It is my first trip to Sumatra, in Indonesia. I received a call from a friend on April 25 saying there had been a large, pangolin-related seizure and that this would be a good chance for me to do some research. So I hopped onto a plane and, on April 27, I am at a press conference being held at the scene of the crime: a seafood warehouse in Medan.
Upon arrival, we are greeted by members of the Wildlife Conservation Society's Wildlife Crimes Unit and officials in police or forestry department uniforms. A cocktail of smells assaults my nose - seafood, unwashed bodies, cigarettes and an unfamiliar stench: that of pangolin excrement and death. Frozen pangolins and parts are stored in two freezers, bags of scales are in a storeroom and the largest room holds 50 or so plastic poultry crates, the festive colours at odds with the cruelty being suffered by the 100 or so creatures inside.
I've never held a pangolin and I learn that these domestic-cat-sized animals must be handled with care. I pick up a large male, probably the strongest specimen of the lot, which was perhaps not the wisest choice: my wrists are now crisscrossed with small scratches from his scales.
These gentle forest animals never attack. If threatened, they roll into a ball for protection. This may protect them from lions or leopards but it's no defence against their greatest predator: man.
After the press conference, the living pangolins are loaded onto a truck, to begin a four-hour trip to freedom. At a midway stop for food and fuel, I check the animals and find several more have died - the stress of captivity tends to kill pangolins, which is why you rarely find them in zoos - while those still alive are either too weak and traumatised to move or are extremely parched and greedily lap the water I provide. I take a baby away from a mother that appears too traumatised to care for her young, to safeguard it from being crushed.
At dusk we stop, but the crates still need to be carried deeper into the forest. I return the young pangolin to his mother and am happy to see he is strong and immediately starts feeding. His mother is still not doing very well, though.
Ninety-four pangolins are set free and the last I let go are the mother and baby I looked after. I carry them into bushes and lay them down gently. She is curled up tightly but he manages to squirm into the hollow of her belly - and that is the last I will see of them. It is an image I will never forget.
PANGOLINS ARE SHY, nocturnal animals that live in forests. They don't have teeth but they do have sticky tongues that are longer than their bodies, which they use to feed on termites and ants. Their sharp, strong claws help break apart wood and other hard surfaces beneath which their food can be found. Due to their unique diet, they control pests and help maintain the soil quality of forests.
Pangolins are the only mammals fully covered in scales, which are made of keratin, the same material present in our fingernails and hair, and in rhino horns. Although there is no supporting scientific research, some traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) practitioners claim that when dried and roasted, pangolin scales can relieve palsy, stimulate lactation and help drain pus.
The scales can sell on the black market for more US$3,000 a kilogram and the whole animal is eaten in dishes popular in Vietnam and China. As a result, all eight species of pangolins now feature on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List of animals threatened with extinction.
Pangolins are currently the most commonly trafficked type of wildlife. Last year, it was estimated that more than 100,000 pangolins were being poached annually. Judging by the number of seizures so far this year, it could be much more than that now. The past few weeks alone have seen several large confiscations of pangolin scales across the mainland, and, in June last year, three tonnes, worth HK$2 million, were discovered after they had been smuggled into Hong Kong from Kenya. Media reports from India and Pakistan indicate a lot of smuggling is going on across the borders with China.
THE DAY AFTER the pangolins were set free, the contents of the freezers along with other recent seizures of trafficked pangolins are destroyed. A large pit is dug and filled roughly four deep with dead animals. It is impossible to do an exact count - some animals have already been chopped into pieces - but about 4,000 dead pangolins go up in flames; 4,000 fewer members of a unique, vital and ancient species that faces extinction due to greed, misinformation and indifference.
It is easy to point fingers but these animals are being taken from the wild by people who have little to no income. It is difficult to control poaching when a single pangolin can bring in enough money to feed a family for months.
Also, the pangolin's habitats are disappearing at an alarming rate due to deforestation for palm-oil plantations.
The answer to saving the pangolin from extinction lies in urgent education and responsible government.
There are alternatives to using pangolin products in TCM, even if one believes the ingredients are effective. We can read labels carefully to spot and avoid products that contain palm oil or purchase only those labelled as containing sustainable palm oil. Last but not least, governments need to put a stop to continued extensive habitat destruction in order to protect and preserve biodiversity for future generations.
As Britain's Duke of Cambridge recently noted so succinctly, "The humble pangolin … runs the risk of becoming extinct before most of us have even heard of it."
Sharon Kwok Sau-wan is an actress and animal-rights activist.