A Just So Story: How the Pangolin Got His Scales

I don’t know if Rudyard Kipling ever wrote one of his Just So Stories about a pangolin – but I suppose he might have done…

In the beginning, Best Beloved, back in the high-and-far-off times when all the animals were in their proper places, there lived a Pangolin. He wasn’t ubiquitous and nor was he migratory – not him. He was indigenous: indigenous to the hot, green Jungle of Yavdavipa on the Sundaland. There he spent his days and his nights and the short dusks and dawns in-between (for the Jungle of Yavdavipa was, you should know, in the high tropics). He was not crepuscular and nor was he diurnal – not him. The Pangolin was nocturnal, sleeping when the sun beat down through the monkey-chattering trees and hunting for insects in his ancestral hunting grounds during the deep, dark night.

You should also know that in these high-and-far-off times the animals of the jungle were different from how they now appear. The Tiger was a  yellowy-sandy colour with not a stripe to be seen and had claws as delicate and tiny as ever-there-was for scooping small things out of their shells. The Coral Snake had no venom, the Babirusa no tusks and the Anoa no horns. As for the Pangolin, he was not crusty-scaly as he is today – not him. He had sharp claws for digging but was soft and sleek and smooth as smooth can be. That was the way it all was, back in the high-and-far-off times in the Jungle of Yavdavipa: do you see?

One day a Man arrived. He carefully pulled his caique onto the beach and made it fast with a rope. Then he walked up towards the hot, green jungle and the first thing he saw was Pangolin asleep in the shade of a Rainbow Gum tree.

“Good morning,” said the Man. His name was Wu Han and he thought himself to be ‘scruciatingly clever.

Pangolin opened one eye. “Good morning,” he said and introduced himself. “I haven’t seen you before. What are you?”

“I’m a Man,” said Wu Han. “Where I can find water? I’ve just sailed across the sea and I am as thirsty as ever was.”

Pangolin got to his four feet and led Wu Han towards a river. Wu Han bent down and drank. When he turned round, the Pangolin had gone to sleep again, this time in the shade of a Melati bush.

“Are you ill?” asked Wu Han, poking Pangolin with his foot.

“No,” said Pangolin. “I am nocturnal but I am never ill.”

“Never ill?” exclaimed Wu Han. “Do you never get the colic or the canker or the croup, nor suffer from breakbone or boneshave?”

“Not that I am aware of,” replied Pangolin.

“What – not dropsy or distemper, nor small pox, red pox or scrum pox? Have you never had quinsy or lockjaw, nor the flu or the ague? No gout, spasms, palsies, grippes, fits, fluxes nor scrivener’s palsy?”

“I have never been ill,” Pangolin said, “and nor have the other animals.”

“What animals are these that never get ill?” asked Wu Han.

“There is Tiger and Babirusa and Sea Snake and Anoa, and not forgetting Black Macaque, among others,” said Pangolin.

“I would like to meet these animals,” said Wu Han.

“We are all here at dusk. The nocturnals are waking up and the diurnals are going to sleep: but we must all drink.” And with that Pangolin curled himself back up under the shade of the Melati bush and went back to sleep.

Wu Han walked back to the beach, pondering his good fortune. He judged by the sun that it was an hour before dusk – for you will remember, Best Beloved, that he thought himself to be ‘scruciatingly clever. He went to his boat and got out a large sack and some stout rope.

An hour later, Wu Han was back at the stream: and there, as Pangolin had said, were Tiger and Babirusa and Sea Snake and Anoa, among others (and not forgetting Black Macaque). Pangolin introduced them to Wu Han, who bowed low.

“O, Animals,” said Wu Han, “Pangolin here says you are never sick. Never the rickets nor the sloes or scrofula? Never the scurvy?”

“Not that I am aware of,” said Tiger.

“Never apoplexy, nor amnesia, nor worm fit?”

Then Tiger and the other animals assured him that they had never been ill, not once. “Excellent,” said Wu Han: and out of his sack he pulled a net and threw it over them – the nocturnal, the diurnal and the crepuscular, all together, like so. Then he got a rope and pulled that round the net, like so: and before you could say Jawi Rinca, all the animals were wrapped up as tight as tight could be.

“Now,” said Wu Han, “you will all come home with me. We Men have many sicknesses. I am an apothe-cary and will use some parts of you to make us well again.” So then he dragged them and pulled them and pushed them in the net down to the beach and onto his boat. The animals wailed and growled and hissed and lowed and looked at Pangolin and said, “this is your fault.”

At last they arrived at a town at the other side of the wide, green-blue sea. Wu Han pulled the net on the beach and put the animals into cages which he lined up next to each other. People gathered round, all full of ‘satiable curiosity.

Then he produced a big book that had thick pages that rustled when he turned them. They were filled with writing and diagrams and tables of figures and pictures with coloured inks that shimmered in the sun. It was bound in dark green leather and had a brass catch that that fastened it shut with a snap!, like that, when he closed it. This, he explained, was the Hakeem Davaai – and that means a Book of Cures and Healing and was kind of book that you must specially not touch.

Wu Han then spoke to the people. “These are magical animals who never get sick,” he told them. “A small part of each of them will give you all health.” He explained that they didn’t get the breakbone and they didn’t get the pox and they didn’t get ague, nor colic, canker or distemper; nor morgellons, nor miasma; nor the mumps or the measles. All the people gathered round and stared at Wu Han, and the book, and at the animals, muttering to each other.

Then other men in other caiques arrived with other animals in nets and soon there was were all manner of cages and crates lined up. There were Caimans and Crabs, Turtles and Tapirs, Pandas and Pumas; there were Cheetahs and Anteaters, there were Bats and Boas and Blue Macaws – yes, there were, all these and more. All these men knew Wu Han. Some called him Yi-Sheng and some called him Tabib and some called him Ishi-San and some called him other names that were long and complicated and – for he was an apothe-cary – most deferential.

The people gathered round the animals and prodded them and poked them in their cages. Wu Han explained how the pineal gland of this one would cure the dropsy and how the liver of that one would ward off the grippe: how the paws of this one, if boiled just so, would be an admirable antidote to the ague and how the tail of that one, if dried just so, would be a remarkable remedy for the rickets. So it went on, with Wu Han consulting the Hakeem Davaai – the book you must specially not touch – and telling every person that, for whatever ailed them, there was a specific drawn from some part of these magical animals. And more people came; and more men came with more animals; and the town grew big; and the people who lived there grew rich; but none grew as rich as Wu Han.

The animals were crammed and rammed and jammed together in any old way. There were crustaceans from the Marshes of Sonnaput next to ungulates from the Great High Veldt of Nkobo; there were primates from the Forests of Manibar and Lan Xang next to marsupials from the far Antipodes. There were carnivores and herbivores, mammals and reptiles, the furred, the scaled and the feathered, nocturnals, diutnals and crepusculars: animals from all the four corners of the world pressed up so close to each other that none of them knew who they were or what they were doing – truly they didn’t.

The animals looked themselves over in their cages (although many of them couldn’t turn round properly as they were squeezed in so tight). It seemed to them that, by being pushed and squished and mashed and crushed against each other, they had each started to take on a different aspect. Tiger, who had been pressed up to Coral Snake, was now more stripey; on Tiger’s other side, Babirusa now had long teeth – almost tusks, they were – while, beyond him, Anoa now found that his hooves had become cloven.

As for Pangolin, weeks of being pressed close to Coral Snake on the boat meant he was more bendy and more scaly than ever before. “I am not the same Pangolin as I was in my ancestral hunting grounds,” he lamented. And all the other animals were thinking much the very self-same thing – yes, they were.

And that was not all, Best Beloved – oh no, it was not. For the animals, who had previously been of a co-operative and accommodating disposition, now found themselves possessed of the most fearsome and ‘rascible tempers. Coral Snake developed poison in his fangs, Tiger found his claws could do more than scoop small things out of their shells, Anoa could jab with his sharp new horns, Babirusa could poke with his strong new tusks and Blue Macaque bite with his big new teeth. And there was such spitting and clawing and jabbin that it was all Pangolin could do to roll himself into a ball until he was showing only his hard new scales and wish that everything and everyone would go away and leave him alone – yes, he did.

And so it went on, Best Beloved – all the animals were shifting in their shapes and changing in their natures, all because of Wu Han and his ‘scruciating cleverness.

And then the day came when a sickness befell the people that was unlike any sickness that had befallen them before. There was such wailing and sweating and coughing and sneezing and all manner of other febrilities and expectorations that the Great God Vardarash was disturbed in her meditations and asked the Middle God Ganglip to discover what was upsetting them so. Ganglip, who was having a sand bath, sent for the Little God Rafila.

“Oh Rafila,” said Ganglip, “the sweating and coughing and sneezing and suchlike is causing great upset and disturbance. Pray thou descend to the people and establish the cause of this distress.” (The Gods, being grand and formal, always addressed each other in this fashion, it being hallowed by time immemorial.)

“Oh Ganglip,” replied Rafila, “that I shall.”

So Rafila descended, disguised as a fisher-woman, and observed the people a-coughing and a-sneezing and all of the animals crowded together in their wrong places. She returned to Ganglip (who was still having a sand bath) and to Vardaresh. And after they had had a pow-wow and a parlez-vous and a vichaar-varmesh and a diskusi and confabulated with each other until three suns and risen and three suns had set, it was decided that Vardaresh would descend most formally to give judgement on the muddle that the people had got into.

So Vardaresh descended in a great cloak of all the colours of the universe and with a roll of thunder and manifested herself in the middle of the market. All the people who were still able to stand bowed and prostrated themselves in postures of the greatest abasement.

“Why are you a-coughing and a-sneezing and all, disturbing my mediations in this shameless way?”

“We are sick,” cried all the people. “There is a great sickness among us, O Greatest God.”

“Humph. And from whence did this sickness proceed?”

“From the animals, O Greatest God. The animals were brought to make us better but they have made us worse.”

“Humph. And from whence did these animals appear?”

“From diverse foreign places across the seas, O Greatest God.”

“Humph. And by whose hand did these animals arrive?”

“By the hand of Wu Han!” they all cried.

“Fetch him hither,” commanded Vardaresh.

“He is sick, very sick,” said the people, “a-coughing and a-sneezing and all manner of other febrilities and expectorations.”

“Nevertheless,” said Vardaresh.

So Wu Han was fetched, a-coughing and a-sneezing as the people had said, and Vardaresh regarded him with her four pitiless eyes. “You are not, as you believed, ‘scruciatingly clever, but a greedy and foolish man,” she said at last. “These animals have no parts that can be of curative use to you. Matters have not been ordered thus. By your hand, things have been mixed which should have stayed separate and things have been altered which should have remained the same. Thus the sickness has come upon you.”

Wu Han threw himself on the sand in a posture of the very greatest abasement. “Oh Greatest God Vardaresh, tell me what I must do fully to right this wrong.”

“The wrong cannot be fully righted,” replied Vardaresh. “It was made by man and man must live with it.”

At this, there was a great wailing and weeping and trembling of the people. Vardaresh raised her hand and the noise was stilled.

“However, I tell you this. These animals must be returned to their ancestral places – to the Low Veldts, the High Veldts, the Jungles, the Plains, the Mountains, the Oceans, the Prairies and the Tundras from whence they came. Everything has its proper place and its proper space and there it must remain. That you must do – Vardaresh has spoken.”

“What about the sickness?” asked Wu Han. “Can you cure this, O Greatest God?”

“I cannot. It was made by man and man must live with it. You are a sociable and talkative people but I must tell you that you must shun each other and mask yourselves for a year and a quarter and a month and a week and a day if you want to abate the sickness. But it will always be amongst you and at any time it might return.”

“O Greatest God, the animals have changed,” said a woman. “Since they arrived, I have seen it. Tiger now has claws and Coral Snake a sting and Anoa horns as sharp as sharp can be, and all of them are in a terrible temper with us. Can you cure this and return them to their ancestral states?”

“I cannot. These changes were made by man and man must live with them. Be sure that henceforth Tiger will claw you and Coral Snake will poison you and Anoa will gore you and all the other animals will use whatever means they have to visit their displeasure upon you, this day and every day. You have earned yourselves the enmity of the world: and ‘scruciating clever though you think yourselves to be, the world will have its revenge.”

At this, Vardaresh whipped her cloak around her and vanished (with another roll of thunder), leaving the people in a state of great consternation. Before long, they surrounded Wu Han, still abased upon the ground. “It’s your fault,” they all said.

So Wu Han returned all the animals to their proper places, starting with Pangolin and Tiger and Babirusa and Sea Snake and Anoa, among others (and not forgetting Black Macaque) to the Jungle of Yavdavipa. But, as Vardaresh had said, they were changed from their ancestral states. The Tiger had claws, the Coral Snake a sting, Barbirusa tusks, all to use against Man and his ‘scruciating cleverness. As for Pangolin, he is still nocturnal but now has, as well as sharp claws, a wonderously bendy back and hard scales all over his body, all from rubbing up next to Coral Snake in the net for ever so long.

So, Best Beloved, if you ever visit the Jungle of Yavdavipa and see Pangolin asleep under the shade of a Rainbow Gum Tree and ask him for some water, do not expect him to help. He will just roll himself into a ball, as tight as tight can be and, if you try to unroll him, Pangolin will scratch you with his sharp claws. If I were you, I would get back into your caique, sail back across the wide, green-blue sea to your ancestral hunting grounds and leave Pangolin and the rest to theirs – do you see?


As Mr Kipling always used to add a poem to his stories, so shall I:

I’m going down to Wuhan,
They’ve got everything a man could need –
Extract of cheetah, sweet and sour anteater
Served on a bed of Covid leaves.

So I went down to the market
Is there something new to try?
The choices engulfed me, confused me, repulsed me
There’s nothing here I want to buy.

We should realise that we all have separate spaces
The panda and the pang’lin should never be entanglin’, that’s a fact.
In nature’s library we all have special places
If something’s been mis-filed we need to put it back.

Are you going back to the market? I don’t think so.
Don’t you miss those exotic stalls? I don’t think so.
Are you going back to Wuhan, Mr Pangolin?
I don’t think so at all.

Let’s all go down to Wuhan, get some rare meat on the dinner table
A bit of dried bat faeces and a virus can jump species, just like that
Reproduction, as fast as it is able:
Covid’s got a clock but we can’t wind it back.

We should realise that we all need separate spaces
Crustaceans and ungulates are hardly natural roommates, that’s a fact.
In nature’s library we all have special places
If something’s been mis-filed we need to put it back.

Things should be used as nature’s recommended:
The penis of a turtleback is not an aphrodisiac.
Such actions lead to consequences grave and unintended,
By which time it is far too late to turn them back.

Brian Quinn

• For further stories and articles, please click here
• For songs, please click here
• For the song
Going Down to Wuhan (from which the above poem has been taken), please click here



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