For most biologists, helping with sting operations isn't part of the job description ... but when rumours surfaced of a live pangolin being sold illegally in a Mozambican village, PhD Student Jen Guyton set off to help!

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Jen Guyton specialises in the diversity of small mammals.

"There was a man in a village across the river, the whispers went, selling her for the low price of 22,000 meticais (about $700 USD)," she explains. Like rhinos, pangolins have become the victims of the misconception that their keratinous scales hold medicinal magic. "I’ll tell you now: save yourself the money and the risk of jail time, and just chew on your nails – they are chemically and physiologically the same," Guyton comments.

The pangolin rescue plan was simple: conservation officials from the nearby Gorongosa National Park and incognito local rangers would buy the pangolin, arrest the poacher and return the animal to Guyton and the park's lab director Piotr Naskrecki, who would find a safe place to release it.

It wasn't until the deal was done and the pangolin safe in the truck with Guyton that the scientists realised just how lucky they had been: this rescue was a 'two-for-one'!

Like armadillos, pangolins roll themselves up into protective balls when threatened. And when the large pangolin began to relax in Guyton's lap, a second tiny body appeared, clinging to the underbelly of its mother. "The baby was a newborn – he still had a little black shrivelled-up stump of umbilical cord attached to his belly," says Guyton. "He must have been only a couple of days old, and we knew the poacher had had the mother longer than that, so he was probably born in the poacher's house."

An estimated 10,000 pangolins are poached every year (nearly ten times more than rhinos!), and having the opportunity to save one from the illegal trade is rare. "When I think back on that morning and the few hours that elapsed between when I met the pangolins and when we released them, it's hard not to [think] it was all a dream," she says. 

Controlling wildlife crime relies on effective enforcement, which in turn relies on public support, something Guyton notes is hard to elicit for animals that most people in the rest of the world haven't even heard of. "While we're fighting for the conservation of rhinos and elephants, pangolins ... are going quietly extinct," she warns.

With her baby in tow, the pangolin was released deep within Gorongosa National Park, as far from human activity as possible. "Pup clinging to her back, she stood and sniffed the air, taking a few moments to orient herself to her new and safer home before choosing a bearing. Her scales clack-clacking, she ambled away on her hind feet like a drunken Velociraptor, tail out and claws curled against her chest," recalls Guyton.

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Pangolin and baby with Jen Guyton. "Pangolins are unicorns for many biologists who work in Africa. They feel mythical – this was like shaking hands with a deity." Image: Piotr Naskrecki/used with permission
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"They were much heavier than I expected – too heavy for me to walk more than a few steps while carrying them ... I couldn't believe that evolution had crafted such a bizarre thing." Image: Piotr Naskrecki/used with permission
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"It's all part and parcel of the same problem – elephants, rhinos, tigers, pangolins – they're all slipping toward oblivion because of a totally misguided but insatiable market for wildlife parts." Image: Piotr Naskrecki/used with permission
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"We wanted to make sure we were far from the park boundary – the farther away from those human communities, the safer she would be." Image: Piotr Naskrecki/used with permission

 Top header image: Ruslan Rugoals/Flickr