The most illegally trafficked mammal is one you may never have heard of.
Can conservationists halt the decline of pangolins before they go extinct?
Pangolins, sometimes called scaly anteaters, are the only mammals in the world to be covered in protective scales. There are eight species in total; four in tropical Asia and four in sub-Saharan Africa. Most dig burrows in the ground, but some climb trees, living in hollows or on branches. As predators preying on ants and termites, pangolins perform an important ecological role in regulating insect populations. It has been estimated that an adult pangolin can consume more than 70 million insects annually.
Pangolins have elongated snouts with long, sticky tongues for slurping up their insect prey. Their powerful, curved claws are perfect for tearing open anthills and termite mounds. Like armadillos and hedgehogs, pangolins roll into a ball when threatened. Sadly, while this protects them against natural predators, it is no defence against human hunters.
All species of pangolin are threatened with extinction. Aside from the pressures of habitat loss and a slow reproductive rate (pangolins give birth to just one pup each year), the greatest threat is poaching. Despite the practice being illegal, pangolins are frequently hunted and traded. Some estimates suggest that more than a million pangolins have been hunted by poachers in the last decade alone. The meat is considered a delicacy in some Chinese and Vietnamese cultures, while the scales are used in Chinese Traditional Medicine to treat a wide variety of complaints, from epilepsy and arthritis to fever and impotence. The scales are typically dried and ground up into a powder, which can be used to make pills or pastes. Some traditional African medicines, known as muthi, also use pangolin scales.
Like human fingernails, pangolin scales are made of keratin. There is no scientific evidence that they have special curative powers, but the demand has now grown to the point where pangolins are believed to be the world’s most trafficked non-human mammals. In 2016, CITES – the international treaty on wildlife trade – voted to ban all commercial trade in pangolins and pangolin parts.
However, populations have continued to decline, with poachers constantly changing trafficking routes to evade law enforcement. After massive poaching of Asian species, and the decimation of their populations, the focus of exploitation has now shifted to Africa. In April 2019, a record-breaking seizure of pangolin scales in Singapore was made. The shipments, comprising over 28 tons of scales, equate to an estimated 72,000 pangolins killed.
In a bid to do their bit to halt the decline in numbers, the vets at Rhino Revolution – a remote wildlife rehabilitation facility in South Africa’s Limpopo Province, originally set up to save rhinos – recently opened their doors to care for pangolins saved from poachers in intelligence-led sting operations. The animals, confiscated from traffickers and brought to the facility by South African Police Services and anti-poaching units are looked after until they can be returned to the wild. Rhino Revolution is part of a country-wide collaborative effort to save South Africa’s pangolins and to share knowledge with partners in other countries.
Rhino Revolution was started by the concerned citizens of Hoedspruit, including respected rhino conservationists and private nature reserve owners, who came together to try and reduce the escalating poaching crisis. Rhino are killed for the same reason pangolins are: their economic value. Rhino horn is traded on the black market – by weight for as much as gold – and used for ornamental or traditional medicinal purposes. Like pangolin scales, rhino horn is made from keratin, which has no proven medicinal value. The two very different species cared for at Rhino Revolution therefore share a common misfortune: their decline is being fuelled by little more than a superstition.
The rescued pangolins arrive badly compromised – stressed, malnourished and dehydrated. They require around the clock, 24/7 medical care and support. Each one is hand fed with a supplementary protein solution, via a feeding tube, to try and improve their nutrition. The orphan in these images is called Ramphy. He was found in the middle of a main road, having fallen off the back of a truck. It is almost certain that his mother had been taken for the illegal wildlife trade. Ramphy sustained injuries in the fall but was found, fortuitously, by a close friend of the rehab team at Rhino Revolution.
If well enough, the pangolin patients are “walked” in the bush to help encourage natural feeding behaviours as soon as possible. These forays are carried out under the protection of anti-poaching officers. Depending on the weight of the animal and on the availability of food, the vet team will often carry the pangolin until an ant or termite nest is found to reduce the need for the animal to burn calories while searching. As a young orphan, Ramphy’s needs were much greater than that of an adult pangolin. However, he quickly built a close bond with Nat and Jade, the two veterinary nurses at Rhino Revolution. Although Ramphy was at first fed with cat milk, he soon began to develop an appetite for ants and termites, building up his strength and confidence ahead of a return to the wild in due course.
Once they are in good enough condition, the rescued pangolins are returned to the wild – but not without ongoing protection from anti-poaching teams and post-release monitoring. Researchers like Francois Meyer track the animals to better understand the rehabilitation process, and how the pangolins respond to the trauma of their ordeals. This post-release monitoring has already allowed the team at Rhino Revolution to retrieve other pangolins that have not coped well on their return to the wild, due to illness brought on by the stress of being caught by poachers. Two types of tracking technology are used in the post-release monitoring. Satellite trackers send a location every couple of hours, providing an approximate bearing for the pangolin. Radio telemetry, which uses cellular technology, then allows the researcher to pin-point the exact location of the animal. Pangolins spend much of their time below ground in burrows, where the radio tracking technology is rendered useless, so the role of satellite tracking is crucial. Such research is opening up new worlds of information about these understudied mammals. Those involved in pangolin conservation are at the forefront of their field because no-one has had to do this before. The key question is, can we reduce demand for pangolins and enforce laws fast enough to halt their decline? If not, they face going extinct before most people (outside of the conservation sphere) even know they exist.
Find out more about our support for pangolin conservation here.