How one NGO in Viet Nam is saving the world’s most trafficked mammal

Appearing somewhat like a cross between an anteater and a lizard, and rolling into a ball when threatened, the pangolin looks like nothing else on earth. Most people have never heard of them, let alone seen one – yet these creatures are the single most trafficked mammal in the world, both for their meat and for the supposed medicinal properties of their unique scales.


A Sunda pangolin rolled into a ball on a bed of leaves

Globally, the number of trafficked pangolin confiscations has increased significantly since 2006.  In Viet Nam, however, law enforcement officials do not report the confiscations or transfer the animals to rescue centres. They also do not know how to handle and care for confiscated animals. As a result, most confiscated pangolins reach rescue centres dead or very weak.

Save Vietnam’s Wildlife (SVW) is one of very few centres in Viet Nam that successfully rescues and releases pangolins back into the wild. The organisation aims to build the capacity of Vietnamese enforcement officers  to handle and care for confiscated pangolins, help them understand and take pride in the importance of their work and then encourage them to report their confiscations and transfer pangolins to rescue centres.

A pangolin crawls out of a crate and into the forest

SVW reintroduces a Sunda pangolin to the wild

Unfortunately, because SVW is a relatively new organisation, it is not very well-known amongst law enforcement officials. The majority of the staff are also very young.  

“Although we are experienced in wildlife conservation, it can be very hard to get the attention and respect of older government officials,” says 30-year-old Lan Thi Kim Ho, Education Outreach Manager for SVW. “Before we can build the capacity of the rangers and customs officers, we need to build our own confidence and sharpen our skills.”

A group of men and woman stand around a table with a large white chart. A younger woman speaks to the group.

Lan Thi Kim Ho leads a discussion with law enforcement officials on how to improve pangolin habitat protection

In 2014, SVW distributed 2,000 informative posters and calendars with wildlife conservation messages and organisation information to all 63 provincial ranger stations in Viet Nam. SVW staff also met with leaders and rangers in 27 wildlife trade hotspot provinces. Prior to meeting the leaders and rangers, the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF), for which IUCN is an implementing partner in the Indo-Burma biodiversity hotspot, provided SVW staff with grants to attend short training courses and conferences abroad to learn new techniques in developing training modules for law enforcement officials.

“After these conferences, we decided to make our training methods more creative and interactive,” says Lan. “We told stories to evoke emotion among participants and motivate them to be more enthusiastic about their work. We also designed activities and games to engage participants more actively.”

Inspired by the passion and dedication of SVW staff, many participants expressed a desire to support SVW’s work. “I have only had the chance to experience the pangolins’ suffering,” lamented Cuc Thi Le, a forest ranger from the Ninh Binh Forestry Protection Department and one of only four female participants at the workshop. “They showed us a video of a baby pangolin clinging to its mum’s tail and refusing to let go, and it made me think of my son. This is an animal that deserves a peaceful life.”

A pangolin stands upright on her hind legs. A baby pangolin clings to her tail near where it meets her body.

A Sunda pangolin baby clings to its mother's tail

Hong Dang Nguyen, an environmental police officer from Quang Ninh Province with more than 30 years of experience, echoed the sentiment. “I was so touched by the story of a pangolin that gave birth while injured, but had suffered too much from the cruelty of the wildlife trade. Seeing the tears in Lan’s eyes as she talked about losing both mother and baby, I sympathised with the grief of SVW’s staff.”

Following the training courses, pangolin confiscations increased exponentially and the process of placing them in rescue centres following confiscation was shortened, increasing their chances of survival. In the six months following the training, 306 pangolin confiscations – 98% of which came from provinces involved in the courses – were reported, compared to the 251 reports in all of 2016, 145 in 2015 and 22 total in 2014.

A group of people stand around a table, smiling and laughing. Some have their hands raised.

Law enforcement officers engage in enthusiastic duscission during the workshop

The trust built between SVW and law enforcement also facilitated more efficient post-confiscation transfer. After 113 pangolins were confiscated in April, placement took only two hours – as opposed to the usual days or even weeks – and transfer to SVW was immediate. The officers even stayed in touch, asking for support in on-site animal care.

“With more and more people protecting pangolins, we have hope for the future,” says Lan. 

This story was contributed by Lan Thi Kim Ho, Education Outreach Manager for SVW. Lan drafted the piece following the IUCN Asia Strategic Communications for Conservation Workshop in Bangkok, Thailand, which took place in July.

Founded in 2000, the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund is a global leader in enabling civil society to participate in and benefit from conserving some of the world’s most critical ecosystems by providing grants for organisations to help protect biodiversity hotspots, Earth’s most biologically rich yet threatened areas. CEPF is a joint initiative of l'Agence Française de DéveloppementConservation International (IUCN Member), the European Union, the Global Environment Facility, the Government of Japan (IUCN State Member), the MacArthur Foundation and the World Bank.

IUCN is leading the second phase of CEPF's work in the Indo-Burma hotspot, working together with the Myanmar Environment Rehabilitation-conservation Network (MERN) and Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden (KFBG) to form the CEPF Regional Implementation Team (RIT).

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