In early December last year, Biodiversity Enforcement Officers in South Africa received a tip that a ground pangolin was being offered for sale on the market for illegal wildlife trade. These scaly mammals—harmless to humans but critical to ecosystems—are threatened by poachers and traders around the world. As they are a protected species in South Africa, the officers planned and executed a sting operation in Ivory Park, a suburb of Johannesburg, to apprehend the suspects.
HSI Africa Wildlife Program Manager Nicci Wright received a call that the pangolin had been retrieved and two men arrested and charged with violating both national and provincial laws that prohibit possession of these animals. Later that night, the pangolin was transported to the Johannesburg Wildlife Veterinary Hospital (JWVH), where Nicci is an expert wildlife rehabilitator. Here, Nicci and the JWVH team took “Ivory” the pangolin, named after the area where he was confiscated, into their care.
Pangolins seized from traffickers have usually been kept in captivity with no water or food for weeks, and often die of dehydration. Thankfully, the initial examination of Ivory revealed no severe injuries or trauma, but he smelled strongly of bleach. It is thought that the suspected poachers had soaked him in a bucket of the substance in an attempt to disguise his natural smell to avoid detection from sniffer dogs. JWVH veterinarian, Dr Lourens anesthetized Ivory for further assessment and treatment and collected DNA samples to possibly identify where he had come from and to gather any other evidence for prosecution.
That evening, Ivory was taken to a safe location which featured ant and termite mounds—staple foods of pangolins, who are specialist feeders. Ivory immediately started to feed on both, and enjoyed three- to four-hour foraging sessions every night after that. Once the team was satisfied that Ivory had stabilized and was able to forage normally, they arranged for his release in a carefully selected conservancy area. They attached a tracking device to a scale on his back to monitor his behavior and movement and released him safely back into the wild. He has since established a territory and is doing well. Watch him take his first steps of freedom.
On 19 January 2018, Ivory’s poachers appeared in court for sentencing. The prime suspect was sentenced to seven years in prison without the option of a fine and will be deported, at his own costs, on completion of his sentence, an unprecedented jail term for a pangolin crime in South Africa. The other was found not guilty of the poaching offence, but was deported immediately. This has set a new benchmark for cases involving pangolin poaching and is welcome news.
HSI Africa will continue to work to protect pangolins like Ivory and give them another chance at life in the wild. See an update.