By Christopher Gemelli, a Conservation Biology Student at SUNY ESF
I remember the first time I saw a pangolin, I was a little kid watching Animal Planet at my Grandma’s house. She came over from the kitchen, as she was preparing dinner, and looked at the TV in surprise. She saw the strange creature move across the screen in the dense African rainforest and asked me what the animal was. Me, the self-proclaimed animal expert of my family, was actually stumped. I had seen pictures of the creature before, I even had a small toy of one, but I had never caught the name of it. This was strange to me as growing up going to the Bronx Zoo and American Museum of Natural History all the time I felt I had acquainted myself with every animal from both Africa and Asia yet there it was, another animal, one I knew so little about. It captured my imagination and as years went by and my passion as a conservation biologist grew, I grew ever more fascinated with this mysterious creature, what was it? So when my professor of evolution informed me there was a volunteering opportunity where I could go aide these creatures in their native land I applied right away and I was accepted for a week of volunteering in Vietnam with Save Vietnam’s Wildlife.
This was an exciting prospect to me as I have had a passion for the wildlife of Asia since I was a little kid, visiting the halls of the American Museum of Natural History. There was just always something about Asia’s diverse collection of fauna that always reminded me of the stereotypical jungle you see in cartoons and other media. However, as I grew older I began to learn more and more how bleak the situation in Asia really was. Most countries in Tropical Asia are struggling to protect animals from poachers who seek to sell them for bush meat and Traditional Chinese Medicine. Not to mention copious and increasing amounts deforestation in some Asian countries, exponential population growth, and the scars of past political tension Southeast Asia is easily and conservationist’s nightmare. The many magnificent creatures that once roamed the Asian continent are now highly restricted to protected areas and some, like the Javan and Sumatran Rhino and the Kouprey (grey ox), are on the brink of extinction.
Prior to volunteering with Save Vietnam’s Wildlife my only other time in Asia had been a safari in Kaziranga national park, Assam, India, while the park was full of vulnerable Indian rhinos and endangered Asian elephants, swamp deer, wild water buffalo, and tigers it was still jarring to see how outside the park few to no large animals persisted. So, I started researching Vietnam with a similar mindset, “ Ok” I said to myself “Remember that most of the animals remaining in the country are only on the parks, so don’t be distraught at seeing faunally depleted landscapes”. At least that’s what I thought, until I started doing research on the park and then the bad news of the state of Vietnam’s wildlife started piling up. First I read about the extreme poaching pressures in the country, then how tigers had essentially been extirpated from the country, and then how the national park I was going to, Cuc Phuong had lost the majority (if not all) of its megafauna including the species that inspired me to get into this field in the first place, the Asian elephant. The situation looked bleaker and bleaker and despite the fact that I was devastated to read all of this terrible news I decided to go through with the trip regardless, besides this wasn’t a safari vacation like India, there was work to be done.
When I arrived in the Hanoi airport, the cab driver picked me up, as we drove I kept the thought in mind that most vertebrate animals in the country were poached, so I created a challenge for myself, how long would it take me to see a bird? We drove for over an hour with no sign of avian life until, finally! I saw one bird fly past… a pigeon like the one I see at home in Brooklyn all the time. Unfortunately I ended up not seeing another bird until I arrived at the park, and I am sad to say I probably only saw about twelve individual birds in my entire time in Vietnam. The forest was always a bit eerily quiet, there were the occasional bird and insect sounds, but over all it was far quieter than I expected for a rainforest. I only saw two wild mammals my entire time there a Pallas squirrel (probably the most common mammal see in South East Asia) and a mongoose. I was in such shock to see the mongoose I stopped so quickly that I nearly fell off my bike. When I finally arrived in the park it was such an overwhelming experience, this place I had read so much about, here it was, it felt almost as though I had walked into a movie or a book. A member of the Save Vietnam’ Wildlife team showed me to my room in the park headquarters and I was nice, not to mention there was air conditioning which was a huge relief to me. I went to a few tourist destinations in the area before I started work on the following Monday. I went to two “nature reserves”, the first I visited was called Trang An the site where the majority of the movie Kong: Skull Island was filmed. It was a beautiful landscape but it was as disturbingly quiet as Cuc Phuong if not more. Delacour’s langur was only found in the other nature reserve I visited: Van Long Nature Reserve, because they were so severely hunted in Cuc Phuong this was one of the two only places this species of langur remained in the wild.
When I started working on Monday that is when my negative attitude about conservation in Vietnam began to shift toward a more optimistic outlook. Everyone I met who worked for the center was so positive and upbeat, they were well aware of the challenges currently facing the country from a conservation perspective however this did not take away from their determination to work to create a better future for the fauna of Vietnam. I was lucky enough to volunteer with a young woman from Vietnam, she informed me that the younger generation in Vietnam is determined to help save species from extinction, this made me smile to see such passion from the youth of this country. I was working for about two days at the center when some of the staff requested my help with something, I wasn’t sure what they need me for (as my Vietnamese language skills are very poor despite extensive practice) but I followed the keeper to one of the pangolin enclosures and suddenly and unexpectedly he placed a pangolin in my hands. When I first help the pangolin it was so unexpected I subconsciously burst into a huge smile. It was incredible, the creature I came here for was in my hands. I was worried I may not see one at all, now I was holding it in my hands. He was afraid, curling up into a ball and using his foot to cover his eye. I discovered quickly there are a few steps to grabbing a pangolin. First if you try to hold them they snort and shake making almost small dog like noises, then after a while the grunting noises stop an the creature eventually surrenders and curls up in to its name sake ball. A surprising factor of holding a pangolin that I did not anticipate was their weight, they weighed as much as a bowling ball, far heftier than I was expecting, this may be due to their keratinous scales, the very same reason they are persecuted. And suddenly I understood if I, an untrained pangolin wrangler, could pick up and carry this creature with little trouble, a poacher seeking an easy meal or a quick buck could do exactly the same. At least if you try to poach an elephant or rhino they can charge you, if you try to poach a tiger they can pounce, but a pangolin? Grunt? Shake? Snort in anger and frustration? Granted, their scales aren’t their only defense mechanism, they are actually quite strong as they curl up and I could easily see getting hurt by having my fingers get crushed by its body.
The next week was very interesting I spent most of my time cleaning pangolin and small carnivore enclosures, but in between I got the chance to visit the Turtle Rescue Center and the Endangered Primate Rescue Center, where I met more dedicated individuals who cared deeply for protecting the fauna of this beautiful country. I started to feel a profound sense of optimism, despite the fact that many of my fears were confirmed regarding the stat of wildlife in South East Asia I began to also see the glimmers of hope and change sweeping this nation. The last place we went was the bear sanctuary, a sanctuary that recuses bears from the barbaric practice of bear bile farming in which bears are kept in terrible conditions for the sole reason of extracting their bile from them to use in medicines with no scientific basis. The bears seemed so happy and the keeper giving my group the tour of the sanctuary noted that they are currently replanting forests near the sanctuary as a means of growing natural grown food to the bears. I left Vietnam more hopeful then when I arrived, with so many good, intelligent people working toward the conservation and education about these endangered species there is certainty hope to be had. However, despite leaving being hopeful for the future of wildlife in Asia, it was obvious to me that there is still much work to be done notably for more regulation in the wildlife trade. And now not six months later we find that pangolins maybe the potential vector for the extreme strain of Coronavirus that originated in wet markets in China. Hopefully we can learn that the persecution of these species is not only dangerous and destructive for them but also harmful to our selves.
My first time holding a Pangolin at Save Vietnam’s Wildlife.
Learn more about the projects mentioned at:
Save Vietnam’s Wildlife: https://www.svw.vn/volunteer/
Endangered Primate Rescue Center: https://www.eprc.asia
Asian Turtle Program: http://www.asianturtleprogram.org/ATP_team.htm
How Pangolins may be linked to Coronavirus: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/10/science/pangolin-coronavirus.html