by Maximillian Prager, Harvard University Class of 2019, Organismic and Evolutionary Biology
In the summer of 2014 I found myself for the first time in Africa, for the first time living away from my parents, and for the first time putting my lifelong wildlife fascination into action. I was a rising high school senior from New York City, studying in the E. O. Wilson Laboratory under the biologists and conservationists of Mozambique's Gorongosa National Park. More specifically I was working with Piotr Naskrecki, an entomologist, nature photographer, head of the Wilson Lab, and my mentor and friend. Flying into the park, I didn’t realize that I would be spending my following two summers in this place, and that I would become so enchanted by the scenery, the wildlife, the people, and the cause of nature conservation.
Sunset in Gorongosa - Photo courtesy Jen Guyton
My rather short first visit was dense with unforgettable experiences. In my brief time at the park, I tracked prides with lion specialists, held down a kicking Nyala antelope while a veterinarian tried to sedate it and attach a radio collar, caught bats in mist nets, and was continually bitten, clawed, stung, and sprayed by a myriad small reptiles and invertebrates. However, the most memorable episode of that first summer in Mozambique was my involvement in the rescue of a mother and baby pangolin.
Pangolin in Gorongsa, photo courtesty Jen Guyton
The ground pangolin (Smutsia temminckii) is a bizarre mammal native to sub-Saharan Africa. The pangolin is slow moving yet surprisingly elusive, and hungry for termites; it fills a similar ecological niche, though totally unrelated, to the armadillos and anteaters of the Americas. With its long tail, rounded digging claws, and suit of keratinous plate armor, the pangolin is a true chimaera. It can be found in various forms throughout Asia and Africa, some terrestrial and some arboreal. One might never assume that the pangolin is the most illegally trafficked mammal on the planet. Pangolins are in high demand in China and Vietnam, where their meat is considered a delicacy, and their scales are falsely believed to hold the cure to rheumatism and arthritis. The prevalence of such an unfortunate and unnecessary cause of death in this incredible creature is a travesty.
Pangolins are not easy to find. Over his years of exploration not only in Mozambique, but throughout the southern half of Africa, Piotr had never stumbled across a pangolin. In fact, it seemed as though the pangolin always slipped his grasp; returning to camp one night he might hear that another scientist had seen one but didn’t know where Piotr was at the time, or didn’t have a camera on hand. The pangolin was Piotr’s white whale, as I was reminded repeatedly in the days leading up to the encounter.
The day before I was scheduled to leave Gorongosa, we received word that a poacher in a nearby village held two pangolins in his possession, a mother and baby. He was advertising them for 23000 meticais, approximately the equivalent of $750. Some park rangers set out to arrest the thief and recover the animals. The pair were retrieved safely, we learned that night, and remained in a storage room until release. It would be our responsibility to find a suitable home for them, and to deliver them back into the Park.
The following morning, hours before leaving the park, I hopped in our Toyota Hilux with Piotr and Jen Guyton, a mammalogist, and headed to pick up the pangolins. We parked the car, and Piotr entered the small storage building to pick up the pangolins. Minutes later, he reemerged with his arms wrapped around a heavy, scaled orb that resembled a giant artichoke. He set it down in Jen’s arms and started the car. After some time the orb loosened, and a long, greyhound-like snout rose to taste the outside air for the first time in a few days. Lifting her head further, she revealed a pale newborn, covered in a skin of brittle fingernail scales. Mother pangolins, when threatened, roll up around their young to protect them. The baby's odor was most comparable to the smell of a whelping box after one’s dog or cat has given birth, mildly off-putting yet accented by the aroma of sweet milk. Startled by the bumpy ride, the mother unfolded once more, spilling the baby onto my lap. Piotr told me to act quickly – I had to hold the baby close to my chest and insulate him. The baby shivered in my arms. He was too delicate to be moved. I held him close as we sped toward our destination.
The drop-off point was a sandy scrubland area dotted with termite mounds; the mother pangolin would have plenty of food here. Jen placed the pair down, the mother uncurled. The mighty pangolin stood a lumbering giant, like a mountain with claws, only shrunken to the size of a beagle. She propped the baby up onto her back as expected. The mountain in miniature lifted her long snout and began striding forward into the wilderness. As she disappeared, the rustling of grass and snapping of small sticks grew fainter and fainter.
It is easy to ignore the endangerment of our planet from the concrete jungle of New York City. In all my childhood I had never encountered poachers, and certainly had never rescued an endangered animal. But not twenty days into my first visit to Gorongosa, all of a sudden, the life of an endangered newborn animal briefly rested in my hands. Though I had always felt an attachment to nature and to the cause of conservation, until I came into direct contact with an endangered animal in need of rescue, I didn’t have a clear enough idea of the true value of the natural world at stake. When cradling a baby pangolin your arms, you can no longer overlook the horror of poaching. I felt how light and fragile he was, brought into the world early, displaced from his home, and temporarily out of contact with the one source of life he knew, his mother.
Even the smallest negative contact with humanity, such as this pangolin’s encounter with the poaching industry, can have an incomprehensibly dramatic effect on a species’ endangerment. For Smutsia temminckii and many other endangered animals throughout the world, every individual saved is crucial for the species, and by extension, the ecosystem. The experience made me realize that protecting the natural world is not only an environmental responsibility, but also a deeply personal, moral, and ethical one. I resolved that no matter what I end up doing with my life, I must in some way work to conserve the natural world, and I feel that others must do the same.