As the rest of the world was eagerly closing the chapter that was 2020, our conservation team at &Beyond Phinda Private Game Reserve in South Africa was quietly celebrating a groundbreaking wildlife victory that deserves special mention.
Since feel-good stories are few and far between these days, may this exciting news, and ensuing list, spread some much-needed joy amongst pangolin lovers.
A conservation first
First, a bit of background. Typically, the imperilled pangolin is in the news for all the wrong reasons. Officially declared the most illegally trafficked mammal on earth, this gentle and elusive species is in grave danger and teeters, devastatingly, on the brink of extinction.
Global extinction is irreversible; however, the good news is that local extinctions still have a chance. There are eight different species of pangolin, four Asian and four African, all fighting for survival. In South Africa, the Temminck’s ground pangolin once roamed freely in the KwaZulu-Natal province (where &Beyond Phinda is situated), but for the past few decades, the species has become locally extinct.
This prompted Phinda to join forces in 2019 with the African Pangolin Working Group (APWG) and Johannesburg Wildlife Veterinary Hospital (JWVH) to launch a groundbreaking rehabilitation and reintroduction programme aimed at reversing the local extinction.
This project is the first of its kind for pangolins, both in Africa and globally. Pangolins that are confiscated from the illegal wildlife trade are then carefully rehabilitated and reintroduced safely onto Phinda, where they are continually monitored and protected.
The aim is to re-establish a new, healthy and thriving population of Temminck’s ground pangolin on Phinda, thus providing a breeding nucleus from which to create further metapopulations in other areas and give this vulnerable species a fighting chance at survival.
Cue the 2020 feel-good story…
Another conservation first
In the final days of 2020, the Phinda conservation team made the jaw-dropping discovery they had all been waiting (and praying) for. A discrete and unobtrusive camera trap (with covert back flash so as not to disturb the pangolins) hidden in the wall of an underground burrow produced the first highly anticipated photographic proof of the historic first pangolin pup born on Phinda.
The success of reversing a local extinction is measured by how well the new population does in its new environment. This female pangolin was already pregnant upon translocation; however, despite the stress of rehabilitation and translocation, she managed to settle comfortably and carry her pup to full term. This is a remarkable conservation coup for the project, and yet another conservation first on Phinda.
These are the only images of Phinda’s new addition. Once the birth was confirmed, the conservation team deactivated the camera trap in order to give the duo absolute privacy until the pup is old enough to emerge from the burrow with its mother.
What’s to love about pangolins?
In celebration of this exciting new birth, as well as the upcoming World Pangolin Day on 20 February, here are 12 endearing reasons to love (and protect) the endangered pangolin.
#1: Coat of armour
The only mammal species that is covered in scales, pangolins have a built-in, impenetrable coat of armour. These rows upon rows of hardy overlapping scales (which are pinecone-like in appearance) are actually made up of keratin, just like our fingernails, and indeed a rhino’s horn too. While pangolins are illegally poached for these very scales, there is no scientific evidence to support their medicinal use.
#2: Curl up
True to their name (which derives from the Malay word pengguling, meaning ‘one who rolls up’), pangolins instinctively curl up into a tight ball when threatened, making it impossible for predators, bar one, to harm them. Sadly, one of their most endearing traits is their biggest threat, as this defence mechanism makes pangolins vulnerable to their most dangerous predator of all: humans.
#3: Tongue twister
Perhaps their most surprising feature, the pangolin has an unusually long, bright pink tongue. When extended, this impressive tongue measures up to 40 cm (almost 16”) in length, making it longer than the head and body combined. This sticky coiled tongue, combined with a narrow snout and absence of teeth, enables the pangolin to catch ants and termites with speed and efficiency.
#4: Do not disturb
Pangolins are shy, solitary and (mostly) nocturnal creatures that mind their own business and keep to themselves. They spend most of the day sleeping alone (unless with a pup) in underground burrows and spend their waking hours foraging obsessively for food. They have an innate and truly uncanny sense of smell, which leads them, unfailingly, to the ideal feeding zones.
#5: Silent treatment
In addition to being highly secretive animals, pangolins are characteristically very timid and quiet. They don’t have any vocal chords, and are therefore unable to vocalise with each other or give off an alarm/distress call when threatened. This, in addition to its defensive volvation (rolling into a ball), makes the pangolin a regrettably easy target for poachers.
#6: No harm done
Although ant and termite colonies (and the anthills and termite mounds they so painstakingly construct) would disagree, pangolins are gentle creatures that remain harmless to other species. While they do decimate insect colonies, pangolins are unable to bite or cause harm, besides lashing their long, scaly and muscular tails about when picked up.
#7: Best foot forward
Their feet. Pangolins have long claws on their front feet for digging and foraging, and their stumpy, almost elephant-like hind feet are well-padded for comfort and grip when walking and climbing. At the risk of being anthropomorphic, these chubby, endearing hind feet look like miniature Ugg boots.
#8: A soft spot
Pangolins are covered, from head to toe, in their characteristic scales. Their stomachs, however, are not scaled and they have a surprisingly soft, pink underbelly. Of course this vulnerable spot is completely concealed and protected when the pangolin rolls into its defensive ball.
#9: Modern day dinosaur
Some pangolin species (the Temminck’s included) are bipedal, meaning that they walk on their two hind feet with their small arms (and long tail) held up. Basically they look like pint-sized T-Rex’s, and what’s not to love about that?!
#10: Picky eater
Pangolins are creatures of habit. They sleep all day and eat (and dig) all night. They adhere to this solitary routine like clockwork and spend hours upon hours eating. As much as pangolins love food, they are picky eaters. Despite there being countless varieties of ants and termites, each pangolin individual has its favourites and will turn its nose and move on if a particular mound doesn’t reveal their colony of choice. If it is their favoured specimen, the pangolin often goes into an almost trancelike state, lapping up as many insects as it can. Relatable, no?
#11: Pest control
The beloved pangolin plays an important role in the ecosystem by improving soil quality and providing natural pest control. Though pangolins be but little, their appetites are ferocious and this constant and lengthy foraging for food helps to maintain a healthy balance in the ecosystem by eradicating insects and aerating the soil.
#12: Happy as a pig in...
The fact that pangolins are so secretive and elusive, coupled with the grave reality that they are so heavily poached, means very little research on the species exists. The Phinda reintroduction programme has enabled our researchers and ecologists to study the rehabilitated pangolins closely over time. Some strange, but endearing, behaviours have emerged. Interestingly, they have meticulous inter-scale grooming habits and love rolling around in dung.
SEE WHAT LIES BEYOND
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