They are elusive and solitary animals and population studies have not been able to estimate how many pangolins are left in the wild. They are also extremely difficult to care for in captivity, often dying with no clear cause.
Eight species are found across Africa and Asia, categorized from vulnerable to critically endangered. In Southeast Asia — where Chinese and Sunda pangolins, two of the most threatened species, can be found — the biggest threat is poaching. They are sought after for their meat and also for use in traditional medicine; their scales are thought, without evidence, to improve circulation and reduce inflammation.
Today, Thai Van Nguyen, a Vietnamese conservationist, was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize, for his work to protect the animals. The annual award is given to six pioneering environmentalists, each working in a different continent.
The unit busts big trafficking operations, rescuing as many as 160 animals in one raid. Nguyen says Save Vietnam’s Wildlife has liberated almost 2,000 pangolins in total, and was instrumental in lobbying the Vietnamese government to remove pangolins from the list of approved traditional medicines. He estimates that it has educated over 11,000 people about the importance of the animals, and helped bring about an 80% decrease in poaching.
‘Losing the pangolin means losing a part of the ecosystem’
Nguyen, 39, says he grew up in the Vietnamese forest. He fell in love with pangolins when he was eight years old, as he watched poachers removing them from their burrows. “I saw a mum (pangolin), rolling into a ball to protect her baby,” he tells CNN. He resolved to make the protection of these strange animals his life’s work.
“The pangolin is the only scaly mammal in the world,” explains Nguyen. “Losing the pangolin means losing a part of the ecosystem, making it unbalanced.”
Nguyen’s team carefully monitors the animals to develop a knowledge base for their care. Some of the data comes from poachers, and his organization hosts workshops that bring together poachers, government officials and law enforcement to facilitate communication and prevent conflict.
“We invite them to the workshop, to tell them, ‘we know you are a poacher, but we want to work together and change,'” says Nguyen.
A local solution
Dan Challender, an expert on pangolins and wildlife trade policy at Oxford University, says that Nguyen and Save Vietnam’s Wildlife have played an enormous role in generating knowledge on the care of injured pangolins.
“What’s impressive about what he’s done is that he hasn’t just focused on rehabilitation and release,” says Challender, adding that conserving key areas for pangolins requires local solutions, like Nguyen’s.
Challender says pangolins play a vital role in their environment, by controlling insect populations and with their burrows providing shelter for creatures including bats, snakes and mongoose. “If we lost them (pangolins), then that could have untold cascading effects on the ecosystems in which they live,” he says.
Nguyen is optimistic about the future of pangolins, as people learn more about their plight. “I see a change in young people, they are much more active,” he says.
“We hope people will learn about the pangolin; how lovely they are, what challenges they face,” he says. “One person or one organization cannot change everything, cannot save the pangolin, but if everyone takes action together, we can save the species from extinction.”