The prehistoric pangolin first popped on conservation radars about a decade ago, for all the wrong reasons.
Before we knew what they were, ground pangolins happily went out their business of burrowing for insects and occupying empty burrows, while black-belied pangolins found safety in lush tree canopies.
Now, we know them to be the most trafficked non-human mammal in the world, without knowing how many are left in the wild.
This makes rescue efforts of a select few NGOs and veterinarians even more important.
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The Johannesburg Wildlife Veterinary Hospital (JWVH) has been saving pangolins nabbed during seizures for the past four years.
Tot the pangolin is weighed by wildlife rehabilitation specialist Nicci Wright of the Johannesburg Wildlife Vet Hospital, 19 February 2021, in Johannesburg during a measuring and weighing procedure. Saturday is World Pangolin Day. Picture: Michel Bega
Each one is treated as though it could very well be the last remaining pangolin in the wild.
When JWVH veterinarian Dr Karin Lourens became involved in rescuing pangolins, she said it was difficult to know what was normal.
When even the most emaciated pangolin stands up, it looks relatively normal.
In reality, the pangolins the JWVH receives are anything but.
Tot the pangolin is held by wildlife rehabilitation specialist Nicci Wright of the Johannesburg Wildlife Vet Hospital, 19 February 2021, in Johannesburg, during a measuring and weighing procedure. Saturday is World Pangolin Day. Picture: Michel Bega
Lourens said during a webinar earlier this week that most pangolins are brought in in horrendous conditions. They are usually kept in bags or drums for up to a week.
When pangolins feel threatened, they curl into a tight ball not even a lion can unfurl. Ironically, this is their downfall.
Poachers often put them in wire cages while still curled up, which forces them to lie in their own urine and faeces for days on end. They are also often dehydrated, emaciated and diseased.
But despite the glaring knowledge gap, Lourens reported that very few people were wiling to help. She then reached out to veterinarians in Asia who also have pangolins, albeit different to African pangolins.
Lourens is now an expert in treating Temminck’s pangolins, and thanks to her, a set of norms now exist.
The hospital’s success rate of Temminck’s pangolins being released into the wild has also surged, from 50% in 2017 to 80% at present. They also haven’t lost a pangolin in six months, and have so far treated around 130 pangolins.
Tot the pangolin is held by wildlife rehabilitation specialist Nicci Wright (centre) of the Johannesburg Wildlife Vet Hospital as Sr Alicia Abbott (right) measures the pangolin, while Dr Karin Lourens looks on, 19 February 2021, in Johannesburg during a measuring and weighing procedure. Saturday is World Pangolin Day. Picture: Michel Bega
Pangolins are released with the help of the African Pangolin Working Group.
It costs around R1500 per day to treat one pangolin. For their safety and that of JWVH staff, all pangolins are housed offsite.
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Part of Lourens’s job, other than saving pangolins, is to testify in court on their behalf.
Through her and her team’s expertise, she can explain what suffering the animal had to endure, especially because pangolins are such stoic, quiet creatures that never vocalise their pain or distress.
JWVH often get pregnant pangolins, which are twice as stressful for carers, due to fears of the foetus being aborted.
Tot the pangolin is held by wildlife rehabilitation specialist Nicci Wright, left, of the Johannesburg Wildlife Vet Hospital and Sr Alicia Abbott, 19 February 2021, in Johannesburg, during a measuring and weighing procedure. Saturday is World Pangolin Day. Picture: Michel Bega
One such success story is that of Tayta and her pup, Tot. Tot is the first pangolin pup to be born in the JWVH, and she has been hand-reared by Johannesburg Wildlife Veterinary Hospital co-founder and wildlife rehabilitation specialist Nicci Wright.
Shortly after Tot was born, her mother, still reeling from a poacher attempt, was not well enough to care for her.
Tot’s mother Tayta, who was found in a potato bag. Picture: Alicia & Sarah Kempen/JWVH
Tot is now a healthy, plump five-month-old pangolin that enjoys afternoon walks and rolling in manure. She is still on a special milk formula, but is forging on and gaining strength everyday.
Her mother has since been released into the wild.
Another success story is that of Ally, another pregnant pangolin rescued from the illegal wildlife trade last year.
Ally as part of a group of four pregnant pangolins who were stabilised and treated at JWVH before being released in a protected area.
Ally has since given birth to a healthy pup, and has been fitted with trackers and placed into a soft release process in Limpopo. Ally’s pup is the first to be born to a rehabilitated and released pangolin.
Ally and her pangolin pup in their burrow. Photo: Francois Pienaar, courtesy African Pangolin Working Group
Both are reportedly doing very well.
The JWVH received a donation from Investec just in time for World Pangolin Day on 20 February, in the form of the Africa’s first dedicated pangolin veterinary ward.
It is hoped that this will prompt future private sector investments, before pangolins disappear altogether.
More facts are still being discovered about pangolins, but it is known that they form an integral part of natural ecosystems.
They are estimated to have been on earth for 84 million years. Adult pangolins can consume more than 70 million insects annually. They love to dig, and their burrowing actually helps decomposition cycles and vegetation growth.
They give birth to one pup a year, and have a generation length of between seven and one years, severely hindering their ability to recover from current, exponential poaching rates.
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