Pangolins – four-legged mammals with sloth-like claws, anteater-like snouts, and armour of diamond-shaped scales – are thought to be the most trafficked mammal in the world. Some species are on the brink of extinction.
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.
In 2019, an estimated 195,000 pangolins were trafficked worldwide for their scales, according to the WWF. According to non-profit Wildlife Justice Commission, their scales can sell for up to $740 per kilogram in some Asian countries.
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.
In 2014, Nguyen founded NGO Save Vietnam’s Wildlife, headquartered in the Cuc Phuong National Park in Vietnam’s North Central Coast region. He has since established two pangolin rehabilitation centers, in Cuc Phuong and Pu Mat National Parks, and an anti-poaching unit, where he trains government rangers in wildlife conservation, animal identification, GPS skills, and drone technology.
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.
Save Vietnam’s Wildlife says that within three years of the anti-poaching team being established in Pu Mat National Park, an estimated 10,000 snare traps have been destroyed, 90 guns confiscated, 800 cages removed, and 600 poachers and traffickers arrested. At the rehabilitation centers, rescued pangolins are cared for and after they are released, their activity is observed using radio tagging and drone tracking.
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Pangolins grabbed headlines last year after researchers at Duke University and South China Agricultural University said that they could be an intermediary host for the novel coronavirus. Nguyen says that this link has helped conservation efforts.
In 2020, motivated by efforts to avoid future pandemics, the Prime Minister of Vietnam issued a directive to address the illegal wildlife trade in the country. Also in 2020, in an effort to both protect the depleted pangolin population and reduce the risk to human health, the Chinese government removed pangolin scales from the list of ingredients approved for use in traditional Chinese medicine.
A local solution
The Goldman Environmental Prize describes Nguyen’s work as “filling a crucial space for understanding and protecting this critically endangered animal.”
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.”