These mammals have no natural predators and have been on the planet for 80 million years, but they are now critically endangered.
Compromised pangolins are lucky if they reach Dr Lourens, who is completing her master’s research at the University of Pretoria’s Centre for Veterinary Wildlife Studies in the Faculty of Veterinary Science, and who is fast becoming known across South Africa as the pangolin vet. This year alone, she has treated 31 cases of illegally trafficked wild pangolins that were destined for Asia but confiscated by police – much like Digger, a Temminck’s ground pangolin, one of four species of pangolins found in Africa and the most trafficked animal in the world. Like so many of these creatures, Digger was kept in a closed bag for seven days without any food or water before being found in a sting operation and brought to safety.
It’s no wonder that these animals who are taken out of their natural environment and kept under appalling conditions are usually on the brink of death when they reach Dr Lourens. “Most of them develop pneumonia and because they’ve been starved for extended periods, they become walking skeletons, with everything internally slowly shutting down,” says Dr Lourens. When they are confined, there is no natural light nor space to move, and their body temperatures destabilise. Not being fed weakens their immune systems, which is aggravated by the intense stress they suffer during this ordeal.
“One of the biggest challenges we face is treating them, because so little is known about them,” says Dr Lourens, who describes pangolins – the only mammals that are completely covered in scales rather than fur – as gentle and unassuming. They are shy and elusive animals, which is partly why they have never been widely studied before. However, with illegal trade on the rise and an increase in compromised pangolins that need specialist medical care and rehabilitation, if there is any chance of saving them, this knowledge gap has to be filled quickly. And Dr Lourens is leading the way.
When she started treating sick pangolins, Dr Lourens had no normal reference intervals to guide her treatment plans because these intervals simply did not exist. This means she had no idea what a healthy pangolin’s glucose levels or albumin levels should be, for example. So she went into the field to perform the necessary haematology and biochemistry tests on 25 free-roaming wild pangolins to get the levels – though finding these animals was no easy task. “Pangolins are solitary and nocturnal, but after about four days and 60km of walking, I eventually managed to get these valuable results,” Dr Lourens explains.
Her treatment of sick pangolins is now much more effective because blood results can be compared to the normal reference intervals she attained, giving these animals a better chance at survival. These results will become sought-after among other vets treating pangolins as they’ll serve as an essential guide.
Dr Lourens works at the non-profit Johannesburg Wildlife Veterinary Hospital, which she started with wildlife rehabilitation specialists Nicci Wright and Penelope Morkel, and has performed several world-first procedures on pangolins. Along with her team, she saved a young pangolin’s life by inserting a gastric peg tube directly into its stomach to assist with feeding. When these creatures are awake and scared or under threat, they coil themselves into a tight ball that not even an adult lion can open. “This tube ensured that the pangolin was getting proper nourishment so that we could focus on monitoring and improving the animal’s condition,” explains Dr Lourens. This procedure will be performed in the future on starved pangolins that also urgently need other medical attention.
Another world-first that she was credited with was a plasma transfusion from a healthy pangolin to a compromised one. One of the biggest health concerns of pangolins that have been rescued from the illegal trade is their low levels of blood albumin, the main protein produced in the body that nourishes tissue and transports hormones and vitamins throughout the body. Dr Lourens took blood from a healthy pangolin and processed it into various components: packed red cells and plasma. The plasma was then used to transfuse a sick pangolin, whose health is improving.
These are the sorts of wins that give Dr Lourens hope in this battle she is fighting.