Heartbreak as doctors try to save most-hunted mammal on Earth

The staff at the Johannesburg Wildlife Veterinary Hospital had put something extraordinary in the corner of their treatment room.

Curled up in of a couple of wooden crates were a pair of dragon-like pangolins and they looked like they were fast asleep.

A member of the wildlife team scooped one out of the box and apologised for the rude awakening. “Okay my sweetheart, okay my lovely. I’m sorry.”

It was the first time I had set eyes on pangolin and the experience was startling. The pangolin was an adult female nicknamed Goblin and she looked like a cross between a dinosaur and a giant artichoke.

A pangolin at the Johannesburg Wildlife Veterinary Hospital
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Affluent consumers in countries like China use pangolin scales in traditional medicine

Animal rehabilitation specialist Nicci Wright took her over to the weigh station and frowned when the digital readout pronounced her a touch over 14kg.

“She is probably about 2kg underweight.

“She was held for two weeks [by poachers] and she didn’t eat anything, except sand, we found a lot of sand in her stomach.”

A pangolin at the Johannesburg Wildlife Veterinary Hospital
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Adult pangolins are traded for as much as £300,000 each

Goblin’s scales were splattered with bright green paint, another sign of her traumatic ordeal. She had been snatched from her wilderness home by a gang of Mozambican animal traffickers, then locked in concrete shed covered in wet paint.

Sky News has obtained a video of one gang member prodding and poking Goblin for his own amusement.

South African police caught up with these traffickers in November, arresting four and delivering their contraband to the animal hospital.

The vets did not know whether they could save Goblin. Ms Wright said: “When [pangolins] have been held for 10 days or more it is very difficult to save them. They are nocturnal and very secretive and they just can’t survive in captivity.”

We watched as the wildlife team anaesthetised the animal and inserted a long plastic tube into her stomach. Wildlife vet Dr Karin Lourens connected the tube to a large syringe and pushed 250mg of food formulated for diabetic cats into Goblin’s stomach.

A pangolin at the Johannesburg Wildlife Veterinary Hospital
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Pangolins are the most illegally trafficked animal in the world

The vets think this is the best way to build up an ant-eating mammal like Goblin, adding: “The food is high in protein and the carbohydrates are very digestible. Ants don’t have carbs so this is a good way to do it.”

However, there is a great deal that the vets do not know about pangolins. They cannot tell how old Goblin is, for example – they just do not know how to calculate a pangolin’s age. Nor do they understand how pangolins attracts mates.

Most importantly, experts like Dr Lourens and Ms Wright do not know how many of these mammals are left on Earth.

The demand for pangolins from poachers and traffickers has exploded over the course of the last few years. Conservationists now think this extraordinary creature is the most trafficked animal on earth.

Affluent consumers in countries like China use pangolin scales in traditional medicine and the animal’s flesh and organs in their cuisine. The tongue is even considered a good luck charm. Ms Wright says adult pangolins are now traded for as much as £300,000 each.

And it is Ms Wright and the team at the Johannesburg Wildlife Veterinary Hospital who have to deal with the consequences of this illegal business. This year, 41 pangolins have been brought to the clinic by police officers and members of conservation groups.

“The trade is increasing, it is really getting out of hand,” said Ms Wright has she adjusted the anaesthesia mask on Goblin’s nose.

Dr Lourens added: “This is essentially the most hunted mammal on Earth – isn’t that mind-blowing?

“Pangolins have been on the planet for 80 million years and in our life time this is what is happening to them. We are going to make them extinct.”

Both women shook their heads and returned to their duties in the hospital’s compact operation room. After 10 days of intensive treatment, the wildlife vets had given Goblin a shot at survival and that felt like a victory of sorts.

Pangolin poachers being arrested
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Poachers are being arrested but not quickly enough to save the pangolins

On 24 December, we were informed that Goblin had died after her release in a protected wildlife sanctuary in South Africa.

Professor Ray Jansen, who oversees the pangolin rehabilitation programme, told Sky News that his team are only able to save 50% to 55% of the animals that are admitted for care.

“We are really disappointed about Goblin,” said Professor Jansen. “It really hurts us – but pangolins are intelligent, sensitive animals and it is difficult [for them to recover] when they have been put in an abusive situation.

“[Pangolins] are deeply traumatised when we get them and I am afraid this is what happens.”

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