Students That Uncover A Strange Animal In Their Dorm Are Blindsided To Learn Its Real Origins

College is a time of growth, exploration, and education — or just a lot of partying. Though everyone’s experience may defer from one another, most have the same goal: to graduate.

Before anyone can leave school with a degree, however, there is work to be done. Endless papers and assignments given by overbearing professors are just the tip of the graduation cap. But when two students in Singapore were cramming for finals in their dorm, they discovered something no one could prepare for…

In November 2016, students of Residence Hall 7 at Nanyang Technological University were staring down the end of the semester. The last thing anyone needed was an unexpected guest interrupting their studies.

But early that late-autumn morning, the first students in the common room saw light pouring through two messy foot-wide holes chipped into the wooden door. Something was in there that should not have been.

The students entered the room carefully, hoping the holes hadn’t been chipped away by some deranged fox or raccoon. What they saw, however, was a terrified animal curled up against the wall in a sea of broken-off door chunks. What was it?

When they saw the scared animal, however, the students knew they had two options: Call the right people who knew how to handle this particular animal, or make a lot of money. That’s because this animal was worth a lot to the right people.

The scared animal was a pangolin, one of the most highly trafficked animals on the entire planet. Countries like China use every part of the pangolin for designer clothes, delicate meats, and traditional medicines — each product carries a big price tag.

A single pangolin can sell on the black market for $1,000 — not a small sum to a college student. Because they fetch the big bucks, pangolins face critical endangerment, and only about 100 remain in Singapore. Yet, there was one on the college campus!

The kindhearted students didn’t cash in. They called the Animal Concerns Research and Education Society (Acres), a charitable organization, which arrived just before 10 in the morning to deal with the poor, displaced pangolin.

The experts at ACRES supposed the pangolin found the dorm room after getting lost in Singapore’s “urban jungle” of sewage pipes, skyscrapers, and highways. Their goal, then, was to get the pangolin back to where he or she might be comfortable.

Ultimately, they took the animal to a forest not far from the university’s dormitories. There were “a lot of fallen tree trunks and rotting logs,” ACRES group director Kalai Balakrishnan said. “There will be termites here, ants for him.”

ACRES workers brought the pangolin out to the forest and opened the door to its crate, letting the frightened creature take its time processing the world around it. After a few moments of waiting, the pangolin made its choice…

The pangolin took off running! Hopefully, he or she never ended up back in a college dorm again…The moment required celebration. By calling ACRES, the students did more for pangolins as a whole than they could imagine. Just ask Dr. Sonja Luz…

Facebook / ACRES

In September of 2018 — about two years after the pangolin went to college — Dr. Luz, below, worked on a groundbreaking project in Singapore that recognized the importance of returning pangolins to the wild.

Her project was a bit different, though. See in early 2017, a Singapore resident found a 1-month old pangolin at a construction site in the center of the island. The rescuer named the pangolin Sandshrew (after the Pokemon character).

In May 2017, Dr. Luz and her team caught word of Sandshrew and devised a study for him: what if they released the pangolin back into the wild and saw how he readjusted (something the college-going pangolin had done unsupervised).

“This,” Dr. Luz said of her project, would be “the very first documented case in the world where a hand-reared pangolin is being released back into the wild and tracked.” They waited two years for Sandshrew to grow large enough to wear an audio tracking device.

By 2018, Sandshrew reached peak mass: a whopping 13 pounds, perfect for the radio device. But first, Dr. Luz “gave him more time for the re-wilding process to disconnect from humans. He’s quite feisty now — he runs away from the keepers.”

This project would be the first step of many in protecting pangolins and re-growing the population across Singapore — something those college students did when they called in ACRES to save the little one crashing their dorm.

Dr. Luz hoped Sandshrew would provide the experts information on a handful of conservation questions: where were its breeding populations? And how could urban planners work to preserve them?

Soon, the doctor and her team released Sandshrew and kept him under 24-hour supervision, so he didn’t get scared or kidnapped in the wilderness. Still, Dr. Luz’s greatest fear was for him to end up in “the wrong habitat” — like a college dorm!

Unfortunately, not all people are honest college students, adamant about doing the right thing — these rare creatures are quite valuable after all. Customs officials in Shenzhen, China recently learned this the hard way when a suspicious container showed up.

Facebook / CITES

Workers weren’t sure what to expect when they flagged strange cargo that had arrived in Yantian District’s port. It arrived through unconventional channels without the right paperwork, which was already enough to raise a red flag.

They were told that the shipping container was empty, but the officers from the Dapeng Customs Anti-Smuggling Branch didn’t believe that for one minute. They knew they had to inspect the inside…

Facebook / CITES

They broke the lock on the shipping container and immediately noticed that it was filled to the brim with blue-and-red-striped bags. They sliced open one of the bags and discovered it was full of coal. But if coal was all these bags were carrying, why try to keep it a secret?

Facebook / CITES

The investigating officers decided to look a little bit more closely at these bags. They pulled out each sack, and before they were even halfway through they noticed an unforgettable smell: the sickly odor of decay.

Facebook / CITES

Before the investigators proceeded any further, they needed to consider their own health and safety. So, they called in quarantine officers to supervise as they unpacked the rest of the sacks. What they found left them feeling sick to their stomachs…

Facebook / CITES

The contents of the bags were mind-boggling, and the investigators were quick to reveal their findings to the public. “Our preliminary inspection determined they were pangolin scales,” the officials reported. In total, the bags contained 13.1 tons of pangolin scales.

Facebook / CITES

It was the largest bust of illegal pangolin byproducts ever made by Chinese officials. Specialists speculated that these scales had to come from a whopping 30,000 pangolins. Investigators were desperate to catch the people responsible for this crime before it was too late.

Shanghaiist

Pangolins, which look similar to armadillos, are the most trafficked animal in the world. Because of poaching and smuggling, this creature is perilously endangered—and it was a bad sign that so many of their scales were discovered in these shipping crates.

Oregon State University / Flickr

Pangolins tend to curl up into little balls when they feel scared or threatened. This makes them all too easy for traffickers to scoop up and sell. So, why are they frequently smuggled? And why are their scales so valuable?

Manis temminckii / Fox 2 Detroit

It may be because of the role they play in traditional Chinese medicine. Even though there is no scientific evidence to support it, many people in China believe that ingesting pangolin scales can cure a number of illnesses, like asthma, arthritis, and even cancer. It’s considered a wonder drug.

Some people even believe that eating pangolin meat can have a healing effect, though in reality, this illegal act can earn them 10 years in prison. The pangolin has been granted protection by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, but this doesn’t stop criminals from rapidly depleting their numbers.

Unfortunately, investigators in the case of these shipping crates didn’t have much to work with when it came to identifying the criminals responsible. The only information available was the name “XIA × HUA” written on the shipping forms. They were worried they wouldn’t find any other leads…

Shanghaiist

To get more help on the case, the investigators called in a team that was dedicated to shutting down smuggling operations. The experts identified the pangolin scales as being African in origin. Using the name on the shipment and this location, they were able to narrow down the list of potential suspects…

Facebook / CITES

The initial list of suspects contained dozens of potential leads for investigators, and they were vigilant in researching each one. In the process, they ruled out many possible suspects—and they eventually arrested two men named He and Li.

Twitter/Rachael_Bale

Li was a known smuggler who had successfully evaded capture for years. He completely denied having anything to do with the scales—even when photographs of them were found on his cell phone. He chalked this up to having bought his phone secondhand.

Shanghaiist

At first the investigators thought that Li had them in between a rock and a hard place. If he could prove that the phone was purchased secondhand, then there was no way they could hold him in custody without more evidence of his involvement in the crime.

Shanghaiist

However, for someone so experienced at committing crimes, Li had made one serious mistake: In a photograph of the scales, the photographer had also accidentally captured an image of his foot! His foot had an identifying trait, too: a mole. When investigators compared the feet—and realized the similarity—it was all the proof they needed of his involvement.

Investigators discovered that Li and He had been partners for quite some time. The two had made an astounding $758,000 in business dealings together. Li was responsible for shipping the product, while He was responsible for seeing that it was sold.

Shanghaiist

After they were arrested, the criminals and their proceedings were reported to the General Administration of Customs. While Li and He were definitely collaborating with each other, there was no way of knowing how many other illegal operators were involved.

Facebook / CITES

Serious efforts may be underway to protect the species, but it’s still not enough. The International Fund for Animal Welfare made a statement that read, “More needs to be done so we don’t see pangolins go extinct within our lifetime.” Here’s hoping that change is made sooner than later!

Facebook / Save Vietnam’s Wildlife

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