Forget about the National Zoo's latest panda... the baby that has most of the zoo community talking this summer was born in Florida this weekend.
Among the most endangered mammals on earth are the pangolins, the eight species of so-called "scaly anteaters" that inhabit Africa and South Asia. Harmless, insectivorous, and nocturnal, their main defense from predators is their scaly hide, which allows them to curl up into an armored ball, much like an armadillo does. Unfortunately, that offers little protection against those who would illegally collect them for sale in Traditional Chinese Medicine.
A major challenge in the effort to save pangolins has been the great difficulty associated with keeping them in captivity. Zoos have struggled to keep them alive, let alone create a captive insurance colony. Not only has this limited the role of zoos in breeding the species, but it's made it difficult to know what to do with confiscated pangolins which are rescued (alive) from traders. Turn them back into the wild? They'll just be recaptured immediately. Besides, often they are too weak and sickly by the time rescuers get to them.
Due to the difficulties in maintaining pangolins, most zoos won't even try, refusing to create a demand for wild-caught animals which will further drain the wild populations. Not even a few months ago, I received an email that had been sent out by the African Pangolin Working Group, an organization devoted to pangolin conservation, to zoo directors, curators, and managers across the United States. It advised us that we might have someone offer us pangolins in the near future - and that we should know that they did not approve of this project and encouraged us to decline their offer.
Until the day before yesterday, the only pangolin in captivity in the United States that I'd even known about was at the San Diego Zoo. I'd never heard of this Pangolin Conservation Center in St. Augustine, Florida - perhaps they deliberately keep a low profile to protect their animals. I tend to be a little leery of private, unaffiliated non-profits - I believe organizations can do the most good when they marshall their resources and work collaboratively.
Still, when an organization does the seeming impossible, I'm inclined to show some respect.
Congratulations to Justin Miller at the Pangolin Conservation Center for the birth of a white-bellied tree pangolin! If this success can be replicated, both with this species and with others, it very well may represent a turn in the tide for pangolin conservation.
newborn female White-bellied Tree Pangolin (Phataginus tricuspis) being
weighed, photo by Justin Miller of Pangolin Conservation.