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The other Corona: Rescued pangolin is a rehabilitation success story

Cory the pangolin. Image by Casey Pratt / Love Africa Marketing.

  • In February, a 2-year-old female pangolin named Cory was rescued in a sting operation led by the African Pangolin Working Group.
  • Cory was in poor condition immediately after her rescue, but she responded well to rehabilitation, likely due to her young age.
  • She was released on Manyoni Reserve in KwaZulu-Natal province, South Africa, where pangolins have been ecologically extinct for the past 30 to 40 years.

When the wild pangolin was rescued, she was in bad shape: dehydrated, emaciated, and weighing a mere 4.9 kilograms (10.8 pounds). She was also very young, but this was a good thing when it came to her chances of survival.

Each year, thousands of wild pangolins are caught and sold into the wildlife trade, most of them from Africa. Last year alone, authorities managed to confiscate more than 97 tons of scales from more than 150,000 African pangolins, according to the African Pangolin Working Group. Pangolins are especially valued for their scales, which are a prized ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine, but their meat is also considered to be a delicacy in many countries. The scale of this illicit trade is swiftly driving all eight species of pangolin toward extinction.

But sometimes, law enforcement is able to intervene and save a life, which is what happened for a young Temminck’s pangolin (Smutsia temminckii) named Corona, or Cory for short.

Corona the pangolin at Manyoni Reserve. Image by Casey Pratt / Love Africa Marketing.

On Feb. 4, 2020, members of the African Pangolin Working Group (APWG), working alongside intelligence and security units, managed to intervene in the sale of the pangolin. Ray Jansen, chairman of APWG, posed as a buyer, and when he met with the poachers to complete the sale, he called in the police.

Cory, who was estimated to be about 2 years old, was immediately taken to Johannesburg Wildlife Veterinary Hospital for treatment. She was underweight, dehydrated, and exhausted, but she responded well to treatment.

“The young pangolins … adapt a little bit better to the recovery process,” Leno Sierra, field manager for APWG and Cory’s primary carer, told Mongabay. “They’re a little bit less stressed, I’ll say, and they adapt a little bit better to be surrounded by humans than adult pangolins. Of course, it was a struggle as with every other pangolin rescued and rehabilitated, but Cory was strong [from] the beginning, even though she was a low weight and dehydrated and very young.”

Once Cory had gained enough weight, she was inducted into APWG’s pangolin rehabilitation and “soft release” program. In 2019, APWG did something groundbreaking: it started reintroducing Temminck’s pangolins into KwaZulu-Natal, the easternmost province in South Africa, where the species has been “ecologically extinct” for the past 30 or 40 years. Several properties were chosen for this program, including Manyoni Reserve, which was Cory’s release site.

Sierra checking up on Cory. Image by Casey Pratt / Love Africa Marketing.

During the first stage of the program, Sierra took Cory for long, three-hour walks so she could forage for ants, then moved her back to a secure shelter to spend the night.

“The area she [initially] chose had crickets around, and it was a bit risky for us,” Sierra said.” So we found another area, full of termite mounds — ridiculously full of termite mounds — and we called it Las Vegas. And we took her to Las Vegas everyday to walk.”

Cory was relatively comfortable with people, which made her rehabilitation process easier, Sierra said. But when she was released in early August, she swiftly lost her interest in people.

“I used to open Cory’s box and she would climb on my shoulder on her own,” Sierra said. “And now she doesn’t want anything to do with me — in a fantastic way. It’s actually perfect. That natural behavior helps them so much to be released and … it’s incredible how quickly it happens.

“Pangolins rewild so quickly,” she added. “She’s totally fine on her own, and it’s beautiful to see her so strong and wild and normal.”

Sierra carrying Cory on her shoulder. Image by Casey Pratt / Love Africa Marketing.

Sierra and her colleagues have been keeping close tabs on Cory via her satellite tag, which provides her location at all times. Sierra has also been physically checking in on Cory; at first, she did so every day, but now it’s about once a week.

The pangolin program at Manyoni Reserve is well-publicized, but this doesn’t increase the risk of poaching, Sierra said.

“To come to an area where there’s a 23,000 hectare [56,800-acre] reserve with four pangolins … [it would be] unbelievable to try to poach one here,” she said. “The last place [poachers would] want to go is a reserve that has pangolins in the way that we have them — monitored, we know where they are, they have tags, and there aren’t many.”

A far bigger threat is the electrical fences that border the reserve, says Karen Odendaal, managing director of Manyoni Reserve.

Cory digging a burrow. Image by Casey Pratt / Love Africa Marketing.

“We’ve turned down the predator line, which is the bottom strand of our electric fences around the entire perimeter of the park, because that’s a very big risk,” she said. “Pangolins do fall victim to electrocutions, probably to a greater extent than being poached, especially in South Africa.”

Sierra says the program at Manyoni Reserve has been “incredibly successful” so far, but she and her colleagues say they hope the pangolins will eventually breed and repopulate the area. That would be the ultimate sign of success, she said, and something they hope to see in the near future.

Banner image caption: Cory the pangolin. Image by Casey Pratt / Love Africa Marketing.

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