In the cluttered room, Oldrich van Schalkwyk found a distressed pangolin hiding under a cupboard.
Van Schalkwyk, the programme manager for the Soutpansberg Protected Area, a project of the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) in Limpopo, was tipped off last Saturday that a pangolin was being offered for sale in a neighbouring village.
Working with rangers from H12Leshiba Game Reserve and SAPS, a sting operation was immediately launched to rescue the pangolin so it could be returned to its wild habitat.
“The suspects contacted the reserve to offer the pangolin for R80000, but were exposed by a brave informant, who negotiated with the sellers while the team put the sting operation in place,” the EWT said yesterday.
“At 3pm, we were advised that the pangolin would be sold to someone in Joburg if the R80000 was not forthcoming in the next hour, We knew there was little time left to save this terrified animal.”
But the suspects fled the scene before they could be arrested.
“However, the woman and children in the house led the team to the room where the animal was being kept. Among the clutter, Oldrich found the distressed pangolin hiding under a cupboard.”
Pangolins are the most trafficked mammal in the world and are being pushed towards extinction because of the surging demand for its scales and meat in China and Vietnam. Conservationists say African pangolin species are increasingly targeted to supply an “insatiable” Asian demand.
Last month, two separate seizures by customs officials in Singapore resulted in the confiscation of more than 24 tons of scales. This equates to approximately 69000 pangolins.
“Pangolin numbers are now so low that every animal counts and we cannot afford to lose even one more,” said the EWT.
The rescued male pangolin was stressed and extremely dehydrated. EWT staff raced him to Medike Nature Reserve, where he could forage, drink water and de-stress.
“Normally, pangolins absorb water from their food, rather than through drinking, but this poor animal was so dehydrated that he drank deeply from the waterhole, after enjoying a meal of ants. The next morning, this brave little survivor was taken by the African Pangolin Working Group to a specialist rehabilitation centre in Joburg, where he will be treated and cared for before being released back into the wild in the Soutpansberg.
“On arrival in Joburg, the vet found him still dehydrated, but in otherwise surprisingly good condition. It was extremely fortunate we were able to rescue him after only a few days in captivity. Usually these animals are only found after a much longer time in the trade and often it is too late to save them,” said the EWT.
A case has been opened against the suspects and police are closing in “with an imminent arrest on the cards”.
When ready to be released, the pangolin will be fitted with a tracking device to ensure his safety and continued well-being.
“All pangolins are compromised physically and mentally when rescued from the illegal trade. During the hospitalisation and rehabilitation process, the aim is to attain ‘full and fit health’ before release,” said the EWT.