Pangolin highlights reality of poaching crisis


During August, news of a poached pangolin reached the team at the Johannesburg Wildlife Veterinary Hospital (JWVH). While the rescue of live pangolins from the illegal trade in South Africa during sting operations is nothing new, this case was different. Although the animal was alive, poachers had sealed its fate by removing its claws.

The JWVH team named him Fortunate, and tried their best to save the animal, with experienced vet
Dr Karin Lourens treating him under anaesthetic in the theatre. He was monitored to determine whether his most important tools, his claws, would grow back – if they did, he could return to the wild.


A pangolin confiscated from poachers did not survive, despite intervention. Photo: Nicci Wright

Unfortunately, after three months of care there was no sign of regrowth, and other aspects of the pangolin’s health continued to deteriorate. Fortunate reached the point of no return and the difficult decision was taken to humanely euthanase him. Without claws he would never feed on his own again, and pangolins are unable to survive in captivity.

Fortunate was yet another pangolin lost in the battle against poaching.

“Because of stress, their immune systems are compromised and they often die”

According to Nicci Wright, wildlife rehabilitation specialist at JWVH and director of the African Pangolin Working Group (APWG), more than 68 tonnes of African pangolin scales have been intercepted in Asia’s illegal trade, this year alone. This equates to approximately 300 000 pangolins.

“In Southern Africa, pangolins are poached and sold alive on the illegal trade,” Wright says. The APWG assists the South African Police Service (SAPS) and environmental law enforcement officers when sting operations are carried out to intercept poachers. JWVH and APWG are mandated to treat, rehabilitate and release pangolins in South Africa. These two organisations, in collaboration with the Humane Society International – Africa, work hands-on with all pangolins that are confiscated in South Africa.

For security reasons, the animals are not kept on site at JWVH, and a great deal of time and effort goes into the rehabilitation of survivors. Since the hospital was established in 2016, the team has treated nearly 60 pangolins. “There are probably 10 times more that we are not getting to,” Lourens says.

When confiscated, these animals have often been without food and water for weeks, and their condition is dire. “They always have severe health issues because they have been kept without food and water, often in a sack, or wired into baskets unable to move. We have even found them screwed into closed speaker boxes and bolted into wheel wells of vehicles,” Wright adds. “They urinate and defecate in the same space and inhale the same air. Because of stress, their immune systems are compromised and they often die no matter what we do,” she explains.

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Initially only 50% of pangolin patients treated at JWVH survived, but with more knowledge and experience the survival rate is now 80%. Pangolins remain the most expensive animal treated at the hospital, costing R1 000 per day. After release, the costs do not stop.

There is a strict release protocol, which involves intense monitoring. Every pangolin is fitted with VHF and satellite telemetry tags.

Apart from treating and releasing pangolins, JWVH and APWG provide evidence for SAPS dockets, which helps build the chain of custody for the court case against poachers.

“In the beginning they were given a R500 fine because it was classified as stock theft,” says Lourens The longest sentence to date has been eight years. “This is because of the continued work that the APWG does with various provincial law enforcement departments, magistrates and prosecutors,” Wright says.

A pangolin enjoying freedom after a long rehabilitation process. Photo: Francois Meyer

Pangolin scales are used in traditional medicines, and they are also seen as a delicacy. African pangolin species are being targeted by syndicates because the Asian pangolin numbers have been severely reduced.
Poaching pangolins from the wild is mostly orchestrated by international syndicates, Lourens says.

“Pangolins are so highly trafficked, we never know if it will be the last one we receive for treatment,” she adds.

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The process of care, rehabilitation and release requires funding. Your donation will help to cover the costs, no matter how small. As an example, R200 (approx US$13.45) could contribute towards something like a tank of petrol. 

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Written by René de Klerk 

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