Pangolins Suffer PTSD After Being Saved From Horrors of Illegal Wildlife Trade

Pangolins, the most trafficked animal in the world, suffer post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after they are saved from the horrors of the illegal wildlife trade.

"The condition they come from is sometimes really compromised," Nicci Wright, from the Humane Society International Africa, told Newsweek. "They are emaciated, completely dehydrated, sometimes they are so weak they can't even roll themselves up."

Wright, a wildlife rehabilitation specialist, works to gather intelligence on pangolin traffickers so they can be rescued. She also works at the Johannesburg Wildlife Veterinary Hospital in South Africa where pangolins arrive for treatment after their ordeal.

Wright said pangolins can suffer psychologically from being trafficked, as the conditions they are kept in are "horrific."

Pangolins are native to Asia and Africa and are easily recognized by their full armor of scales. If touched or startled, pangolins roll up themselves into a ball for protection and use the sharp scales on their tail to lash out at predators.

World Pangolin Day is marked on the third Friday every February to raise awareness of the species and the huge threats it faces from mankind.

They are poached and hunted for their scales for use in traditional Chinese medicine, despite there being no scientific evidence of their medicinal value. Pangolin meat and 'fetus soup' is also a status symbol in some cultures. The soup is made from young pangolin, and is served as the most expensive item on the menu at some Asian restaurants as a delicacy.

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Nicci Wright works to rehabilitate the pangolins. Gareth Thomas/African Pangolin Working Group

The demand comes primarily from Asia and is growing in Africa.

They are so heavily poached it is nearly impossible to count what remains of the population—they are rarely seen in the wild. Up to 200,000 pangolins are poached every year. In 2020, there were 466 shipment seizures.

Pangolins are killed with brutal methods. It is repeatedly bludgeoned until it can barely move. While bleeding, it is then thrown into boiling water.

Wright said she has seen footage of captured pangolins before they are rescued while gathering intelligence on trafficking operations. In some circumstances, poachers have wired the pangolin closed, after they have rolled into a ball to protect themselves. Pangolins have also been attached to the wheel of a vehicle, and are covered in oil and diesel for days.

Pangolins were once found in plastic buckets where they lived for a week in their urine and feces, Wright said. She said it's "devastating" to see these "incredible animals" kept this way.

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Pangolins are released into the wild after they are rescued. Tikki Hywood Trust

"A pangolin looks you in the eye, you will be bewitched... they look like mythical creatures, like little dragons," she said. "Not to sound too dramatic but if you hold a pangolin, it could be the very last one, you just don't know."

After the pangolins are treated, Wright said it is incredibly important that they have space to forage and feed in a wild environment, to manage their stress levels.

"[In the rehabilitation process] they are walked and are allowed to forage and feed themselves in an area where there are plenty of ants and termites," she said. "We need them to do that to manage their stress levels and it helps them recover from a psychological point of view as they have varying levels of PTSD. When they are behaving in a normal way, they heal quicker."

After rehabilitation, pangolins are brought to release sites in Zululand, where they are set free into the wild. Released pangolins are then routinely monitored by the Humane Society for up to two years to make sure they survive.

In a press release, Wright said that as depressing as the situation is, it is important to focus on the highlights. This includes all the successful rehabilitation efforts as well as "dedicated teams of law enforcement officers who put their lives at risk when intercepting shipments.

"All these people come together time and again to help save these remarkable animals," she said.