Head keeper Tran Van Truong gently takes a curled-up pangolin into his arms, comforting the shy creature that was rescued months earlier from traffickers in Vietnam.
Life remains precarious for the world’s most-trafficked mammal despite the country’s renewed promise to crack down on the illegal wildlife trade that many blame for the coronavirus pandemic.
Arrests, prosecutions and wildlife seizures are up in Vietnam, but conservationists warn corruption and patchy law enforcement mean the scourge of trafficking continues.
Truong works at a centre in northern Cuc Phuong National Park run by Save Vietnam’s Wildlife – a group that has rescued about 2,000 of the so-called “scaly anteaters” in the last six years.
The 27-year-old remembers the day he discovered more than a 100 tied up in sacks, cast on the ground by police outside the truck that had carried them.
“Most of them were dead due to exhaustion,” he said. “They get easily stressed.”
Vietnam is both a consumption and a transport hub for illegal wildlife in Asia.
The pangolin’s scales are falsely thought to cure anything from impotence to menstrual cramps and even cancer in traditional Chinese and Vietnamese medicine, and its flesh is also seen as a delicacy.
But earlier this year, China removed pangolin parts from its official list of traditional medicines and there are some encouraging signs in Vietnam too.