Pangolins are often described as “the most endangered animal you’ve never heard of.” The world’s only scaly mammal, pangolins are now trafficked at a higher rate than rhinos, elephants and tigers combined, for medicinal use in China, Thailand and Vietnam. Very little is known about even their most basic biology, and this is hampering conservation efforts – pangolins almost always die in captivity. In Namibia, conservationist Maria Diekmann found herself on the frontline of the battle to save these wanted animals after unexpectedly becoming a surrogate mother to an orphaned baby pangolin named Honey Bun. On an emotional journey, Diekmann travels to Asia to better understand the global issues facing pangolins, before joining forces with a Chinese megastar to help build a campaign to bring awareness to the plight of these surprisingly charming creatures.
- There are eight species of pangolin in the world – four species live in Asia and four species live in Africa.
- Pangolins are the world’s only truly scaly mammals. Their scales, just like human fingernails, are made from keratin.
- Pangolin scales are one of the oldest traditional Chinese medicines. As recently as last year, pangolin scales were listed by practitioners as a cure for cancer symptoms, and scales from historic stockpiles can be legally prescribed in hospitals.
- In the last 20 years, the demand for pangolin scales has decimated the species’ numbers worldwide. Today, a pangolin will be taken from the wild every five minutes. It’s estimated that around 100,000 African pangolins were taken in the past 12 months.
- In Namibia, conservationist Maria Diekmann is on the frontline of the battle to save these animals. Through her organization called The Rare & Endangered Species Trust (REST), Maria has rescued more than 50 Cape pangolins.
- Maria Diekmann found pangolin Honey Bun in 2015, when she came across her mother who had been seriously abused. Honey Bun suffered no damage whatsoever, thanks to her mother’s protection. However, her mother was so traumatized that she escaped, and Honey Bun has been in Maria’s care ever since.
- Pangolins eat millions of insects in a year. Maria Diekmann and Steven Mandja, another caretaker at REST, walk with Honey Bun for up to five hours a day as she forages for ants. She has no teeth but uses her long, sticky tongue to lap them up. On one of these walks, evidence of snare traps are found.
- Maria travels to Vietnam to meet with Thai Van Nguyen, a world leader in pangolin conservation. Thai runs an organization called Save Vietnam’s Wildlife, based in the forests of the country’s oldest national park, dedicated to rescuing and rehabilitating pangolins. During Maria’s visit, 15 Sunda pangolins are confiscated near the Vietnamese border with China. The team assesses the surviving animals for any sign of injury, and finds that one young male’s back leg has been severed, most likely by a snare. He must undergo a life-saving operation.
- With over 80 million online followers, Chinese megastar Angelababy has been using her considerable public profile to seek help for pangolins. Maria meets with Angelababy to introduce her to Honey Bun, and together they produce a new global charity campaign for pangolins. The campaign launch video was viewed online in China over 25 million times in just the first day.