Conservationists fear that Cambodia’s scaly anteater — the pangolin — is becoming increasingly rare as wildlife poachers target local populations. Writer Ellie Dyer and photographer Conor Wall visit a newly-launched pangolin rehabilitation centre in Takeo province to learn more about the long-tongued beasts.

As soon as the two men carrying plates piled with red ants draw close to the enclosure, a loud snuffling noise begins. Moments later, the long snouts of two pangolins poke through the compound’s wire door, their interest piqued as the aroma of insects spreads through the rehabilitation centre at Phnom Tamao zoo.

Covered in reptilian scales, with the snout of an anteater, the claws of a sloth and an extremely long bright pink tongue, the pangolin is one of Cambodia’s most unusual native mammals. Making their homes in both evergreen and deciduous forest, the solitary creatures are happiest hunting at night for termites and ants, before retiring to a quiet burrow during daylight hours.

But with few natural defences besides curling into a tight ball, the pangolin has long been an easy target for poachers drawn by its high price on the illegal wildlife market. Experts estimate that a single animal can be sold for up to $200.

Captured anteaters are destined to be used by practitioners of traditional medicine in Cambodia, China and Vietnam, who believe that the pangolin contains properties that can bring humans power and good health.

“They take the pangolin blood and mix it with wine, and then drink it,” explains Sokrith Heng, of wildlife NGO Conservation International.

The animals are caught in snares or hunted by dogs before being stuffed into sacks or plastic bags. They are sometimes hidden in car crevices, without food and water, in order to avoid detection. Many suffer horrific injuries or die in transit. Each year, a few lucky ones are rescued by rangers before they can be turned into a pangolin cocktail.

Some are brought to Phnom Tamao Zoological Park in Takeo province, where the country’s forest administration and Conservation International have set up a rehabilitation centre to help nurse rescued pangolins back to health.

Up to nine animals can be kept in three specially built enclosures, all containing a darkened room and an outside area with branches for the animals to climb. Some are recovering from broken bones or have had their feet amputated after being caught in traps; others are weak and need to regain their strength. The pangolins can also be treated at Phnom Tamao’s on-site clinic, which has both operating rooms and an X-ray machine.

At the time of going to press, six rescued pangolins were housed at the centre, including a mother and her two-month-old baby. Weighing just 100 grams, the baby is being breastfed by its camera-shy mum, who has dug a deep hole in which to keep it safe.

Veterinarian Rus San says the pangolins are fed termites and ants daily. Zoo workers seek out termite nests, dig around them and then scoop out both earth and insects to give to the animals. Ants are shaken from tree tops by men who collect them in bags strung onto long bamboo poles.

The pangolins set upon their meals, using their long tongues to lick up the insects and regain their health. Eventually, those able to fend for themselves are re-released into forested areas located far away from human communities. However, some are too injured to cope in the wild and will stay in captivity.

While the centre is undoubt-edly helping the breed to survive — though females put in the same cage can fight each other — concerns remain about the country’s population.

“We cannot estimate numbers, but we know that in 2005 we confiscated a lot, but right now the confiscated pangolins are less than before. We think the pangolins in the wild are less, that’s why the traders can’t catch them,” says Sokrith.

Nevertheless, the facility has improved the life of the zoo’s pangolins. Phnom Tamao’s director Nhek Ratanapich says the new facility has given the pangolins more space and a quieter environment, which could help relieve the animal’s stress and allow up to 90 percent of them to be released into the wild.

“Animals have a right to exist in the world,” he says, highlighting the importance of conserving species to ensure their survival. Otherwise, he says, “they’d all be gone”.