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Pangolin setting record for survival

Ping was starved, stressed and stolen, but may now be the world's oldest pangolin in captivity.

Photo by:

KYLE SHERER

Markus Handschuh and Ping at the Angkor Centre for the Conservation of Biodiversity.

When pangolins are confronted with anything more threatening than a weaver ant, their typical reaction is to curl into a fetal position, develop a stomach ulcer and die from stress.

Which is why workers at the Angkor Centre for the Conservation of Biodiversity didn't hold much hope for Ping the pangolin when a thief broke into the centre at night, evaded two German shepherds, shoved the animal into a rice bag and started it on a cross-country moto journey from dealer to dealer.

Ping's final destination was quite possibly going to be a Chinese chop-shop where its scales would be turned into traditional medicine.

The Angkor Centre for the Conservation of Biodiversity is home to Ping, thought to be the world's oldest hand-reared Sunda pangolin.

But it's not easy caring for an animal with a price on its head.

To raise Ping to what his handlers say is the record-shattering age of four years in captivity, workers at the wildlife centre have had to fend off opportunistic poachers and suppress the creature's overwhelming genetic inclination to worry itself to death.

The chase is on

On the morning of June 12, 2006, staff at the wildlife centre found the custom-designed pangolin enclosure empty.

"The pangolin was not there," said Markus Handschuh, the animal collection manager at the centre.

"The police figured out within a day who the culprit was," he added.

"He was a poor man driven by his debt-ridden stepfather, a soldier, to steal the animal."

The police knew the clock was ticking for the animal, which they said was being spirited out of the country by a series of middlemen who would become progressively harder to track.

But when the cops reached the stepfather, not only had Ping been sold on, but the man was too drunk to remember who he had sold it to.

It wasn't until June 14 that the stepfather sobered up enough to remember details.

"The dealer denied everything at first," said Handschuh.

"But then said that he'd sold the animal to the next province, from where it would be sold to Thailand. He provided an address," he added.

On day four, Ping was recovered with only a few scratches. But while the physical damage was limited, the animal carers were far more worried about the mental scars.

"They are so stress-prone. They come out at night and they never see anyone or anything.  At night, they look for ants, they eat some ants, they go back to sleep," Handschuh said.

"If there's a noise, they get scared really quickly."

But the pangolin is so valuable to Cambodian poachers that if they are lucky or skilled enough to catch an animal, they will spend days trekking through the wilderness to evade the rangers.

A popular belief in Cambodia is that pangolin scales, ground up and taken with rice wine, are believed to be effective treatment for itchy skin and women recovering after childbirth.

But the real money for a pangolin poacher is in China, where the creature is mainly used for traditional medicine.

"The scales of the pangolin are made into powder and it's used to treat all sorts of things," Handschuh said.

"They use pangolins against malaria, cancer or just to make you feel better."

  They are so stress-prone ... If there's a noise, they get scared ... quickly.

The "take two pangolins and call me in the morning" approach sets a high demand for the bug-eyed critter. And the rarer it becomes, the more valuable it gets.

"The middleman comes into the village and spends between US$40 and $100 per kilo," said Handschuh.

"Selling on in China, it's $1,000 to $2,000 per kilo."

Fragile animals

On the front line of the animal trafficking battle is the WildAid mobile confiscation unit, which busts animal dealers across Cambodia and brings monkeys, tortoises, turtles and birds to safe hands like the Angkor Centre for the Conservation of Biodiversity.

Ping was confiscated by the WildAid mobile confiscation unit as a one-and-a-half-month old baby in June 2005.

"Usually when the mobile confiscation unit finds pangolins, the policy is to release them straight away. They're so stress-prone, you need specialist facilities to take care of them," Handschuh said.

"People have to chuck them out, and no one knows if they survive."

Handschuh said that he knows of one attempt to track confiscated pangolins after a mass-release. The result was less than comforting.

"They were just wandering about. Then they died. They couldn't deal with it," he said.

Mass pangolin releases have another unfortunate consequence.

Handschuh said when Vietnamese hunters were asked when the best time to catch a pangolin was, they replied, "after they're released".

  It's really difficult to figure out if they're sick because they're so lethargic when healthy.

Surprise survival

But Ping was brought to the Angkor Centre for the Conservation of Biodiversity, and against all odds and expectations, she survived.

Before Ping celebrated her fourth birthday, the previous record for a hand-reared Sunda pangolin was one-and-a-half years, Handschuh said.

Handschuh doesn't know why Ping is surviving when other members of her species would have long since died.

Just like people, he said, some are hardier than others. But while the centre has upgraded its security since the 2006 breach, the stability of Ping is not assured.

"The challenge is that pangolins look all right one day and the next day they are dead," Handschuh said.

"It's one of those animals where it's really difficult to figure out whether they're sick or not, because they're so slow and so lethargic when they're healthy. "

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