Rescued pangolins assigned human walkers to help them find their feet again
“She’s felt your presence. That’s why she has gone into the thicket now,” explains her dedicated walker, Gareth Thomas, keeping a keen, watchful eye on her. “Pangolins are incredibly sensitive and intuitive.”
It takes a few minutes for Corona to re-emerge, her long snout sniffing the moist ground as she continues her hunt for sugar ants.
It’s their highly nutritious larvae that the young Temminck’s , a solitary, reclusive species, is really after. Using her powerful front claws, Corona strikes gold: an ants’ nest. She slurps the larvae up with a tongue almost as long as her cat-sized body.
After a few moments of feasting, the pangolin moves off, ambling back up the hill, with Thomas constantly at her side.
It’s here at this undisclosed location, a patch of grassland dotted with anthills and termite mounds, where the mammals, confiscated from the lucrative illicit trade, are brought every second day to roam for up to eight hours in guided and supported feeding by a team of devoted walkers.
The hospitalisation, specialist treatment and rehabilitation programme is run by the Johannesburg Wildlife Veterinary Hospital, working in collaboration with the African Pangolin Working Group (APWG).
Corona, who was rescued in a sting operation in Midrand early last month, was named after the coronavirus, by the hospital’s wildlife vet Dr Karin Lourens “as she came in just as the virus broke”.
Elusive and enigmatic, pangolins, which have existed for 85 million years, are the most heavily trafficked illegally traded mammals in the world.
Each year, thousands of the endangered creatures are killed, largely for their scales, which is used in traditional Chinese medicine. Their meat is consumed as a delicacy and symbol of wealth in China and Vietnam.
Last year, 97 tons of African pangolin scales, equating to over 150000 pangolins were intercepted, destined for Asia, says the APWG. All eight pangolin species, four in Africa and four in Asia, are on the brink of extinction.
As the little-known mammals feed exclusively on ants and termites, their natural diet is impossible to replicate in captive settings. Allowing pangolins like Corona to forage naturally is a vital part of her recovery and ultimate return to the wild.
“They won’t eat anything else,” explains Lourens, raising an arm etched with a pangolin tattoo.
“They don’t eat in captivity. You can’t just put a food bowl down for them. Once they’re rehydrated, you have to walk them to eat.”
Thomas, who has put in around 300 hours walking pangolins in the past year, expertly scoops Corona up and they trudge back down the hill.
“Most of the pangolins, for whatever reason, make their way uphill. I’ll take her back down, and she’ll make her way back up and so it goes,” he grins.
“Once she’s finished feeding, she’ll stop being so active on the ground and sniffing around and then she’ll start walking a lot more. You don’t want her to walk too much because then she is burning off everything that she is eating.”
The softly-spoken Thomas has been out with Corona since lunchtime.
While pangolins are primarily nocturnal, she is an early riser. As the sun blazes, he uses his shadow to protect her.
“Rule number one of pangolin walking is ‘don’t lose the pangolin’,” he says, showing two green zip ties attached to her scales. “At night, bicycle lights are attached to the zip ties so we can see them or they disappear in seconds.”
Thomas smiles as he watches her feed. “It’s just unbelievable seeing her now, like this, after we pulled her out of that rucksack where she’d been living in her own faeces for two weeks.”
Sometimes, the rescued animals he has spent months walking, don’t survive.
“I remember one pangolin last year, whose claws had been ripped out by poachers. The pangolin couldn’t dig in the hard mid-winter ground. I spent hours out here with a pitchfork trying to dig up ants.
“Eventually, it would get to the point where the pangolin would sniff around and find the ants, look at me, and then I’d start digging. Then it could eat.”
After several months, the animal had to be euthanised as its front claws were not growing back.
Still, Thomas, a volunteer, says he’ll “keep walking pangolins for as long as I can. When you’re out here for four to six hours a day every day for two months, it’s inevitable that you form a bond. It’s crazy to think these are wild animals. They’re so forgiving and trusting.
“Think about what those people (the poachers) did to them, but here they’ll walk around freely and let you pick them up. You do get attached They sort of see you as their saviour because they know you’re out here helping them.”
Corona’s poachers had likely trafficked her from Zimbabwe and kept her for two weeks until she was rescued. By the time she arrived at the hospital, she was weak and emaciated.
Pangolins retrieved from the trade spend days, or weeks without food or water, placing a massive strain on their systems that is difficult to recover from, explains Lourens, co-founder of the hospital.
They are treated at the hospital, but kept at a secret location to deter potential poachers.
“How well they do depends how long they’ve been in the trade - you can’t fix two weeks of no food and water,” she points out.
“Sometimes they’ve got underlying issues that we never know about unless they die and we do a post-mortem,” adds Nicci Wright, wildlife rehabilitation specialist and the executive director of the APWG.
“There’s a lot of trial and error as this is an unknown species. We are learning so much about them all the time.”
“We are saving 85% of them, which is a good success rate,” says Lourens. “We went from 50% to 80% with all the stuff we’ve learned over the past three years. It had to be a steep learning curve because there’s been nobody to ask.”
When a trafficked pangolin arrives at the hospital, it’s “super stressed”, says Wright. “It’s been in its little quiet kingdom, this very benign animal who is moving around eating ants, knows where all its food sources are and where the burrows are... Suddenly, all hell breaks loose. It gets picked up, put in a sack, poked and probed and moved around.”
Lourens interjects: “Sometimes, it’s just left in the sack, tied up and left in its own poo and pee.”
“By the time they come here, they really are stretched, they haven’t slept, haven’t eaten,” adds Wright.
“They can’t sleep because they’re so terrified and in such a noisy environment. They’re just terrified, everything is terrifying.”
For the first two days, they sleep. “They almost sort of realise we are not harming them,” says Lourens.
“Pangolin walkers can’t be loud, smoke or yell. The pangolins suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and it reminds them of being trafficked.”
The walking guides are expertly trained. “They know how to handle them and can interpret their behaviour,” adds Wright.
When Corona is returned to the wild in a protected area, she will be fitted with VHF and satellite telemetry tracking devices and monitored intensively for a year in a “soft release” programme.