As police opened the doors of the two minivans, they knew that they had managed to prevent a major crime. After all, there in the back of the vans were more than 100 bags containing the smugglers’ lucrative haul. And if the officers hadn’t have intercepted this loot, the consequences would have been devastating.
In December 2016 police set out on an operation to battle one of the biggest problems facing conservationists today. Yes, somebody had tipped off border control working on the crossing between Thailand and Laos about two minivans. In fact, the tipster reported that the vehicles’ drivers were attempting to smuggle something very special out of Thailand.
Indeed, it is likely that the vans were heading for China. After all, their haul would have been more lucrative there than in Southeast Asia. This meant, then, that 165 lives hung in the balance. So with no time to lose, Thai and Lao police set out to intercept the vehicles.
Thankfully, the police stopped the minivans without arousing any suspicion. In fact, they pulled over the drivers as part of a “routine check.” Then, after a complete search of the vans, police discovered that their tip-off had been 100 percent accurate.
As a result of what the officers found, they arrested the two drivers and one passenger. Of course, all of them will, at a later date, face trial for trafficking. In the meantime, though, police confiscated the minivans and the items they had discovered within.
For when the police had opened the doors to the minivans, they had found rusty old cages filled with more than 100 bags. Each bag was identical, and what was inside them was truly shocking.
Yes, the drivers had been attempting to smuggle 165 Sunda pangolins to China. The animals are characterized by their hard, scaly armor, curved backs, long snouts and tails. Yet although they are fascinating to look at, pangolins are sadly one of the most heavily trafficked animals on the planet.
Interestingly, their unusual armor makes them the only mammals on Earth to have scales. However, this distinctive feature has also made them the target of hunters. After all, Chinese medical lore claims that pangolin scales have healing properties. This, then, makes the animals a target for poachers, who can get as much as $1,300 per pound for them on the black market.
Furthermore, besides using the scales for medical purposes, many people also eat pangolin meat. As a result, it is estimated that, between goings-on in Africa and Asia, a pangolin is caught every five minutes. And as many as a million pangolins are thought to have been traded in the last ten years. In fact, it is reckoned that pangolin sales account for 20 percent of the wildlife black market.
“All eight pangolin species are now listed as threatened with extinction, largely because they are being illegally traded to China and Vietnam,” warned Professor Jonathan Baillie, Co-Chair of the IUCN SSC Pangolin Specialist Group. “In the 21st century we really should not be eating species to extinction – there is simply no excuse for allowing this illegal trade to continue.”
Therefore, the interception of 165 pangolins from the Thai-Laos border was an important step in the conservation of these unusual animals. Plus, police subsequently took the scaly mammals to the Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand (WFFT) and Laos Wildlife Rescue Center (LWRC). These organizations stepped in to nurse the animals back to health.
In fact, the LWRC gave the animals emergency treatment. Unfortunately, some of the pangolins passed away before they could be cared for, and others were so weak that they couldn’t even walk. Sadly, deaths are common during confiscations, as authorities sometimes rescue the animals weeks after poachers have snatched them from the wild.
It goes without saying, then, that poaching is an immensely stressful experience for these creatures. In particular, pangolins, which are naturally quite shy, often succumb to injuries, starvation or simple stress. For instance, a lot of these pangolins had wounds on their legs, indicating that they had been trapped.
And once poachers take the pangolins into captivity, the animals often become very weak. “Many are very frail, sick and injured when they come to us,” Thai Van Nguyen, the founder of Save Vietnam’s Wildlife, told National Geographic in March 2016. “They’ve endured weeks or sometimes months of hard travel and force-feeding of corn meal to make them gain weight, which is disastrous for their health.”
In fact, as the animals are sold by weight, smugglers sometimes inject them with water and have even been known to feed them stones to get more money from their hauls. In the wild, meanwhile, the animals eat a specialized diet of ants and termites, and each one can munch through an impressive 70 million insects a year.
For the animals that survived this ordeal, though, the rescue teams have high hopes that they will again be free. In fact, some of the strongest animals could have even been released within a week of their capture. However, the road to recovery would be far from straightforward.
“Pangolins don’t cope well in captivity,” Van Nguyen revealed. “Some are very determined. They’ll dig like crazy to get out and escape their enclosure.” For this reason, the creatures are not bred in captivity and don’t tend to be found in zoos.
However, the WFFT has high hopes that the pangolins will rehabilitate successfully. “Although this species is notoriously difficult to maintain in captivity, we are hopeful that the majority of them will be successfully rehabilitated and will have a second chance at a life back in the wild,” the organization said in a statement.
For now, though, the remaining pangolins are making good progress. “The team at LWRC are working around the clock to give these guys the best chance of survival and to prepare them for the ultimate release back to the wild,” read a statement on the WFFT’s Facebook page. The statement also revealed that the animals had begun eating.
One of the most heartwarming aspects of this story is the fact that local villagers have been collecting ants and termites to fuel the pangolins’ recovery. And if the future of this wonderful animal is to be secured, it will take all of the community and, indeed, the world to come together to protect them.