The illegal wildlife trade is one of the biggest criminal networks in the world – with unimaginable damage to biodiversity and communities. While the trade in illegal wildlife is a global crisis, South Africa has become a hotspot for poaching and trafficking syndicates due to the country's biodiversity and abundant wildlife.

 

23.5 tonnes

Amount of pangolin or parts trafficked in 2021

8

Number of pangolin species worldwide

50%

Percentage of pangolin that are African

2

Number of SA provinces were pangolins are extinct

 

In the last 30 years, almost half of the global pangolin population has been destroyed, and in South Africa the world’s most trafficked non-human mammal is now extinct in the Free State, Eastern Cape and large parts of southern kwa-Zulu Natal. (source SANBI)

Partnering for pangolin

In the face of this worrying trend, the work done by Johannesburg Wildlife Veterinary Hospital (JWVH) is ever more urgent and crucial. The specialist pangolin treatment being honed there is receiving interest from wildlife veterinarians, locally and abroad. 

The hospital admits and cares for pangolins that are seized from poachers or traffickers, destined for the illegal wildlife trade. Through the coordinated efforts of the African Pangolin Working Group and South African law enforcement, the highly sought-after mammals are being rescued in increasing numbers.

pangolin x-ray

Pangolin-only ward in high demand 

In 2020, in partnership with Investec, Johannesburg Wildlife Veterinary Hospital's crucial work was bolstered by the building of the first pangolin-only veterinary ward in South Africa. Since it opened, the ward has seen a substantial increase in the number of pangolins it treats. 

Samantha Mooi, SA head of conservation at Investec, points to the pangolins’ unique adaptions, and importance to biodiversity. Pangolins are ecologically crucial, they prevent ecosystem imbalances by regulating the populations of termites and ants, and their burrowing activities aerate soils and create refuge for other species. 

She went on to say, "In line with our purpose and commitments, we are grateful for the work of our partners, and their efforts in the preservation of both pangolins and biodiversity,” says Mooi. 

30
In 2023, 30 pangolins were treated at JWVH’s pangolin ward
Samantha Mooi, Investec head of Conservation
Samantha Mooi, Investec head of Conservation

Pangolins are ecologically crucial, they prevent ecosystem imbalances, by regulating the populations of termites and ants, and their burrowing activities aerate soils and create refuge for other species.

 

Improvement in pangolin treatment

Spyker the pangolin

According to Dr Lourens, as solitary, nocturnal animals the ideal environment for the treatment of pangolins is away from the noise and temperature fluctuations within a wildlife hospital. 

“We’ve learned that the optimal temperature for pangolins is 23°C which is the average temperature in their burrows in the wild.  Any care they receive needs to be done in a dedicated space just for them,” she explains.

The ward is equipped with the latest equipment including a theatre light, an oxygen generator, an anaesthetic machine, an examination table and a dental x-ray machine which is handheld and ideally suited for radiographing pangolins and smaller animals. 

PICTURED: Spyker, who came from the North West province, was successfully treated and returned to the wild 

pangolin endangered species
Sweet Pea the pangolin

 

When time is a matter of life or death

Whilst seizures of live pangolins have gone up in the last year, not all taken from the illegal wildlife trade, survive. Rescued pangolins are often found in extremely compromised conditions. As a result, the survival rates vary and can’t always be guaranteed. Because of this, it is imperative for seizures to occur early on. This can only be achieved with constant and widespread awareness and partnerships. 

“When they come to us, they have been in a cage, backpack, or bucket, without water or food for many days. Some for up to a month,” says Dr Lourens. 

She continued, "Besides being malnourished and dehydrated they often have hidden complications like pneumonia and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)".

A worrying shift in how pangolins are being trafficked has exacerbated this problem. "Previously the negotiating period for pangolins was always less than ten days. But in the past year we have seen a stark and detrimental increase in the negotiating period. Pangolins are now being held for three to four weeks in extremely stressful environments. This means that pangolins are often received in worse conditions, significantly hampering their chance of survival."

PICTURED: "Sweet Pea", the 2.3kg baby that survived against the odds. 

Pangolin x-ray machine

Investec’s impact on pangolin conservation

Recently Investec added an x-ray machine to the arsenal in the hospital’s battle to save the pangolins treated in the ward. 

“One of our biggest aids in their treatment this year has been the ability to add unlimited radiographs (x-rays) to their diagnostic panel. To be able to take multiple radiographs whenever needed in-house without the stress of transporting them is critical in the initial stages of their treatment, and, with the help of Investec, we were able to purchase our very own x-ray machine in 2023,” said Dr Lourens.

Why are pangolins targeted?

According to the African Pangolin Working Group pangolins are prolifically targeted for their scales, which have been used in traditional medicine for centuries in Africa. They are also poached for bush meat. In Asian countries like China, Vietnam and Malaysia, pangolin meat is a delicacy and is also used in traditional medicine. Recently, there has been a growing demand in the Americas for pangolin skin to be used for leather products. 

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    Focus and its related content is for informational purposes only. The opinions featured on the site are not to be considered as the opinions of Investec and do not constitute financial or other advice. The information presented is subject to completion, revision, verification and amendment.