Scaly anteater” by David Brossard

June 19, 2017; The Morning Call

The Pittsburgh Zoo has a rare wildlife treasure, but they aren’t sharing it with the public just yet.

The zoo is in possession of three wild-born pangolins, but the animals are not expected to be on public view for two years. In the meantime, they will be used for research. While conservationists argue that keeping them in captivity is unethical, zookeepers contend that knowing more about the animal and promoting research and awareness is the best way to save it from extinction.

The pangolin is among the world’s most endangered species, but very little is known about them. Pangolins are small, odd-looking mammals with furry bellies, scaly backs, and cone-shaped faces. When threatened, they curl into a little armored ball and emit a noxious acid, like a skunk. They’ve been around since the time of the dinosaurs, and they eat bugs using tongues that roll up in their abdomens and can be longer than their bodies. They look like little armored warriors, but they have no teeth. National Geographic called them one of the “world’s weirdest” creatures.

Pittsburgh zookeepers and others are engaged in a conservation and awareness effort for a cause with an extremely low public profile, a dilemma that is mirrored across the nonprofit sector– what does it really matter if this historic theater dies or if a language dies or a rural area with relatively few residents is poisoned or put at risk. Pangolins are among the world’s most endangered species, but most people will never get the chance to see one in person. So how can the zoo and its partners raise sympathy for a little-known creature that looks like a cross between a dragon and a badger?

“They’re not in the public eye like the lion or rhinoceros, and the effort among several groups in addition to mine to build support for funding programs is starting late,” said Justin Miller of the Florida-based nonprofit group Pangolin Conservation.

Pangolins are the world’s most-trafficked animal. Southeast Asian black markets profit off their meat, which is considered a delicacy, and their scales, which are believed by some to have medicinal properties. Of course, like rhino horns, pangolin scales are made of keratin—the same substance as human fingernails—and have no special medicinal properties whatsoever.

According to John Hayes at The Morning Call, “Unprecedented prosperity in Southeast Asia during the past decade has created a growing culture of nouveau riche professionals who are often criticized in state media for ostentatious displays of black-market novelties…As the number of Southeast Asian multimillionaires has risen, the pangolin population has dropped—in some species to near extinction.”

The nonprofit acknowledges that major conservation obstacles “include a lack of awareness of the problem, lack of resources and capacity to implement conservation programs, and low prioritization by governments and local communities to take action.” China has banned the pangolin trade for 12 years, but it hasn’t helped. Experts estimate that captured black-market pangolin products only represent 10 percent of traffic; focusing on improving education and lowering demand is often more cost-effective.

Zoo conservation efforts are complicated by the fact that pangolins don’t usually do well in captivity; the Telegraph reported that “time spent in captivity tends to bring about stress, depression and malnutrition, leading to early death.” It’s uncertain how long they can live, the range of their habitats, or who their closest relatives might be.

NPQ and other publications have documented the difficulty in raising money and support for the stranger-looking members of the animal kingdom. Species deemed “charismatic megafauna” get the majority of publicity, funding, and research. Nathan Yussy, a zoologist at Northern Michigan University, writes that the impulse to protect cute animals (ones with “big eyes, round heads, and short snouts”) is “hard-wired into our brains.”

The Pittsburgh Zoo’s decision to keep the animals privately for two years is a nod to their mission, which is to “make certain the Earth remains a suitable home for all life.” Ken Kaemmerer, the curator of Mammals at the Pittsburgh Zoo, said, “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take care of a species that we know so little about.”

Lisa Hywood, founder of the Tikki Hywood Trust, a Zimbabwe-based conservation nonprofit, disagrees that keeping pangolins in captivity is the best way to save them.

“If we can’t stop the demand…it doesn’t matter how many zoos are breeding pangolins—we aren’t achieving very much,” she told National Geographic. Jeff Flocken, North America regional director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, agreed, noting that captivity isn’t “just poor animal welfare—typically they die.”

What is a zoo to do? It’s difficult to raise the public profile of an awkward animal when you can’t exhibit it to the public, but advocacy and awareness seem to be the pangolin’s best hope. The Pittsburgh Zoo is collaborating with a half-dozen other zoos and nonprofit organizations to maximize research, fundraising, and conservation efforts. This tactic is common among the United States’ 231 accredited zoos and aquariums, and it’s one they hope will justify the pangolins’ captivity.

“These are important animals and if we can save them we can save a whole ecosystem,” Kaemmerer said.—Erin Rubin