Ladies and gentlemen, this week’s unlikely cute animal is Sid, a baby pangolin. I’m guessing most of you have never heard of a pangolin before, and if you have you probably thought it was some sort of medieval musical instrument. But it is in fact an extremely shy anteater from Africa and Asia whose name comes from the Malay word ‘pengulling,’ which means ‘something that rolls up.’ When under attack, this walking pine cone curls himself into a tight ball, protecting his soft underbelly with his scaly, razor-sharp armor.
I met Sid while filming my new series Freaks and Creeps for National Geographic Wild. He was a resident of the SanWild sanctuary in South Africa where he’d been recently rescued from poachers. In the last few years, pangolins have become a fashionable cure-all in Chinese medicine — a spurious practice that’s fueling a massive illegal trade that led to over 40,000 individuals of these highly endangered species being slaughtered in 2011 alone.
Fortunately, Sid and his mother were rescued by Louise Joubert, who promptly released them. But Sid’s mom, no doubt suffering extreme stress, went on to reject her month-old baby so now Louise is Sid’s surrogate mom. Not being a pangolin herself, Louise has had to figure out some of the mysteries behind one of nature’s most enigmatic creatures. Her first mission was how to keep Sid calm and warm. She’d seen baby pangolins cling to their mom’s back in the first few months of their life. So, Louise created a somewhat fluffier facsimile: a hot water bottle stuffed inside a teddy bear. Fortunately, Sid immediately took to snuggling up against his toastie teddy and began to cheer up considerably.
The next step was what to feed him. Adult pangolins have no teeth but an extremely long tongue, stickier than a cinema carpet, which they use to hoover up thousands of termites every day. So for baby Sid, Louise conjured up a very special smoothie: milk with a sprinkling of termites whizzed up in the blender.
When I arrived for filming, Louise decided it was time to give Sid his first taste of live termites. We drove out into the bush and located a massive termite mound. It was my job to break it open and get the bugs. But termite mounds are tough as concrete, which goes to show how strong pangolin claws are, and in the process of trying to crack it open I smacked myself in the face with the pickaxe. Ouch. After considerable effort, I managed to release a single termite, but Sid was more interested in snuggling up on his teddy than eating it.
Louise tells me that a few months later Sid did catch and eat his first ants and is due to be released back into the wild later this year at a secret location. Fingers crossed he manages to stay hidden this time around as pangolins are in danger of becoming extinct in the next ten years if the poaching doesn’t stop. The world would be a far poorer place without this magical creature that looks more like an extra from Star Wars than a mammal from the African bush.
To follow Sid’s progress head to SanWild’s Facebook page and check out the photos of Sid’s journey
Follow Lucy Cooke on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@mslucycooke
National Geographic explorer, award-winning TV producer & presenter, best-selling author of A LITTLE BOOK OF SLOTH