With the 19th of February marking World Pangolin Day, it also marks one year since the launch of Africa’s first dedicated pangolin veterinary ward in partnership with Investec and the Johannesburg Wildlife Veterinary Hospital (JWVH).
In the last year, 17 pangolins have come through the ward’s doors – eight of which have been fully released back into a safe and appropriate habitat and are currently being monitored, six are still in the rehabilitation process and one is currently in a soft release process. Two additional pangolins were returned to their territory immediately following veterinary checks.
Dr Karin Lourens, co-founder and head veterinarian at JWVH, attributes the success of the pangolin treatment ward to its temperature-controlled and quiet environment, allowing the pangolin to recover without becoming even more stressed. “It is equipped so that vets can do their work without moving the pangolin, thereby reducing stress and enhancing safety. It is in a safe, secure space with high security measures in place and the rehabilitation numbers over the last year certainly speak to the quality and the necessity of the facility.”
In acknowledgement of her pioneering work, Dr Lourens has recently been invited to become a member of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) specialist group on pangolin, responsible for the worldwide conservation of pangolins, joining her JWVH colleague Nicci Wright. This enables Dr Lourens to share her specialist knowledge on the treatment of injured and rescued pangolin with counterparts across the globe.
Various reports highlight the threat to pangolins as the most highly poached mammal in the world, as their meat is considered a delicacy, and has been attributed to have a medicinal value. Their scales are used in traditional medicines, and pangolin skins are processed into leather products. All eight species are listed on Appendix-I of CITES – the strictest level of international protection which prohibits commercial trade.
During the global Covid-19 lockdown, stockpiled scales were unable to be moved from Africa to their destination market, Asia. Tonnes of scales are usually moved through the illegal wildlife trade, and this has resumed now that ports and airports are open for travel. The global trade in pangolin scales is not a niche wildlife crime, it has been growing at an alarming rate since 2016.
Says Investec’s Head of Conservation, Geraldine Fleming: “Despite the fact that it has never been clearer that the illegal and unsustainable consumption of wildlife is dangerous to public health and the global economy, the latest United Nations World Wildlife Crime report indicates that wildlife crime is increasing - with high demand driving high prices.”
The JWVH and Investec partnership aims not only to save pangolin through rescue, but also by working together to disrupt illegal wildlife trafficking networks through their financial transactions.
“JWVH builds cases that have resulted in successful prosecutions with the maximum 10-year sentences being given. Investec, together with the Financial Intelligence Centre and the Hawks, working through the South African Anti-Money Laundering Integrated Task Force (SAMLIT), hope to bring the related financial investigations into each prosecution,” adds Fleming. “By connecting the dots of the financial and physical evidence, JWVH and the African Pangolin Working Group (APWG) will be able to construct stronger cases against wildlife criminals, and to prosecute them on the related financial crimes. This will result in longer prison sentences, and greater disruption to their criminal networks.”
As the spotlight turns to raising awareness about these unique mammals, it also turns to their plight and the work being done to protect this vulnerable and critically endangered species.
“The power to disrupt this illegal activity stems from the strength of partnership, by sharing information and working together. In this manner we plan to become more effective. It is also important that we celebrate our wins, and the dedicated pangolin ward has been a critical component to our success over the last year,” concludes Dr Lourens.