A volunteering stint in Vietnam brought David Pinault up close with the most trafficked mammal you've never heard of. Here's his story. (Want to share your own wildlife volunteering story? Drop us a line!)

Yes, I’d hoped for a close-up encounter with pangolins. But having one dig its claws into my jeans and crawl straight up my leg was more than I’d expected.

My chance to work with these creatures came just recently, as a volunteer at a wildlife rescue centre in the highland jungle forests of Vietnam's Cuc Phuong National Park, a three-hour drive from Hanoi. The centre is run by a newly created nonprofit group called SVW: Save Vietnam’s Wildlife.

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A young pangolin riding on its mother's tail at the rescue centre. Image: D. Pinault/Save Vietnam's Wildlife

Although SVW cares for many kinds of animals, pangolins have become its particular focus because of their highly endangered status in Vietnam and throughout Southeast Asia. More threatened than even elephants or rhinos, pangolins are the most heavily trafficked mammal in the world. 

My job at the rescue centre? Pangolin feeding duty! In the wild, the animals use their sharp claws to tear apart termite mounds and anthills, lapping up insects with their extraordinarily long, sticky tongues. At the centre, they munch on a mix of frozen ants, silk-worm larvae (pulverised in a blender) and soybean powder.

Aside from feeding the rescues and changing their water, I was also in charge of keeping the enclosures clean. Each cage is spacious, over ten feet tall, with its own habitat of palm fronds, bamboo and upright tree trunks – these creatures love to climb! 

But the best time for some pangolin-watching is after dark, since that's when the animals are most active. On my night-time visits, I'd wait for one rescued resident, named Lucky, to emerge from his burrow to wander about. He liked to climb up a tree, wrap his tail around a branch while dangling head-down, and then swing outward to sniff at my fingers as I extended my hand up to him. Then he’d scamper back down and try to use my leg as a climbing-post (which is how I discovered pangolins are much stronger than they look).

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Lucky during a night-time climb (left) and with David (right). Image: D. Pinault/Save Vietnam's Wildlife

The word "pangolin" comes from a Malay-Indonesian term that means "to curl up" or "coil", hinting at their main defence strategy: when threatened, they quickly roll their scaly body and tail into an armoured ball.

It's a great defence, no question, against predators like lions or leopards – but it offers no protection against human poachers, who simply scoop up the coiled creature, dump it into a bag and take it to market.  

In fact, along with deforestation and habitat destruction, poaching is one of the greatest dangers facing pangolins today. The biggest consumer demand comes from China, where dried pangolin scales are used for traditional medicine, as a cure for afflictions ranging from arthritis and rheumatism to asthma and cancer. Eating pangolin meat is also said to revive men’s virility.  

Such beliefs have fuelled pangolin trafficking for many decades. In the 1930s, Dutch colonial officials attempted to curb this trade by prohibiting the export of pangolin scales from Java – but more recently, it is China’s economic boom that has been driving demand, pushing these creatures to the brink of extinction.

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Lucky the pangolin in its burrow. Image: D. Pinault/Save Vietnam's Wildlife


Among the rapidly expanding Chinese middle class, pangolin meat is considered a delicacy and a status symbol, pushing prices up to US$300 dollars per kilogram. Scales are valued at US$3,000 per kilogram.

Having depleted their own populations of these creatures, Chinese dealers now buy pangolins that have been trafficked from as far away as Africa and Indonesia, and as nearby as the neighbouring nation of Vietnam.

And that’s where Save Vietnam’s Wildlife comes in. The group's director, Thai Van Nguyen, and his team frequently rush to the Vietnamese-Chinese border to rescue pangolins that have been confiscated from smugglers.

Once safely housed at SVW’s centre in Cuc Phuong Forest, the animals – which arrive emaciated and dehydrated from confinement in mesh bags and shipping containers – are fed and given medical attention until they’re healthy and ready to be released back into the wild.

For more information about SVW's rescue efforts, and to find out how you can volunteer to help, head on over to their website.

Total pangolin novice? Here are some more awesome facts:

Pangolin Facts Infographic 2015 03 03


Top header image: David Brossard, Flickr