Nicci Wright gently pushes a syringe filled with warm kitten formula into Tot’s tiny, waiting mouth. The 50-day-old Temminck’s ground pangolin’s thin long tongue slurps it up.
“She loves it and she is really thriving,” says Wright, a wildlife rehabilitation specialist and founder-director of the Johannesburg Wildlife Veterinary Hospital, holding the baby protectively in her arms. “She is so special.”
There are six other poached pangolins — the world’s most trafficked mammal – in the hospital receiving treatment. Like Tot’s mother, Tater, these pangolins rescued from the illicit trade in their body parts spent days or even weeks without food and water before they arrived in the hospital’s healing hands.
“They are highly stressed, malnourished, dehydrated and often injured when they get here.”
Wright struggles to remember each pangolin’s individual case. “We’ve done so many that they are blurring into each other. The trade has definitely increased during the lockdown.”
All eight species of endangered pangolins — four in Africa and four in Asia — are trafficked largely for their scales, used in some traditional Chinese medicines. Pangolin meat, too, is prized as a delicacy in China and Vietnam.
The enigmatic, little-known mammals are so threatened that the amount they fetch on the black market cannot be publicised to avert fuelling the trade.
The rescued pangolins are treated at the hospital but kept at a secret location to deter potential poachers.
In July, the police’s stock theft and endangered species unit, working with the African Pangolin Working Group, retrieved Tot’s pregnant mother in a sting operation at a mall in Rustenburg.
She was taken to KwaZulu-Natal in October to begin her soft release programme in the wild, but had complications and is back in the hospital.
“It’s stressful work because they all need treatment, they all need care and need to walk every day and night so we’ve got to find seven extra people to walk them.”
Pangolins don’t eat in captivity and have to be walked for hours to forage on ants and termites as they would naturally.
They are shy, cryptic animals. “It’s been difficult to fight for pangolins or to feel for pangolins because most people don’t know what a pangolin is even though they’ve been around for 84 million years.”
Wildlife vet Dr Karin Lourens, also a founder of the hospital, has become a specialist pangolin vet “because we’ve all been forced to know as much as we can about them,” says Wright.
“Our success rate in treating them is about 80%. We know a lot more about them, it’s still not enough, but it makes us feel more reassured and confident in treating them.”
Lourens says that tackling demand for pangolin body parts is crucial. “I’m optimistic because we are catching more I think, maybe because people are aware, the police are more aware and the judicial system is more aware. Seeing them released is wonderful and most of them that we can follow are doing well. The ones who have died in the field have died of natural cases, by being stomped by an elephant or eaten by a crocodile.”
Tackling South Africa’s illicit trade in pangolins
Not a day goes by that professor Ray Jansen’s phone doesn’t ring — either it’s a pangolin syndicate or a case involving the pangolin trade.
“I put it out there in the bush telegraph. When I hear of a pangolin then I pass my alias on,” says the chairperson of the African Pangolin Working Group.
“I get a WhatsApp that says, ‘Hi sir.’ Then I ask, ‘Can I help you?’ They say, ‘You want a pangolin.’ I tell them I’m interested but this is what I want. That’s how it starts.”
But the poaching syndicates, he says, are on to him. “I’ve changed my alias twice. Last week we lost two cases because my cover was blown, possibly a third. Those pangolins unfortunately probably died in the trade.”
“It tells me that it’s now moved into organised crime and that they are all networking with one another. We’re finding it increasingly difficult to catch them. They’re becoming very shrewd and clued up on how we work.”
Jansen leads a 35-strong unit, which he quips is “probably the largest counter poaching unit for one species”, comprising police stock theft and endangered species units and canine units, the Gauteng Green Scorpions, the US department of homeland security and other covert operatives.
This year, they’ve retrieved 36 animals out of the trade — that was last year’s total. Around 90% of the trade, however, goes undetected — pushing a species already on the brink closer to extinction.
“There’s this perception that these pangolins are worth huge amounts of money. We’re finding huge amounts of illegal contraband. I’ve been offered uncut diamonds and rhino horn twice from the same syndicates trying to sell me pangolins.”
The rise in pangolin poaching, he believes, has been spurred by the Covid-19 pandemic. “We’ve seen a surge in opportunistic poaching around southern Africa and South Africa where people have lost their jobs, lost their sources of income, especially in the tourism areas.”
Those smuggling the endangered animals into South Africa are often impoverished and destitute. “They are casualties of this war. The middlemen are organised crime and those are the guys we need to nail. They’re the ones creating the market.”
More and more, there are victories. “We’ve gotten jail sentences of eight years in recent months. These get noticed and serve as a massive deterrent.”
“We’re dealing with a species that are going extinct and we need to fight this on every level, not just on the ground in car parks around Jo’burg and Pretoria, but also in the courts.”
What’s being done
The Chinese government has upgraded the status of pangolins to class 1 — the highest level of protection. Pangolin scales have been removed from the country’s official list of ingredients approved for use in traditional Chinese medicine. But loopholes remain, says Jansen.
Some studies have linked pangolins to the coronavirus infection, but Jansen says it “doesn’t matter what the smoking gun is”.
He agrees with a recommendation from a new major report on pandemics and biodiversity by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystems (Ipbes) to reduce or remove species in the wildlife trade that are identified as high-risk of disease emergence — like pangolins.
John Scanlon, the former secretary-general of the UN-affiliated Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), says that pangolins may be a source of the transmission of the coronavirus. “They were put on CITES Appendix 1 in 2016, often called CITES’ highest level of protection. Yet from 2016-2019, we saw a record 206 tonnes of pangolin scales confiscated. CITES listing did not result in better protection of this extraordinary animal, rather illegal exploitation has surged, and today it’s the world’s most heavily trafficked mammal.”
CITES, he says, is not capable of combating transnational organised crime. “Such capacity lies with police and customs and other enforcement officials and the agencies representing them.”
Scanlon, who is now the chairperson of the Global Initiative to End Wildlife Crime, says the Covid-19 pandemic “reminds us, albeit in a devastating way, of the interconnected nature of things, most particularly between economies, the environment, and human and wildlife health and welfare. This observation applies equally to the wildlife trade – be it legal, illegal, regulated or unregulated.
“This pandemic has reminded us of what the world’s best scientists have been telling us for some time now – wildlife issues are not just about conservation – they are also about public and animal health, and if we get it wrong, it can have massive global implications.”
Wright’s nature is to be optimistic and she clings to that. “These pangolins that come through the hospital are fortunate because they’ve been extricated from this horrific trade. If you consider that last year there were 97 tonnes of African pangolin scales intercepted going into Asia, that’s tens of thousands of animals. They’ve been on the planet for 84 million years and they’re leaving the planet on our watch.”