Guardians of the Pangolin: The fight to save the world’s most trafficked animal (Coconuts TV Documentary)

Words: Katrina Kaufman | Photos: Alexander Hotz | Jan. 5, 2016

It’s tragically ironic that the world’s most trafficked animal is almost invincible in the wild. With an armor of scales, the pangolin curls into an artichoke-like ball when threatened. That scaly ball is impenetrable even to lions. Yet, it makes the pangolin vulnerable to its only real predators – humans. Poachers can just pick the pangolin right up and throw it into a sack.

A fieldworker for Save Vietnam’s Wildlife (SVF) uses a high frequency listening device to pick up the signal of a nearby pangolin. ​In April 2015, the nonprofit released thirty five rehabilitated pangolins into South Vietnam’s Cat Tien National Park.

A fieldworker for Save Vietnam’s Wildlife (SVF) uses a high frequency listening device to pick up the signal of a nearby pangolin. ​In April 2015, the nonprofit released thirty five rehabilitated pangolins into South Vietnam’s Cat Tien National Park.

If you’ve never heard of the pangolin, you’re not alone. Earlier this year, Prince William remarked that pangolins run “the risk of becoming extinct before most people have ever heard of them.” The majestic rhino and elephant tend to steal the spotlight when it comes to the issue of illegal wildlife trafficking. But the plight of the pangolin is dire.

Lucky the pangolin sleeps inside his habitat at Save Vietnam’s Wildlife, which is based in Vietnam’s Cúc Phương National Park. Despite the fact that the pangolin is the most trafficked animal on Earth, only a handful of organizations are working to prevent its extinction. 

Over a million pangolins have been trafficked in the past decade, with a single pangolin costing as much as $1,000 on the Asian black market. Some experts claim that pangolin sales account for up to 20 percent of the entire $19 billion illegal wildlife trade.

Nguyen Van Thai, the Executive Director for Save Vietnam’s Wildlife, attaches a hidden camera to a tree in a pangolin’s territory. Pangolins are nocturnal and only live in dense jungle so finding one is the wild is notoriously difficult.

The pangolin is particularly coveted in China and Vietnam, where its meat is considered a delicacy, its blood an aphrodisiac and its keratin scales are used in traditional Chinese medicine to cure ailments ranging from asthma to cancer. This rare, enigmatic creature is “literally being eaten out of existence,” according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Nguyen Van Thai, the Executive Director for Save Vietnam’s Wildlife, uses a high frequency listening device to pick up a nearby pangolin’s signal. The day before, the nonprofit released thirty five pangolins into the wild, each one equipped with a GPS transmitter. 

Solitary and nocturnal, the pangolin is the world’s only scaly mammal. A somewhat bizarre looking anteater, pangolins have no teeth, beady eyes, sticky tongues longer than their bodies and dine on 7 million ants and termites each year. They can climb trees and hang upside down from their powerful tails like monkeys. Up close, they are shy, gentle and adorable.

Lucky the pangolin.

Part of why most people have never heard of pangolins is that they are rarely seen outside of their native habitats in Asia and Africa. They don’t survive well in captivity, and few zoos have managed to successfully keep them alive.

All eight pangolin species are currently threatened with extinction. While the pangolin trade has been banned worldwide since 2000, the black market for this prized animal continues to thrive.

In September last year, customs authorities in China’s Guangdong Province intercepted a fishing boat with 2,674 dead pangolins inside. Last November, officials at the Laos border caught a man attempting to smuggle 81 pangolins into Thailand; the pangolins had been stuffed into small blue sacks and piled into shipping crates.

An apprehensive Pangolin considers leaving the box it has called home for the past two days.

Even when pangolins are lucky enough to be recovered alive from poachers, they are often too weak to be released immediately back into the wild. That’s where conservationist organizations like Save Vietnam’s Wildlife come in. This rescue center rehabilitates pangolins that have been saved from the illegal wildlife trade.

Coconuts TV had the unique opportunity to join Save Vietnam’s Wildlife team as they journeyed across Vietnam to free 35 critically endangered Sunda pangolins back into the wild and to explore the underground pangolin trade in Vietnam.

Watch our latest documentary to learn more about the plight of the pangolin!

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