What's baby pangolin got to do with it?

How wildlife crime affects the trafficked, the offspring and the planet

Whenever wildlife crime is mentioned, one thinks how it always resonates with dangers of species extinction, loss of biodiversity, threats to human life. Images of either dead animals or their products displayed in markets or people shelves further intrench these ideas. However, little light is shed on the effects wildlife trafficking has on the offspring of the trafficked animal, especially the world’s most trafficked mammal – the pangolin. 

There are eight species of pangolins in the world, with four in Africa. All of them are listed on the IUCN Red List from Vulnerable to Endangered. Pangolins are nocturnal animals that look like moving pinecones and can easily be recognized by their full armor of hard, sharp scales which they expose to potential predators after curling up into an armored ball when startled or touched. This deceives most predators – except humans. Although of late there has been considerable focus on the illegal trade in pangolins and their scales to meet demands in Asian medicines (claimed to have scales that cure arthritis, cancer, improve poor blood circulation to mention a few), pangolins face a large number of other threats from local bushmeat trade, shifting agriculture, small-holder farming and agro-industry farming.  

The Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA TFCA) is not immune to this trade. To paint this local picture, a poacher was recently apprehended in Sioma Ngwezi National Park, Zambia with a live adult pangolin. To the amazement of the Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DNPW) park staff the pangolin gave birth to a single baby – probably as a result of the stress she was under from her capture and translocation. The staff were left with a huge dilemma of what to do. 

DNPW contacted the Wildlife Crime Prevention (WCP), an organization with a small orphanage for animals that have been rejected or orphaned, to get advice on how to care for the mother and baby pangolin. 

The WCP team sent through an airplane for both mother and baby pangolin. The two were transported to WCP facilities in Lusaka on 5th October 2021. “A day after arrival, officers at WCP observed and realized that mother pangolin was no longer breast feeding the baby, it rejected the offspring,” said DNPW Ecologist Ms. Debra Nachinga. Upon this heart breaking discovery, the WCP team put the baby on bottle feeding. At the time of departure to Lusaka the baby pangolin weighed 239 grams. As of November 25th 2021 while at the WCP facility, the baby pangolin weighed 750 grams with its mother at 11 kg. The team plans to set the baby pangolin free in one of the national parks once it is independent and no longer dependent on humans.

“Under such circumstances when pangolins give birth prematurely, the offspring die due to neglect by its mother. The mother feels detached from the offspring because she didn’t reach full term. In this case survival of this offspring was priority,” said Ms Nachinga.

“The WCP gave guidelines on how to care for the mother pangolin which were to provide a lot of water, glucose or a warm blanket to regain the lost strength during delivery. At this point the baby pangolin was feeding from the mother, they stayed with us for 5 days before going to Lusaka.” She added.

This example reinstates the impacts of wildlife trafficking are not only the animal that’s captured or killed but the offspring i.e. the compounded impact of the trade. Pangolins, like other wildlife offer no threat to humans in their own habitat, but when trafficked, they increase the risk of transmission of emerging infectious diseases and viruses across to humans. Initially, the Covid-19 zoonotic was suggested to have been transported to the Chinese wildlife trade wet markets through the trade in pangolins. 

 While the world celebrated world pangolin day on 19 February 2022, it can only be hoped that such a day will bring more attention to this incredible little mammalian species and reduce the multiple number of threats facing it, not only illegal wildlife trade. 


Chisala Lupele, WWF KAZA Communications

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