Pangolins are the world's most trafficked animal, but not much is known about these mysterious animals. Save Vietnam's Wildlife are dedicated to rescuing and releasing pangolins, and this month released 24 back to the wild, including a mother and baby: the first ever release of a captive born pangolin.

This essay is supported by crowdfunding on my Patreon page. Thank you to all my patrons who make it possible to offer these services to the charities. If you have enjoyed this essay then please consider pledging a dollar or more to help me continue to help these organisations.

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As I arrive at their rescue centre , the team are already loading up the 24 sunda pangolins that have been approved by the government for release. They are taken from their dens and placed into boxes filled with straw.

These pangolins were confiscated from illegal wildlife traders and were all destined for use as traditional medicine, possibly in Vietnam, but also often smuggled into other countries, mainly China. Their scales are used to treat a variety of illnesses, but as with many traditional treatments, there is no actual medicinal value. SVW work hard to dispel these myths, indeed one of their biggest triumphs was their successful campaign to make pangolin scales ineligible for claims on health insurance.

For these lucky pangolins, there is just one more day until they are back in the wild where they belong. Before they are loaded onto the bus, we check on a mother and her pangopup, Miracle, who was born at the centre in May 2015. They're much more relaxed than the humans!

With the pangolins all loaded onto the bus, the release team fill the remaining spaces and we set off for the secret location. 

Pangolins are usually hunted with dogs, and are in danger wherever they are found, both in Veitnam and across Asia. The location is kept a secret to help ensure that poachers do not know where to find and recapture them. Happily, they are being released into a protected area, with rangers patrolling the forest to protect the trees and the animals from illegal loggers and poachers.

Until then they have a long journey, but they are quite happy in their warm boxes of straw, where they spend most of their time anyway. With the 16-hour drive underway, we cross our fingers for a smooth journey with no dramas, such as a flat tyre...

Just an hour into the journey, the inevitable occurs, but the team get on with changing the tyre while the others take the chance to check on the pangolins and make sure they're all secure and have water.

We're eager to carry on and get back on the road, driving through the night to reach the incredible forest that is waiting for our friends.

We arrive at the release site in the afternoon and check up on the pangolins again, this time we make sure they all get a big meal of ants and ant eggs to set them off on the right foot. We're all worried about Miracle, who eats a huge amount of food, which is a great start to his big day.

The boxes are secured and tied with rope and string to make impromptu backpacks for the team to carry into the forest. SVW have done extensive research as well as radio tracking for pangolins on previous releases, to give these animals the best possible chance of survival after release. These are not tagged as such a tracking project takes a huge amount of time and money that SVW don't have to spare, but their findings help every new release.

We split into 4 teams, each setting off to trek deep into the forest for a night time release. On previously monitored releases, it was found that pangolins released in the night-time, when they are most active, have a more natural behaviour and will set off into the forest to make a home.

Their home ranges were found to be very small, around 300 metres for each pangolin, so we will put a good distance between each release to give them ample living space. 

Thai Nguyen, founder of SVW, has a very special cargo. He and his team have cared for Miracle through his life until they were able to release him. Notoriously difficult to keep alive in captivity,this pangopup has survived to a healthy weight and also shows all the signs of being a great release candidate, including the ability to forage for live ants. These ants have to be brought to the rescue centre by SVW especially for the pangolins, as they will often die, refusing to eat anything but very specific food.

As he has carried Miracle through life, he now carries Miracle on his shoulders through the forest.

We find a good spot and let them settle down inside the box, before opening the lid.

They look nervous, and Miracle looks to be clinging on to his mum's tail, as pangopups do when they are very young. Now though, although they have lived together in captivity, Miracle is over 2kg, and SVWs research shows that in the wild they will usually be independent by this age. We wonder what will happen next.

We didn't have to wait long to find out. Mum takes a first few steps and scurries off within 30 seconds of release into the forest. She knows that her baby is big enough to survive, and sets off on her own journey, which will hopefully include even more babies.

But how will Miracle react to being without his in this new environment? He is nervous and sniffs around the box for a while. Minutes pass by, and he gets braver. He has no experience of living in the wild apart from the training SVW have given him, but he has strong instincts. He slowly gains courage and climbs a nearby tree, but stays around his box area for 5 or 10 minutes. Is he too scared to go into the wild? What would happen if he refuses to leave? Would he need go back to the rescue centre? 

And then, after all the tentative sniffing and clinging to his box, something clicks in Miracle's mind. He turns toward away from the box, in the opposite direction of his mum, and walks straight into the forest without looking back. 

We stay in silence for a few moments, and Thai shines his headlight in the direction Mircale went. "I hope he is okay," he says, "I wish i could see him one more time."

SVW care so much for the animals they rescue, but there is nothing better for them than achieving their ultimate goal: seeing the animals back in the wild. We head home wandering about the future of Miracle and his mum, and thoughts turn toward the rest of the pangolins back at the rescue centre, still waiting for release. There is still so much work to do. 

This essay is supported by crowdfunding on my Patreon page. Thank you to all my patrons who make it possible to offer these services to the charities. If you have enjoyed this essay then please consider pledging a dollar or more to help me continue to help these organisations.

Please support Save Vietnam's Wildlife by following them on Facebook or visiting their website.

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