Over 350 million animals are taken from their homes and sold on the black market in an average year. The illegal practice brings in over $19 billion per year for smugglers (that’s a lot of cash), and the industry, sadly, is almost impossible to disrupt.
Indeed, it’s hard to find people willing to fight for animals that wear such hefty price tags. But sometimes, selfless decisions by good people can help keep those “valuable” animals in the wilderness where they belong…
In November 2016, students of Residence Hall 7 at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore were staring down the end of the semester. The last thing the overworked students needed was an intruder in their dormitory common room.
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 did not belong.
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.
It is illegal to poach any type of wildlife in Singapore. It’s also considered a severe offense even to keep any wild animal or bird without a proper license. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always stave people off from their own greed.
Normally, when we think of animals that are in danger of being poached elephants for their ivory tusks, or tigers and leopards for their fur jump to mind. Still, there are other creatures that are at extremely high risk, like the one these students found in their dorm.
That 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 teamed 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 hands — which isn’t all that unlikely!
That’s why police often have to rely on their gut instincts when a situation just doesn’t feel right—even if they can’t immediately recognize the issue. So when an officer does act on their feelings of apprehension, they often intercept a crime.
That was why Guangxi police officers took an interest when they noticed that a car with only two riders was sitting unusually low to the ground. Something just didn’t seem quite right, so they immediately stopped the vehicle.
Suspecting something was amiss—drugs? Weapons?—they performed an emergency search of the car, uncovering a hidden panel in the process. When they saw what was inside, however, they couldn’t believe their eyes…
Underneath the seats were 39 live pangolins. Pangolins are small mammals that are sometimes described as “scaly anteaters.” They’re actually the only known species of mammal on Earth that has scales—and these little guys, in particular, were in serious danger!
In Malay, “pangolin” roughly translates to “roller,” which describes their habit of rolling up into a ball when threatened. That’s certainly what they must have done when they were taken by the criminals. But what were these men planning to do with them?
After all, pangolins are sweet, solitary, nocturnal creatures who live in holes and hollowed-out trees. They typically feed on ants and termites. Despite their noxious odor, they are pretty much harmless to humans. So what were they doing in this car?
Tragically, pangolins are exceptionally rare, and they’re listed somewhere between “vulnerable” and “critically endangered” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. And one of the reasons their numbers are dwindling is heartbreaking…
It’s a sad truth, but in today’s society, the pangolin is actually the most trafficked animal in the entire world. That puts them ahead of rhinos, tigers, and even elephants, which are all in the top five on the list of illegally traded animals.
All of these animals are commonly trafficked for various reasons. For instance, an elephant’s teeth, hair, bones, tail, trunk, and ivory tusks are all coveted items. But what would anyone want with a tiny, little pangolin?
Sadly, pangolin meat is actually considered a delicacy in some Asian cultures. This is partly due to ancient-held beliefs that pangolin scales are capable of helping to cure certain diseases, like asthma and even cancer.
In addition to their alleged medicinal properties, pangolins are also incredibly difficult to capture. They often require a lot of effort on the poacher’s behalf, making even small shipments come with a lucrative reward.
Unfortunately, as a result, there have been frequent cases of poaching and illegal pangolin shipments from Indonesia to China in recent years. This is something the border authorities are certainly aware of, too.
Over the past decade, officials have started cracking down more on the illegal transportation of pangolins. In one case, authorities were able to seize upwards of 10 tons of pangolin meat from a Chinese ship.
In another case, border officials in Laos had a run-in with a man who was attempting to cross into Thailand with several crates in tow. When authorities detained the man and searched the cargo, they made a shocking discovery…
Each crate was packed with a number of blue bags. As they inched closer, the authorities noticed the sacks started to move. When they opened them, they were appalled to find pangolins inside each of them!
In total, there were 81 pangolins stuffed into the blue bags and placed in crates. Though the smugglers were stopped before the animals were slaughtered and traded, sadly, some of the pangolins had already suffocated during the several weeks-long trek.
In the case of the 39 pangolins found in the hidden compartment of the car, one of the drivers fled the scene and was still at large. He undoubtedly knew the severity of the punishment he’d have gotten if charges were pressed.
Luckily, the border patrol officers managed to arrest the other poacher who was in the car. Hopefully, both were brought to justice and authorities could help end the pangolin trade for good.
Sadly, as long as pangolin meat remains in demand, this unique creature will be in grave danger of becoming extinct. That is unless humans take more active measures to protect them…
With enough awareness and vigilance, pangolins may be able to thrive throughout their various territories once again. From Customs officials to police officers, China is really leading the way on this critical conservation effort.