The return of the pangolin

A pangolin reintroduction programme on Phinda aims to reverse the area’s local extinction…

Often we fail to see the true value of a moment or experience until it becomes a memory. The same can be said for the innumerable endangered animals that now devastatingly teeter on the brink of extinction. So many extraordinary species around the world are in rapid decline and we face the very real prospect of being the last and final generation to witness them in the wild.

Countless species are firmly entrenched on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species thanks to habitat loss, human encroachment, illegal hunting, traditional medicine, and so on. With insatiable demand fuelling illegal poaching, do you know which species remains at the top of the poaching hit list? The answer may surprise you. The most threatened mammal that most people have never even heard of — let alone seen — is the pangolin.

This gentle, elusive creature remains the world’s most trafficked wild mammal. By a landslide. It is difficult to actually comprehend the astounding figures: 68 tons of scales representing an estimated 120 000 African pangolins were intercepted by law enforcement agencies and customs officials at ports in both Africa and Asia in 2019 alone. Since 2016, in excess of 174 tons of scales have been intercepted representing more than 300 000 African pangolins. And this is just what has been officially apprehended, so much more goes undiscovered and unreported.

Now, more than ever, global participation in this Saturday’s World Pangolin Day has become crucial for generating much-needed awareness.

A conservation first

Extinction is irreversible, but the good news is that local extinctions still have a chance. There are eight different species of pangolin, four in Asia and four in Africa. In South Africa, the Temminck’s ground pangolin once roamed freely in the province of KwaZulu-Natal, where &Beyond Phinda Private Game Reserve is situated. Sadly, for the past few decades, the species is believed to be locally extinct, which is why &Beyond Phinda has joined forces with the African Pangolin Working Group (APWG), Johannesburg Wildlife Veterinary Hospital (JWVH) and Humane Society International-Africa (HSI-Africa) to launch a groundbreaking rehabilitation and reintroduction programme to reverse this local extinction.

This project is the first of its kind for pangolins, both in Africa and globally. Traumatised pangolins that have been rescued from the illegal wildlife trade are being treated and rehabilitated at JWVH. Once their condition is healthy and stable, they are placed into the release programme at &Beyond Phinda where they are carefully monitored. The aim is to help re-establish a new and healthy population of Temminck’s ground pangolin, provide a breeding nucleus from which to create further metapopulations, and give this vulnerable species a fighting chance at survival.

Rightfully returned

It seems only fitting that this once naturally occurring species will be returned to the pristine and highly protected wilderness of &Beyond Phinda. Phinda, which means “the return” in Zulu, has proved prophetic in more ways than one (read all about Phinda’s incredible conservation success story here).

Back in 1991, this previously derelict farmland was devoid of its original wildlife and not only did &Beyond restore the land back to its original splendour, but we also succeeded in reintroducing the wildlife that once rightfully belonged on that land. &Beyond Phinda was one of the first private or state-owned reserves to successfully reintroduce lion, cheetah, elephant and buffalo, as well as smaller species such as serval, klipspringer, rock hyrax and caracal. Years later, a significant portion of the land was returned to its ancestral owners, the neighbouring Makhasa and Mnqobokazi communities. And now, after a prolonged absence, the Temminck’s ground pangolin also makes its long-awaited return.

Like-minded conservationists

I travelled to Phinda last August to spend time with our highly experienced Reserve Manager, Simon Naylor, as well as our conservation team and Nicci Wright (a wildlife rehabilitation specialist with 18 years’ experience who is also the Executive Director of APWG, Director of JWVH and the Wildlife Project Manager for HSI-Africa) to learn more about this exciting reintroduction programme.

Phinda is a home away from home for me; I have visited more times than I can count. But this particular visit will forever stand out as one of the best weeks of my life. I was afforded the most unforgettable opportunity to spend two afternoons with a nine-month-old pangolin and his dedicated minders.

Back when this pangolin was a tiny pup weighing just 1.5 kg and not even the size of a pen, he was found in the middle of a road, badly bruised and concussed. He was taken to a nearby hospital and it is suspected that he and his mother were poached and he possibly fell from a moving vehicle. Being hand-reared from such a young age, this pangolin had to undergo a slow, time-consuming and closely monitored release on Phinda to ensure he was fully rehabilitated for his eventual (and successful) release in November 2019.

I saw my first pangolin in 2016 and I never dreamed I’d actually get lucky enough to see one again. I was over the moon when Nicci received word that the pangolin had woken up and needed to feed. Off we sped down Phinda’s dirt roads to meet up with the hungry pangolin and his round-the-clock minder Leno Sierra (an extremely passionate and dedicated volunteer from Mexico). En route, Nicci began to share her inspiring story with me.

“Twelve years ago, I had never even seen a pangolin, let alone worked with one,” she confessed. “In 2007, a pangolin that was being trafficked in Johannesburg was retrieved and brought into our rehabilitation facility. This was the first time I’d ever laid eyes on a pangolin and most certainly not the last. Now, sadly, I have worked with countless pangolins due to the poaching crisis.”

Over the next few years, more and more pangolins were being brought into Nicci’s care and she acknowledged that the species was in distress. In 2011, Professor Raymond Jansen, current Chairman of the APWG, established this working group alongside Nicci and other concerned pangolin conservationists. The APWG collaborates closely with the JWVH and HSI-Africa to rescue, rehabilitate and reintroduce illegally trafficked pangolins back into the wild where they belong.

“In 2018 alone we received 43 rescued pangolins and last year, another 13 were brought into our care,” Nicci divulged. “Every pangolin that comes through the hospital has a different history and presents with different problems and trauma, so we are always learning and adapting.”

In addition to formulating a strict rehabilitation and release protocol, the APWG also gives testimony in aggravation of sentencing in pangolin poaching crimes, issues statements to support police dockets, and provides training to raise pangolin awareness among prosecutors, magistrates, law enforcement officers and the like. Perhaps most importantly, the APWG has formed a Standard Operating Procedure with the Department of Environmental Affairs to aid the National Prosecuting Authority with the retrieval and chain of custody process when retrieving illegally trafficked pangolins. These frightened animals cannot simply be released immediately back into the wild; they require specialised veterinary treatment and prolonged, dedicated therapy.

&Beyond Phinda falls within the original natural distribution range of the Temminck’s pangolin so when Simon approached the APWG with an idea to help reverse the local extinction, a like-minded partnership in the name of conservation was formed.

Unspeakable trauma

Pangolins lead quiet, solitary and mostly nocturnal lives. They sleep alone huddled in underground burrows during the day, only to emerge in the late afternoon to forage silently for ants, termites and larvae. They are shy, territorial and extremely elusive, so to be ripped out of this peaceful bubble and thrown into the illegal trade is unspeakably stressful.

Pangolins are an easy target for poachers. With an absence of vocal chords, they cannot make a sound or give off an alarm/distress call, they cannot harm you, and when threatened, they curl into a tight ball making them easy to lift and toss into a concealed sack. Poachers don’t need to carry incriminating tools such as guns, bullets, machetes, hacksaws or chainsaws. “If apprehended with hunting weapons, suspected poachers are charged with possession and intent to illegally hunt. But if they are intercepted on a property with nothing but an empty sack, they are simply charged with trespassing.” Nicci pointed out.

When pangolins come in off the trade they have endured incomprehensible shock and suffering and show severe signs of post-traumatic stress from being mistreated in captivity. “They’re just busy with their quiet lives when all of a sudden they’re manhandled and tossed into a sack.” Nicci explained. “I’ve seen them screwed into wooden boxes and wired into cages so tight that they’re unable to unfurl from their curled position for at least a week, sometimes two. Or they are tied up in a sack, in and amongst their own urine and excrement, forced to inhale urea which damages their lungs. They’re poked and prodded and dropped and kicked around. Often they are picked up by their scales. They’re haggled over and shouted at and thrown in the back of taxis and transported. They’re put on view and they’re constantly smelling humans and cigarette smoke. By the time they are rescued, not only are they dehydrated, starved and emaciated, they are also utterly and understandably traumatised.”

A slow rehabilitation

Pangolin rehabilitation is a lengthy, labour-intensive process that not only focuses on improving the animal’s physical deterioration and dehydration, but also treats their severe post-traumatic stress. These animals are (rightfully) terrified when they are brought in from the illegal trade and often present with serious health problems (e.g., pneumonia, wounds and occasional fractures), as well as underlying issues stemming from a compromised immune system, which are all treated by Dr Karin Lourens at the JWVH. Following treatment and rehabilitation, the APWG has formulated a stringent post-release protocol and monitoring process that must be adhered to in order to successfully rehabilitate the pangolins and ensure their continued safety and survival in the wild.

When the pangolins are first brought into the hospital, dedicated wildlife rehabilitation specialists are assigned to each pangolin, who work at gently gaining the traumatised animal’s trust. Following their initial rehabilitation with the APWG and JWVH, the pangolins are then slowly reintroduced to their new habitat on Phinda through a soft-release programme.

Initially, they sleep indoors in specially-designed crates and are taken outdoors every day to forage for three to five hours at a time. Pangolins cannot feed in captivity, as their diet consists of live ants, termites and larvae found in the ground, which is why they are so emaciated when they arrive at the hospital. If they don’t eat every day, their condition immediately deteriorates, so they are weighed regularly to monitor their weight gain.

Once the pangolins reach their goal weight, can drink and forage on their own, and have settled into the area that they’ve become accustomed to during the soft-release process, they are then fitted with lightweight VHF and satellite tags for research and monitoring purposes and are released back into the wild. For the first few days, dedicated members of Phinda’s conservation team are assigned to closely follow and monitor each pangolin, checking in on them twice-daily and weighing them weekly, to ensure they are adapting well to their new habitat. Even the slightest weight loss can indicate a greater health problem, so continued, close monitoring is vital.

“It is a sad reality that these animals have to be managed so closely because of people and the dark side of humanity,” Nicci lamented. “But thankfully the Phinda team has embraced our release protocol to the letter. In fact, they have gone ‘beyond’, as I like to say, with their humble, dedicated and unwavering care.”

Why Phinda?

With its 28 600 hectares of pristine wilderness, seven unique ecosystems, 24-hour anti-poaching surveillance, expert conservation, research and monitoring teams, and sensitive guiding techniques, &Beyond Phinda is the optimum release site and ultimate safe haven for these rehabilitated pangolins.

After spending two afternoons with the now rehabilitated pangolin, I fell in love with pangolins (and Phinda) all over again. So, before Nicci and I went our separate ways, I asked her, quite simply, “Why Phinda?” Her eyes immediately teared up, which of course made me teary and I can wholeheartedly agree with her response.

“I knew that Phinda was absolutely the right place to bring these pangolins because the team on the ground have matched our dedication to the species perfectly. Our post-release monitoring protocol is stringent and unless teams on the ground are prepared to carry that out, then we will not hand the pangolins over for release,” Nicci explained. “The Phinda team has absolutely embraced that protocol and I have been moved to tears by their dedication. I get emotional talking about it.”

“When our satellite tags hadn’t arrived, we only had a VHF tag on each of the pangolins that were going to be initially released on Phinda,” she continued. “These animals can move 8 to 10 km in a night as they forage and Simon was concerned that one could crawl into a rocky crevice and its signal could potentially be lost without satellite intervention. Simon and his team actually stayed with these pangolins 24/7, and followed them around the reserve on foot for the first few nights, in the dark, in a Big Five reserve, to ensure the pangolins’ safety. Nowhere has shown as much dedication and care. It’s such a relief to know that the pangolins that we have worked so hard to rehabilitate are being released into an area where we are 100% confident that they will be truly cared for. I am also confident that the much-needed pangolin research that Charli de Vos, &Beyond Phinda Ecological Monitor, will present in her PhD will provide crucial data on a species that remains so undocumented. I believe &Beyond Phinda truly is a safe haven for traumatised pangolins.”

Watch the video

Get involved

To help fund the costly and frequent exercise of replacing the VHF and satellite tags, &Beyond guests can now participate in our once in a lifetime pangolin conservation experience on &Beyond Phinda Private Game Reserve. All concerned wildlife lovers are encouraged to make a donation in support of pangolin conservation to the APWG. Every bit really does help and together, we can leave the world a better place for these threatened pangolin.


Help reverse the local extinction of the Temminck’s pangolin by participating in our pangolin conservation experience at &Beyond Phinda.


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