Rescuing a Dragon

Note: This blog was originally published on The Smaller Majority on October 14, 2014 under the title "Mozambique Diary: Rescuing a Dragon".

In my lap was a specter, one of the most elusive animals in sub-Saharan Africa. I’d been waiting years to see it, and now it was weighing abrasively on my thighs like a sack of bricks stuffed into a giant pinecone. It wiggled and unfurled its roly-poly body just enough to reveal an eye like sticky caviar, its tongue whizzing in and out and reinforcing the illusion that this scaly orb was a dragon come to life.

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But it was a warm-blooded, placental mammal, confirmed by the tiny body double that was furled in her spiny grasp, suckling at the teats exposed on her underbelly. The mother and her pup were ground pangolins (Smutsia temminckii), one of eight species belonging to the mammalian order Pholidota, found only in Africa and southeast Asia. Though often called scaly anteaters, pangolins are unrelated to the Vermilingua, the suborder containing true anteaters. Actually, pangolins aren’t closely related to much of anything; these animals are unique, clinging to a long, isolated branch on the tree of life.

Safe at last – rescued from poachers, the author holds a ground pangolin and her baby boy on their way back to Gorongosa National Park to be released into their habitat.

Safe at last – rescued from poachers, the author holds a ground pangolin and her baby boy on their way back to Gorongosa National Park to be released into their habitat.

We were in Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique, and someone had told us about her. 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). Like rhinos, pangolins have fallen victim to a deeply-held misconception that their keratinous scales hold medicinal magic: that they can cure skin disease, reduce swelling, or even conquer cancer. 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.

One day and a sting operation later, the pangolin was in my lap. Park rangers, working with the local police, arrested the poachers and rescued the animals. We were driving them out into the core of the park, where we’d release them, safely distant from grasping human hands. Though the pinecone plates of a pangolin’s back can and do stand up to being chewed on by lions, these animals are no match for a human that’s interested enough to simply pick one up and carry it off. Their only other real defense is their smell, an indescribable odor that originates from a noxious-smelling acid secreted from glands below the tail.

I ran my hands along the pangolin’s scales. They were grooved and brittle-chipped, crooked and mud-splattered like fingernails that had seen many years of working with the land. In Asia, the scales of confiscated pangolins bear the circular scars of punches used for medicine. Even the artful hand of evolution, which had crafted this unique armor from a plush pelt, couldn’t save them.

Bipedal and armed with massive claws, a Ground pangolin could easily be confused with a carnivorous Jurassic velociraptor. But these gentle mammals feed exclusively on termites and ants, and their only defense is a thick armor of keratinous scales.

Bipedal and armed with massive claws, a Ground pangolin could easily be confused with a carnivorous Jurassic velociraptor. But these gentle mammals feed exclusively on termites and ants, and their only defense is a thick armor of keratinous scales.

As she unrolled herself from her fortress, a second head surfaced, tiny and pale. It was her male pup, the only one that will be born until he reaches sexual maturity in two years. He was born in captivity, a side effect of stress, and an unrealized bonus prize for the poacher. His scales were half-baked, pliable, and the dark shriveled stump of an umbilical cord poked from his round belly. He moved in the shivering stutters of an infant still unsure about the world.

As the pup crawled up my arm, the mother thrust out a hooked hand to right herself. Her claws, the length of my own fingers, gripped my jacket like rusty nails and tore a gaping hole in the material as they bore into my side. I jumped, and she rolled back into a ball, her pup safely inside. These formidable sickle-claws are used to tear open termite mounds and ant nests, shredding the hard earth in search of scrambling adults and doughy larvae. The pangolin laps them up with its sticky-salivating tongue, longer than its own body and the longest relative to body size of all known mammals. Because pangolins lack teeth entirely, keratinous folds line their stomachs with inverse armor, grinding the insects to bits with the help of ingested pebbles.

Having spent a month in captivity, the pangolin, her baby tenuously clinging to her back, takes the first steps as a free animal.

Having spent a month in captivity, the pangolin, her baby tenuously clinging to her back, takes the first steps as a free animal.

We finally reached an appropriate site: far from the park’s perilous edges, the forest bulged above a tapestry of termite mounds. We set her gently on the ground, and waited.

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. It’s hard to walk on all fours when you’ve got scythes for hands.

In Chinese mythology, pangolins are wayfarers. It’s said that they travel the world by digging through the core of it, tying the earth together with a vast underground labyrinth. In Cantonese, they’re called chun-shua-cap, “the animal that bores through the mountain.” I’d like to think she’s safely reached the Alps by now.

Text and artwork ©Jen Guyton 2014. Photos ©Piotr Naskrecki 2014.

If you would like to learn more about pangolins, and the threats they face from the illegal wildlife trade, read this recent expository piece on the CNN website.

Safe under his mother’s armor, a young pangolin will stay with her until his own scales are large and strong enough to provide protection from predators.

Safe under his mother’s armor, a young pangolin will stay with her until his own scales are large and strong enough to provide protection from predators.