Students at the National University of Singapore (NUS) were treated to a rare sight last week when a Sunda pangolin was spotted gingerly making its way down a flight of stairs at the institution's University Town. Ong Kah Jing captured a short clip of the unexpected visitor before calling the team from Animal Concerns Research and Education Society (ACRES) to help escort the scaly anteater off campus.

By the time animal rescuers arrived at NUS late on Saturday evening, the nocturnal animal had attracted a crowd. Despite its growing entourage, the campus critter was "calm and just kept walking", according to ACRES wildlife group director Kalai Balakrishnan. After a quick once-over examination for injuries, the pangolin was placed in a carrier and handed over to a local zoo to be microchipped and later released in a safe location. It's unclear why the animal decided to pop into the NSU campus, but it likely wandered in from a nearby greenbelt area.

The unusual rescue comes just days after a different Sunda pangolin was found wandering around in a dormitory common room in Singapore's Nanyang Technological University (NTU). ACRES also responded to that callout and were able to release the animal into a nearby forest.

Unlike their South African cousins, the ground pangolins, this forest-dwelling species prefers to spend its time in the trees, claiming tree hollows as den sites. Pangolins are not aggressive and lack teeth, so catching and relocating them does not usually present much of a problem for animal rescuers. (That is unless the roly-poly pinecones feel threatened and blast out a stream of foul-smelling liquid – a Sunda pangolin defence mechanism similar to that of skunks.) Of more importance is trying to minimise stress levels: pangolins in captivity are particularly susceptible to stress and this alone can be fatal.

Sunda pangolins are listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN's Red List, and their numbers have plummeted in recent years as demand for their meat and scales has skyrocketed. Trade in pangolin parts is estimated to be worth US$19 billion a year – just a kilogram of scales can fetch up to US$500 – and as many as a million pangolins are believed to have been captured over the last decade, making them the most trafficked animals in the world. A decision made at the recent CITES wildlife summit held in South Africa banned trade in all eight species of pangolin, but it remains to be seen whether the new ruling will make a difference.

According to Kalai, strict laws in Singapore ensure that pangolins there are well protected. "It is a good thing to know these animals are still surviving here, but they are critically endangered animals so we need to do more to protect them," he told the Straits Times. ACRES handles about two to three pangolin rescue cases a month.