions; it’s in the death of an animal that humans and gods can touch.

The wave of mass extinctions that followed the spread of our own species across the earth, and the wave of mass extinctions that’s happening right now, have any number of causes. Social, political, economic, accidental. But I think a lot of it comes down to this: that same desperate need to communicate with the animals that live beyond our world. A refusal to live with the otherness of the other, a steamrollering of radical difference into the flatness of the Same. Everything that is strange, and stays strange, gets obliterated – not despite our fascination, but because of it. A few years ago, conservationists warned against focusing too much on charismatic megafauna, the endangered elephants and pandas, while the crucial but ignored creatures that made up their environment were quietly snuffed out of existence. Now everyone is worried about the massive decline in insect populations, and it turns out that insects are also charismatic megafauna – the vast majority of all life is composed of single-celled organisms, and they’re dying too. I believe it. But if it’s not too late, if something can be pulled out of the oncoming wreckage of the future and preserved, if we can save just one living god, I’d like it to be the pangolin.

* * *

Ground-dwelling pangolins are bipedal. They walk on their hind legs, which are flat and splaying, almost like an elephant’s, and hold their little hands timidly crossed in front of them. Pangolins are the only mammals with scales, which are made from chitin, like human fingernails. Their bodies are like flowers. They walk from termite-mound to termite-mound, slipping their long tongues into the nests to feed. Baby pangolins, too young to walk, ride along on their parents’ tails. Some tree pangolins use their tails to hang from branches while they strip away sections of bark, revealing the insects beneath. While up there, they coil and flex, scratching their own bellies; they’re clearly having fun. When threatened, pangolins roll into a ball. Their scaly backs are a good enough defence against their natural predators, things with long teeth and sharp claws. But they’re almost absurdly vulnerable to anything with opposable thumbs. When poachers find one, they can just pick up the living shuddering terrified ball of pangolin, and take it away to its death.

Pangolins are beautiful. Some people, who suffer from trypophobia or some other made-up condition, find their patterns of overlapping scales disgusting. Once, I tried in anxious desperation to show a friend just how wonderful they were: pictures of gentle pangolins browsing through the savannah, joyful pangolins playing in a mudhole, baby pangolins hugging tight to a larger pangolin’s tail, newborn pangolins sleeping in angelic circles. Get rid of it, she said, it’s horrible, I hope they go extinct. Otherness can be met with disgust, and this animal is bizarre beyond belief; alien and unknowable. But at the same time, it’s so hard not to see something speaking from its alien face. The habitual expression of a pangolin is a kind of loveable, fretful worry. They look embarrassed, with their nervous hands, and their sorrowful eyes. Oh, they say, me? But that’s so kind of you. They are ravenous killers of ants and termites, eating up to seventy million of them a year, but in all their dealings with anything that doesn’t get scooped up by their flicking tongues, they are marvellously gentle. Stooped, questing, humble, and hopeful, they browse over the strangeness of the earth. An unassuming dignity. They show another face of nature, not constant pointless struggle, but not hokey mystical balance either. If a creature can make itself safe from the terrors of the world under its overlapping scales, then nature can produce something rare and weird, infinitely variegated, utterly wonderful, and impossibly kind.

The meekness of the pangolin allowed it to survive for tens of millions of years. They are so very old. But humans, the only creatures that can threaten them, have not been kind to them in return. Of the eight species of pangolin, four are listed as vulnerable, two as endangered, and two as critically endangered. They are the most trafficked animals in the world.

The anthropologist Mary Douglas’s book Purity and Danger is a crucial text – not least when it comes to understanding our own contemporary political neuroses – but what I love most of all is its treatment of the pangolin cult among the Lele of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Like many people, the Lele distinguish between ritually pure animals, which can be eaten, and ritually impure animals, which can not. But the pangolin is a conundrum. It resists the prisons of thought, by the sheer virtue of its weirdness. ‘It is scaly like a fish, but it climbs trees. It is more like an egg-laying lizard than a mammal, yet it suckles its young.’ And its young are born singly, like human children, rather than in litters. Other animals are teeming and fecund, but this creature is slow, thoughtful, and still. The pangolin is a moment of calm in the chaos of wild nature, and while chaos can be moulded into order, the pangolin continues under its own peaceful laws, and refuses to submit to any other. As Douglas writes, they embody ‘the limitation on human contemplation of existence.’ They are the unapproachable equals of ourselves.

Among some peoples, it’s forbidden to kill a pangolin. Anti-poaching initiatives in Zimbabwe are trying to reactivate some of these traditions – how can it be anything other than taboo to destroy an animal that’s so mild, and so defenceless against death? But the Lele do kill and eat pangolins – never for their daily sustenance, but only as part of religious rituals. It is outside of the categories of ordinary life,  and they are fully aware that what they are killing is a god. ‘Like Abraham’s ram in the thicket and like Christ, the pangolin is spoken of as a voluntary victim. It is not caught, but rather it comes to the village. It is a kingly victim: the village treats its corpse as a living chief and requires the behaviour of respect for a chief on pain of future disaster. The mysteries of the pangolin are sorrowful mysteries.’

Emmanuel Levinas describes God as an ‘infinite Other,’ something unfathomably distant from ourselves, something which we can never hope to grasp conceptually. But that infinity is not unreachable; it exists whenever one living being looks at the defencelessness of another. Once, a long time ago, I was asked if I could ever be an ethical vegan. I said no: animals are not ethical subjects, and ethical gestures are only meaningful between ethical subjects. The animal is on the perpetual outside. Now, I’m not so sure. I still eat meat: the poor cows, the poor sheep, the poor and wonderful octopuses. But now I think an ethical system that only has meaning within its sectioned-off field of the Same fails the most fundamental test, which is our duty to the other, a duty that doesn’t diminish as the other gets stranger and more distant, but intensifies. A truly ethical system would be that which gives us a duty to those who are not ethical subjects – not despite their otherness, but because of it.

God is the suffering other, the infinitely distant suffering other. Somewhere beyond the endlessness of the meanings of the world, there is an image. A quiet, unassuming pangolin, nailed to a wooden cross.

If the pangolins were wiped out tomorrow, we wouldn’t even notice, and this is why they must be saved. I would love to see a pangolin in the wild, but even more than that, I would love to simply exist in a world that can contain them, a world where the pangolins are safe, happy, distant, and unseen. Today is World Pangolin Day. It doesn’t mean much to the pangolins, who are far beyond all such things, but it means a lot to me. For the love of God, and for the love of the pangolins, which means the same thing, their strangeness must not vanish.