Africa Defense Forum
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Endangered Pangolins Get Fresh Chance at South African Clinic


The hospital room is air-cooled to feel like a pangolin’s burrow. The patient, Lumbi, is syringe-fed with a protein-packed smoothie, given a daily dose of medicine and has his vital signs checked.

Lumbi is being treated for a blood parasite after he was rescued from traffickers in South Africa’s northern Limpopo province.

He and several other pangolins are patients of Johannesburg Wildlife Veterinary Hospital, founded in 2016 to treat and rehabilitate indigenous wildlife.

They were confiscated from poachers in South Africa and neighboring countries, including Mozambique, Namibia and Zimbabwe.

Many pangolins are in a horrendous state when rescued. They often need medical care after being kept in sacks and car trunks for weeks with no food or water.

“It’s like an ICU (intensive care unit) for pangolins,” said Nicci Wright, the wildlife rehabilitation specialist attending to Lumbi.

The pangolins are kept at a secret site during treatment. It can be weeks to months before they are ready to be released.

Vets administer standard treatments used on other mammals such as cats and dogs. Often they work.

“It’s just a leap of faith every time you try something,” said vet Kelsey Skinner after giving Lumbi his daily dose of meds.

The scaly, insect-eating mammals are solitary and nocturnal. “They are like people. They have just the most unique little personalities. Some of them are shy. They don’t want to be touched,” Skinner said. “Others are very out there and play a lot in the mud.”

Pangolins are believed to be the most trafficked mammals on earth. They’re prized for their scales — made of keratin, like human nails — which are used in Asia for their supposed medicinal properties.

Found only in the wild in Asia and Africa, their numbers are plummeting under pressure from poaching. Some species are listed as critically endangered.
No one knows how many are left. 

Freeing them into the wild is a crucial process to ensure that the endangered mammals survive after the huge investment poured into their treatment and rehabilitation.

They can be released only into a relatively safe area, such as a well-patrolled private game reserve, to avoid them falling into the poachers’ clutches again.

In addition, the habitat has to be right. “We need to be absolutely sure they are finding the right food, they are finding the burrows,” Wright said. “Otherwise they will simply die.”

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