Under threat from extinction, huge efforts are being carried out to boost the pangolins population. Adolfo Perez-Garcon finds out more.

This is the story of an animal very little is known about. Perhaps, the most widely known fact is it hangs precariously on the verge of extinction.

Meet the pangolin, a fascinating, delicate and rare type an anteater found throughout Southeast Asia and parts of Africa.

There are eight species of pangolin, with range from the giant pangolin found in the vast African savanna to the Sunda pangolin – its smaller cousin – who inhabits parts of Southeast Asia, including Cambodia, as well as Southern China.

For all its natural riches, Cambodia should be proud to be home to the Sunda pangolin, an animal listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as critically endangered and the unsuspecting owner of the blood-curdling title of world’s most traded animal, according to an Oxford University study in 2014.

Since 2000, when zero annual export quotas were established for this species, IUCN estimates tens of thousands of Sunda pangolins have been poached in Southeast Asia and sold illegally to buyers in East Asia, mostly China, where they are considered a delicacy and their scales are believed to have healing properties.

The same agency estimates pangolin populations have declined by 80 percent globally in the last 21 years and will continue to dwindle by an additional 80 percent in the next 21.

Yet, that figure fails to give the complete picture of the urgency of the situation as accurate population statistics do not exist.

“Unfortunately, nobody has any estimates on population size,” says Madelon Rusman, animal manager at Save Vietnam’s Wildlife, an organisation based in Northern Vietnam responsible for saving more than 400 pangolins last year alone.

“The Sunda pangolin is extremely hard to monitor in the wild and all across the region researchers, including ourselves, are still trying to find the best way to do this,” Rusman explains.

Shy, solitary and highly nocturnal, much of the habits of the pangolin remain a mystery to biologists. Yet, as researchers struggle to find answers, conservationists are winning a significant battle in a different front: bringing the animal into the collective consciousness.

A milestone in this regard was the inclusion of the pangolin last year into the strictest category of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) treaty, Appendix 1, which affords the highest level of protection and bans all forms of international trade.

“It brings attention to the conservation of the species,” says Naven Hon, Veun Sai-Siem Pang National Park, program manager at Conservation International. “It will help organisations attract more funding, and conduct more research on the species. The animal will appear on the media much more often.”

Besides raising the profile of the animal, the CITES accord makes it harder to move pangolins through countries’ borders, empowers customs officials to enforce the law and fine traffickers, and makes it harder for zoos to import the animal, experts say.

In Cambodia, pangolin conservation efforts are spearheaded by Wildlife Alliance, an NGO that rescues more than 1,000 wildlife specimens each month from snares, poachers and unlicensed owners.

The organisation operates out of Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, and in Koh Kong, through its rescue and breeding station and community-based ecotourism site, Chi Phat.

On average, it rescues between three and five pangolins a year, which are generally brought to the station in Koh Kong and released back into the wild as soon as possible.

“Pangolins are very sensitive to the climate,” says Wildlife Alliance coordinator, Nicole Leroux. “We bring them to Koh Kong because it has the same exact climate they would naturally inhabit.”

In 2013, Wildlife Alliance’s rescue team brought to Phnom Tamao a pangolin that had been severely injured by a snare. With serious wounds in two of her limbs – a front and a rear leg – her chances of survival weren’t good.

In an attempt to contain the infection, the organisations’ vets decided to extirpate the wounded limbs.

Missing two appendages, her physical condition presented a serious challenge to her survival options in the wild, so the team at Wildlife Alliance decided to keep her under their watch. She was named Lucy.

“She is actually not that inhibited,” says Leroux. “Lucy can move around on her stumps and can even hunt termites by herself when we put termite mounds in her enclosure for her.”

“But it’s enough of a disability that her chances of survival are smaller. She spends more energy, just because of the way she walks. It’s better if we are feeding her here.”

The next step to further conservation efforts and ensure the species’ survival is, according to Rusman, to strengthen law enforcement. “In my opinion, what would help is heavier punishment and stricter law enforcement,” she says. “Vietnam, for example, has recently changed the laws and pangolin smuggling will now send people to prison for numerous years, which is good.”

Leroux is of the same mind. “The CITES accord is a good first step. Next, we need trained teams that actually enforce the law.”

In the meantime, the rescue work of organisations including Wildlife Alliance and Save Vietnam’s Wildlife is pivotal. With very few specimens left in the wild by every estimate, every single pangolin counts.

Lucy, for example, continues to thrive despite her severed limbs. A few months after her arrival at Phnom Tamao, she was transferred to the release and breeding station in Koh Kong, where she continues to thrive.

She has had three babies while in the care of Wildlife Alliance. And all three have been successfully released into the wild.