Pangolins are the most trafficked mammal in the world, and you probably never heard of them.
They are threatened by poaching (for their meat and scales) and heavy deforestation of their natural habitats, and are the most trafficked mammals in the world. Of the eight species of pangolin, four are listed as vulnerable, two are listed as endangered, and two are listed as critically endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species. Most people have never seen a pangolin on TV or in person, and if things keep going the way they are, you may never be able to see one again.
I traveled to Cuc Phuong National Park located in Ninh Bình Province, in Vietnam's Red River Delta. Cuc Phuong was Vietnam's first national park and is the country's largest nature reserve. The park is one of the most important sites for biodiversity in Vietnam. It is also the home to The Carnivore and Pangolin Conservation Program (CPCP) and managed through a collaborative partnership between Cuc Phuong National Park and Save Vietnam’s Wildlife . The CPCP is dedicated to rescuing, rehabilitating and releasing back into the wild carnivores and pangolins confiscated from the illegal wildlife trade. It is also developing global conservation breeding programs for these threatened species.
Pangolins are trafficked by the thousands for their scales, which are boiled off their bodies for use in traditional medicine; for their meat, which is a high-end delicacy in Vietnam and in China; and for their blood, which is seen as a healing tonic. In restaurants, Pangolin can fetch up to $350 per/kilo.
Vietnam is a heavy consumer of these scaly relatively unknown creatures for traditional medicine and like rhino horn their scales are made of keratin(made of the same substances as hair and fingernails) and have no proven scientific benefits.
Phuong Quang Tran works as a researcher and daily caretaker of the rescued pangolins at CPCP. He works rehabilitating, studying, and then releasing the confiscated pangolins into the wild. When they are ready to be released back into the wild, they are driven to Hanoi airport, flown to Ho Chi Minh City, and driven to Cát Tiên National Park where they are released into the wild. Phuong says pangolins often die in captivity for reasons unknown as they are extremely temperamental and volatile animals.
Pangolins don’t get the attention of heavily trafficked animals such as rhinos, elephants, and tigers because many people don’t even know they exist. The rate of evaporation is alarming, WWF states that “based on reported seizures between 2011 and 2013, an estimated 116,990-233,980 pangolins were killed, which represents only the tip of the trade. Experts believe that seizures represent as little as 10 percent of the actual volume in pangolins in illegal wildlife trade.”
The CPCP aims to conserve these threatened species of mammal through the rescue and rehabilitation of trade confiscated wildlife, education and awareness and field research but Phoung and his team with what little resources they have.
To learn more and to help pangolins by donating please visit Save Vietnam’s Wildlife “Save 500 Pangolins Campaign” here.
This is part of a larger ongoing personal project titled Kindred Guardians, an ongoing personal project documenting people around the world who dedicate their lives to help animals in need. Each chapter explores a new issue and a new bond between humans and animals.
This story was originally photographed in 2014 on assignment for CNN.