As a wildlife veterinarian in Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park, Mércia Ângela sometimes finds herself in the role of surrogate mother. When Boogli, the female pangolin (Smutsia temminckii) she’s holding in this image, first arrived in Ângela’s office after rangers rescued her from poachers who had already sold her mother, the infant needed round-the-clock care. She weighed just 2.2 kilograms. “Mércia was one of Boogli’s primary caregivers, working with her every day as she was raised to adulthood,” says photographer and scientist Jen Guyton. A few weeks after Guyton captured this image, rangers released Boogli in a secure area to live out her days in the wild.
Boogli’s happy ending is the result of a conservation strategy that relies as much on law enforcement as it does on biologists and veterinarians like Ângela. She and the park’s other two veterinarians are supported by four security guards and nine of the park’s 300 rangers. As reported in this earlier bioGraphic story, pangolins hold the grim title of world’s most trafficked mammal, and all eight species are decreasing, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN). The meat of poached pangolins is served on dinner plates in high-end restaurants, and their scales are sold on the shelves of traditional medicine shops in China, Vietnam, Ghana, Sierra Leone, and elsewhere. Long touted as a balm for everything from asthma to rheumatism, they fetch as much as $750 per kilogram—even though the scales are comprised of keratin, the same substance found in human hair and fingernails, and studies have found no reliable evidence of their medicinal value.
Pangolins themselves have no taste for meat. They feast on ants and termites, which they unearth with their strong claws before lapping up the insects with their preternaturally long, sticky tongues. In a neat evolutionary trick, they can seal off their noses and ears to keep the insects out while they burrow their snouts in an ant or termite mound.
The heroic efforts of Ângela and the rest of the Gorongosa staff, who work closely with surrounding communities to prevent poaching, mean that many more of region’s pangolins will survive to chase their next termite meal. In 2022, park rangers rescued 21 pangolins from traffickers and another nine were voluntarily surrendered by members of surrounding communities. “Despite Mozambique’s complicated history, I’m so inspired by all of the incredible young Mozambican conservationists I have met,” Guyton says. “Their passion and their optimism give me great hope that Mozambique will continue on its current path toward protecting and reviving the country’s irreplaceable wildernesses, like Gorongosa.”
Jen Guyton is a National Geographic Explorer, photographer, and ecologist based in Gorongosa National Park. She is working on her Ph.D. in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Princeton University. You can see more of Guyton’s work at www.jenguyton.com.
April Reese is a freelance science writer and editor based in Portugal. Her reporting has appeared in Scientific American, Discover, bioGraphic, Science magazine, Aeon, and many other outlets. She holds a master's degree in Environmental Studies from the Yale School of the Environment.