The enigmatic pangolin has been around for 85 million years, but today it is one of the most illegally trafficked mammals on earth (even more than rhino!). Their populations are decreasing, and their conservation status range from vulnerable (Temminck’s and black-bellied pangolin) to critically endangered (Chinese, Sunda and Philippine pangolins) on the IUCN Red List. They are poached for their scales, which are believed to have medicinal values. Just like rhino horn, pangolin scales are made of keratin with absolutely no medicinal or magical properties.
Added to this, sadly, pangolin meat is considered a delicacy in parts of Asia, and the body parts are sometimes used for spiritual protection and financial rituals. All in all, such a demand only further adds to the decline in their numbers.
Pangolins belong to the order Pholidota, derived from the Greek word meaning “covered in scales”. While it looks like a scaly reptile, it is in fact a mammal. Of a total of eight species, four are found in Africa, with another four in Asia. The Temminck’s pangolin (Smutsia temminckii) is widespread, found in the northern parts of South Africa, up to most of East Africa and into southern Sudan and Chad.
Lapalala Wilderness is working with the African Pangolin Working Group (APWG) to assist with the soft release of rehabilitated Temminck’s pangolin (Smutsia temminckii). Poached and captive pangolins are often kept in deplorable conditions and are incredibly stressed and in poor health upon arrival at veterinary hospitals authorised to treat them. After going through a process of rehabilitation and once they have veterinary approval, the pangolins are released into a safe and secure wildlife reserve where they can roam freely, whilst still being closely monitored for up to a year. Lapalala is one of these havens where the pangolins get a second chance to be free and thrive.
Veterinary & Research Manager of Lapalala Wilderness, Annemieke Muller, explains, “Animals often struggle to adapt to a new environment. Our dedicated Lapalala team, guided by APWG-trained monitors, records movement, weight changes, and feeding success before permanent release takes place. We are privileged to experience these fascinating creatures, each one a unique individual character. One pangolin may be shy and calm, while another is adventurous and outgoing. They all absolutely love ants, and it’s a treat to see them hunting. Every stump and hole is thoroughly investigated, and the digging becomes vigorous when they hit the jackpot! There is still much to learn about this species, and it is a special opportunity to observe them so closely, thereby adding insight into pangolin behaviour.”