It was my first trip to Sumatra. I received a call from a friend on Saturday, April 25th, that there had been a large pangolin-related seizure and that there would be a good chance for me to do some research. So I set all previous obligations aside and hopped onto a plane. By Monday, I was able to attend an unusual press conference held at the scene of the crime.
The storage facility was an existing seafood warehouse in Medan that looked to be about 15,000 sq ft. Upon arrival, we were greeted by a few people who were with Wildlife Conservation Society’s Wildlife Crime Unit. I noticed much press milling about and quite a few officials in police or forestry department uniforms. Passing into the building, I was immediately assaulted by the lingering smell of seafood, freezer, unwashed bodies, cigarettes, and an unfamiliar stench that proved to be pangolin. Pangolin excrement and death. There was a massive freezer and a smaller one that stored frozen pangolins and their parts, a storeroom with their scales in bags, and the largest room held roughly fifty colorful plastic poultry crates – the festive childish colors completely at odds with the gruesome business at hand.
With permission, I began inspecting the nearly 100 crated pangolins. I’ve never held one and l learned that these domestic cat-sized animals took unique handling. After setting aside two dead ones, I chose a very large male that didn’t seem so shy and after 15 minutes of struggle, got him out of confinement so the press could photograph him. He was probably the strongest specimen of the lot and perhaps not my wisest choice because my wrists are now crisscrossed with slight scratches from his scales. These gentle forest animals never attack anything. If threatened, they simply roll into a ball for protection. This tactic may even protect them from lions or leopards but it’s no defense against their greatest predator, man.
After the press conference where officials gave statements, answered questions, and photographers had their fill of shots, the pangolins were loaded onto a truck to begin a four hour-long arduous trip to a jungle and freedom. It had been pouring rain but during the ride the sun was blazing. At a midway stop for food and fuel, I checked the animals and found several more dead ones while those alive were either too weak and traumatized to move or extremely parched and greedily lapped the water I provided. There was a mother pangolin with a baby that was roughly two to three weeks old. They were separated inside the cage and the mother seemed too stressed to care for her young. I took the baby out to safeguard it from being crushed until arrival.
It was dusk by the time we arrived, and the 50+ crates still needed to be carried an hour-long hike deeper into the forests for release. I returned the young pangolin I had been babysitting to his mother and was happy to see he was strong and immediately started feeding, but his mother seemed very traumatized. My group and l then inspected the pangolins and found two more dead adults as well as a dead newborn baby. I inspected the small broken body and found that the ribcage was crushed. Apparently one of the adults was pregnant and gave birth during transit and the baby was accidentally crushed by the two adults sharing the cage. It was nearly impossible to tell that the mother had been pregnant.
The last pangolins I set free were the mother and baby I looked after. I carried them into bushes and lay them down gently. She was curled up tightly but he managed to squirm into the hollow of her belly and that was the last I saw of them. An image I will never forget. It took over a dozen people and we finally finished setting free the last pangolin before 9pm.
Pangolins are mostly shy, nocturnal animals that live in forests. They don’t have teeth but they do have sticky tongues longer than their bodies that they use to feed on termites and ants. Their sharp strong claws help to break open woods and other hard surfaces to access food. Due to their unique diet, they act as vital pest control and maintain good soil quality of forests. Pangolins are also the only mammals fully covered in scales – scales that are made of keratin, the same material of which our fingernails, hair, and rhino horns are made. Although there is no supporting scientific research, these scales have long been used in traditional Chinese medicine. It is said that when dried and roasted they can relieve palsy, stimulate lactation, and drain pus.
As a result, all eight species of pangolins now feature on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List of animals threatened with extinction. Pangolin scales can sell on the black market for over $3,000 U.S. a kilogram. The whole animal is also used in various dishes with the main consumers being Vietnam and China. In 2014, it was estimated that over 100,000 pangolins were poached annually. From the record-breaking seizures we are seeing so far this year, it looks to be much more than that now. The past few weeks alone have seen several large confiscations of pangolin scales in Hong Kong and China. Media reports from India and Pakistan indicate much illegal trade as traders try to smuggle their scales across the border with China. African populations of the pangolins are also being poached as recent seizures of ivory in Hong Kong and China have included pangolin scales as part of the shipment of illegal wild animal parts. Pangolins are currently the most commonly trafficked illegal wildlife species.
The next day, April 27th, the confiscated contents of the freezer along with other recent seizures of illegally trafficked pangolins were destroyed. A large pit was dug and dead pangolins filled it roughly 4 deep. Nobody did the gruesome work of a proper count because some animals were already chopped into pieces. There were approximately 4,000 of them which all went up in flames – a massive bonfire of a unique, vital, and ancient species that now face extinction due to greed, misinformation, and indifference.
While returning to Hong Kong after this eye-opening and depressing trip, I kept thinking about the plight of the pangolin. It is easy to point accusing fingers at people but the experience helped me understand that these animals are being taken from countries where most of the people have very little to no income. To survive and raise their families, many work very hard and do several jobs to make ends meet. It is difficult to control poaching when even a single pangolin can bring in enough funds to help feed a family for many months. The pangolins’ habitats are also disappearing at an alarming rate due to deforestation for palm oil to benefit large corporations as well as plans for biodiesel fuel by governments.
I believe that the answer to saving the pangolin from extinction lies in urgent education and responsible government. There are alternatives to using pangolin products in traditional Chinese medicine even if one believes that the ingredients are effective. We can also read labels carefully to spot and avoid products that contain palm oil or only purchase products labeled to contain certified sustainable palm oil. Last but not least, governments need to put a stop to continued extensive habitat destruction in order to protect and preserve biodiversity for future generations. We are all connected and share the same planet. As custodians of nature and natural resources we all have a role to play, but for now I hope you’ll remember the humble but important pangolin. Help others know of their plight and where possible, so NO to any pangolin parts and products.
By Sharon Kwok, Mission Blue Board Director and Founder and Executive Director of AquaMeridian Conservation & Education Foundation