A Thailand plantation farmer likely never expected to find a scaly critter curled up in the cupholder of his truck recently. It turns out the cat-sized animal was a pangolin—the only scaled mammal in the world, and also the most trafficked.
Far away from its natural, lush jungle habitat, the pangolin is lucky that the farmer chose to turn it over to the Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand (WFFT); its fate could have been much worse had he accepted a friend’s offer to buy the specimen.
Gently, they coaxed the delicate creature out of its hiding place, and after a brief examination, they deemed that it was healthy and ready for immediate release back into the wild.
Pangolins (also called scaly anteaters) are covered with as many as one thousand protective scales, and although they may look like lizards, they are indeed mammals. Their scales are made of keratin, which is the same material that fingernails are made of.
And similar to anteaters, pangolins use their long tongues to feed on small insects, such as ants and termites. The shy, nocturnal pangolin is able to defend itself from predators, such as large cats, by curling itself into a ball. Sadly, this normally effective defense mechanism provides little protection from its most dangerous predator: humans.
Over the last decade-plus, poachers have killed over 1 million pangolins, making them the most trafficked mammals in the world.
The animals are sold on black markets—chiefly in China and Vietnam—to fuel the traditional medicine and luxury goods industries. Sold in powdered form as medicine, pangolin scales are prescribed to treat everything from arthritis to male potency—though without any scientific basis.
Pangolins are also eaten as food by the wealthy in Asia to demonstrate social status.
Fragile creatures, pangolins often die when stressed in captivity. Thankfully, this pangolin made a safe journey back into the wild after WFFT contacted staff at Kaeng Krachan National Park (Thailand’s largest national park), and together, they selected a spot of lush forest where they would release it.
The Wildlife Foundation met up with park rangers and head of Kaeng Krachan, Mana Phuemphun. After the pangolin was freed, it sleepily scoped out its surroundings before curling up in the undergrowth for a nice, safe nap.
Although all commercial trade of pangolins has been banned by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), still, the trade continues to drive poaching, leading to a crash in Asian populations with poachers more recently turning toward African species.
There’s still a lot of work to be done to curb this trend, though. It is up to law enforcement in key nations to reduce demand in the illicit trade, of which failure could see the extinction of this gentle, one-of-a-kind mammal.
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