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John D. Sutter is a columnist for CNN Opinion and arch of CNN’s Change the Annual project. Chase him on Twitter, Facebook or Google . E-mail him at [email protected] The opinions bidding in this adventure are alone those of the author.

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Cuc Phuong Civic Park, Vietnam (CNN)

Inside a metal basement actuality in rural Vietnam is a beastly believed to be the best trafficked mammal in the world. No sounds arise from its cage. No squeaks or howls. A bankrupt aperture creaks accessible to acknowledge an beastly that seems far too backward to be traded by the ton.

It looks like a …

“Dragon,” I say.

“Artichoke,” says a colleague.

“His name is P8,” a researcher says.

But anybody calls him Lucky.

If you apprehend his adventure it’s accessible to accept why.

Lucky is a pangolin — a rare, scale-covered mammal, about the admeasurement of a abode cat, that’s so camp it about armament your academician to casting through a Rolodex of more-familiar images. It could be declared as a walking pinecone or an artichoke with legs – a tiny anachronistic or affable crocodile. The pangolin possesses none of the cachet of better-known animals that are hot on the all-embracing atramentous market. It lacks the tiger’s grace, the rhino’s beastly strength. If the pangolin went to aerial school, it would be the brawl beatnik — elusive, nocturnal, rarely accustomed and about understood. Aback it’s frightened, it absolutely curls up into a ample ball.

The pangolin could go abolished afore best bodies apprehend it exists.

Or, added to the point: It could go abolished because of that.

Pangolins — two breed of which are endangered and all of which are adequate by all-embracing accord — are trafficked by the accoutrements for their scales, which are above off their bodies for use in acceptable medicine; for their meat, which is a high-end airiness actuality and in China; and for their blood, which is apparent as a healing tonic.

“It’s about like, ‘You’ve got a pangolin you’ve got a amber bag cafeteria — and additionally a anesthetic chest,'” said Crawford Allan, administrator of TRAFFIC North America and a pangolin lover. (He’s got a board abstraction of a pangolin in his appointment in Washington.)

The numbers are astounding. By the best bourgeois estimates, 10,000 pangolins are trafficked illegally anniversary year. If you accept alone 10% to 20% of the complete barter is arise by the annual media, the accurate cardinal trafficked over a two-year aeon was 116,990 to 233,980, according to Annamiticus, an advancement group.

No one knows how abounding pangolins are larboard in the wild.

But scientists and activists say the cardinal is shrinking fast.

Some experts say the pangolin is acceptable the best trafficked mammal in the world. It’s absurd to say for certain, of course, because poachers don’t absolutely abide spreadsheets on their activities. But abreast from pangolins, alone elephants would arise abutting to the most-trafficked appellation in agreement of complete numbers, said Dan Challender, co-chair of the pangolin specialist accumulation at the All-embracing Union for Absorption of Attributes and a Ph.D. applicant at the University of Kent.

Yet, few assume to care. All-embracing ecology groups and governments accept been apathetic to armamentarium pangolin analysis and rescue. You don’t see them on the awning of Civic Geographic. You rarely acquisition them in business campaigns. On a two-week cruise to Vietnam and Indonesia, I did arise beyond a few pangolin enthusiasts who accept committed their lives to extenuative these analytical creatures.

DIGITAL DOC: Central the actionable beastly trade

Video by John. D. Sutter and Edythe McNamee/CNN

The activists and advisers are accomplishing amazing, accessible work.

But they accept awfully bald support.

On this trip, I capital to bulk out why that’s draft — and what ability be done to stop the pangolin from action extinct. Afterwards affair Advantageous at a pangolin rehabilitation and accomplishment centermost in Vietnam, I set out to trace his aisle in reverse. How does a pangolin end up in the actionable barter in the aboriginal place? Who runs these operations? What are their motives? How could the barter be shut down? The adventure would booty me to restaurants and anesthetic shops area pangolin is sold; to accommodated with mafia-type pangolin administration (one of whom offered to advertise me — me who wears hipster glasses, isn’t addict and looks annihilation like he belongs in the wildlife mafia — three accoutrements of pangolins, live); and concluded with me active about the forests of Sumatra, Indonesia, acquirements from poachers absolutely why and how they coursing pangolin.

It’s accessible you’ve apprehend this far and still are thinking: Why does this matter? That’s a catechism — and I apparently shouldn’t accept this up advanced — I begin myself allurement afresh and afresh on this trip. It nagged at me from one area to the next, like a arrow ashore in my side. But if you appetite to accept pangolins — or the actionable wildlife barter in accustomed – it is conceivably the capital question.

It’s the one I bald to answer.

I’d never heard of pangolins.

I got weirdly bedeviled with them alone afterwards CNN readers voted aftermost year for me to awning actionable wildlife trafficking as allotment of my Change the Annual project, which focuses on bringing absorption to bottom-of-the-list issues and places. Aback I started calling up experts on this topic, I had no abstraction what they were talking about.

Have you heard of the pangolin? one wildlife able asked by phone.

Ummmm, I said, aimlessly accounting into Google.

How do you spell that again?

The added I learned, however, the added I fell in adulation with this awkward underdog. Do a quick YouTube coursing (P-A-N-G-O-L-I-N) and I’m abiding you will, too.

Among the gems you’ll find:

Pangolins, it turns out, are appealing abundant bulletproof in the wild.

We’re their alone aboveboard threat.

When the aperture opened to Lucky’s cage, he didn’t arise to be alive.

He was aloof this nautilus of rust-colored scales, all coiled up in a brawl central that underground metal box, which was affiliated by a accurate aqueduct to his cage, or “pangolarium,” as it’s declared actuality at Cuc Phuong Civic Park.

I’d acclimatized at the esplanade backward that morning afterwards active about 3½ hours from Hanoi, accomplished astronomic gumdrop mountains and abounding rice paddies that reflected complete rectangles of sky aback the sun peeked through the rain. Phuong Quang Tran, a researcher who alien me to Lucky, met me at the aboideau of the Carnivore and Pangolin Absorption Program, aloof alfresco the park. The ambience reminded me of the TV appearance “Lost,” with person-sized ferns and crumbling accurate barrio covered in moss. The aboideau at Pangolin Rehab, as I’ll alarm it, is topped with acid wire. Hidden cameras annex on the acreage like birds of prey.

With pangolins, it turns out, you can’t be too careful.

I had to dip my boots in two vats of actinic antibacterial afore I was acclimatized into the pangolarium. This was for the pangolins’ protection, not mine.

“We don’t apperceive why they die,” Phuong said matter-of-factly.

But it happens frequently in captivity.

Lucky is the bigger and friendliest pangolin at Cuc Phuong Civic Esplanade in Vietnam. He advised alone 4 pounds aback he was bedeviled from the wildlife trade. He now weighs 17 pounds.

JM for CNN

These pangolins accept abhorred a above annual of pangolin afterlife — poaching — because they were begin in shipments that were intercepted by the Vietnamese government, apprenticed for markets in Hanoi or, by road, to China.

Here, they face new threats.

Maybe it’s the aliment that kills them, Phuong said. There’s not been abundant analysis on what pangolins eat in the agrarian to apperceive for assertive what their caregivers should augment them in captivity. Pangolin Adjust has been about acknowledged with a aggregate of arctic all-overs (25%), soy (35%) and silkworm larvae (50%).

Yet they still accept casual digestive problems.

And the emphasis of bondage alone can be fatal.

It’s one acumen you rarely — about never, absolutely — see them in zoos.

(The San Diego Zoo is the alone one in North America that has a pangolin. His name is Baba. The zoo acclimated to accept two pangolins, but one died of digestive problems, according to Jenny Mehlow, a backer for the zoo.)

It’s adamantine to enlarge the bulk of emphasis that trafficking routes put on pangolins. They’re not blessed travelers. About they haven’t had aliment or baptize for canicule and are alarmingly dehydrated. Forty percent die aural a day or two of accession at the center, Phuong told me. The draft are injected with hydrating fluids and kept in apprehension until they can be abashed to a beyond cage.

Sources: TRAFFIC, South Africa and IUCN. Note: Cornball numbers are for South Africa only.

All of this fabricated me a little afraid to accommodated Lucky.

After continuing there for a minute, I saw him breathing. It was adamantine to apprehension at first, but the hexagonal scales on his aback rose and fell in a slow, amphibian motion. He allegation accept smelled us, because his slender, toothless bill started to blink out of the brawl like a cobra ascent from a snake charmer’s basket. Soon, he was adorable at us with analytical blueberry eyes, bobbing his arch and sniffing the air.

The photographer, who asked not to be articular in this adventure because he lives in Vietnam and fears retribution, got appropriate in his face — SNAP SNAP SNAP — and Advantageous aloof kept investigating the scene, putting his adenoids appropriate up adjoin the lens.

“He’s performing,” Phuong said with a smile.

After Advantageous had a few dozen photos taken, a artisan from Pangolin Adjust best up the pangolin — wait, what? — and anesthetized him over to me. I approved to debris at first, but I could acquaint this was draft whether I capital it to or not.

He acquainted like a agglomeration of artery in my arms, and a squirmy one. He’s one of the bigger pangolins in the apple in captivity, Phuong told me. He weighs about 8 kilos, or 17 pounds. Advantageous captivated his girthy pangolin anatomy about my forearm, scales and claws avidity my skin, and captivated on tight. His abdomen was balmy and hairy, a somewhat awkward admonition that this contrarily reptilian-looking affair is absolutely a mammal. His anatomy clamped about my arm like a behemothic breeze bracelet.

“Careful, he’s absolute strong,” Phuong said.

I could tell. This beastly allegation accept the abs of Pink.

And, this is embarrassing, but I affectionate of capital him off of me.

Partly to accept my arm back.

And mostly because I didn’t appetite to bead him.

I’m bad at captivation babies.

Just anticipate how abundant I could emphasis out a pangolin.

After affair Lucky, I sat in the appointment at Pangolin Adjust with Phuong and ashamed off what I anticipation would be a ridiculously softball annual of questions about pangolins:

Phuong, who has talked about pangolins at all-embracing conferences, couldn’t acknowledgment any of these with specificity. No one can. It’s accustomed that pangolins can animate up to 20 years in captivity, for example, but it’s not bright absolutely how affiliated they animate in the wild. Pangolins eat ants, termites and assorted larvae, but it’s additionally accessible they absorb bee larvae, flies, worms and crickets, according to a 2007 abstruse analysis of pangolin diets and husbandry. Estimates on their weight ambit from 4 to 72 pounds.

Pangolins are a near-complete accurate mystery.

And it’s not adamantine to see why if you accumulate dabbling around.

Next question: What’s your anniversary budget?

Answer: $27,000.

That includes a agents of seven, the adjust affairs at Cuc Phuong Civic Park, and a affairs to absolution pangolins at Cát Tiên Civic Esplanade in the south of Vietnam.

A waitress in Hanoi, Vietnam, shows how pangolin is prepared. Pangolin sells for as abundant as $350 per kilo.

John Sutter/CNN

“You acquisition pangolins, and I’ll accord you money.” That’s what Ruslan, 58, says he was told by a wildlife banker from out of town.

John Sutter/CNN

Pangolins are traded by the ton, arctic and alive. They’re sometimes alloyed with arctic angle or snakes as cover.

Courtesy TRAFFIC Southeast Asia

Governments and all-embracing absorption organizations tend to put their beef abaft “charismatic” breed like the cornball or elephant, which are apparent in zoos accustomed and are universally beloved.

But pangolins, as a advance at Pangolin Rehab, Thai Van Nguyen, explained it to me, are “not a absolute adorable breed — not beautiful, not colorful.

“Some bodies — Western bodies — anticipate it’s a crocodile.”

It’s accurate that added absorption has been advancing the pangolin’s way recently. The All-embracing Union for the Absorption of Attributes hosted Apple Pangolin Day on February 15, the day afore I larboard for Vietnam. The capital anniversary seemed to be ambulatory abutment online. Some annual organizations — from Yale Environment 360 to the BBC — accept acquaint videos and articles. And, out of impaired luck and because he’s a nice guy, I somehow abiding the architect of that “honey badger” YouTube video to accomplish a new (hopefully) viral video about pangolins as allotment of this story.

But the pangolin, as biographer Richard Conniff put it, is still “obscure” at best.

In the accessible mind, it’s absolutely no rhino.

When I acquaint bodies about pangolins, they about anticipate I’m adage “penguin” with some anew acquired Paula Deen accent.

Perhaps no one would absence a breed they never knew existed.

The Pangolin Adjust advisers and others don’t see it as an draft that we apperceive so little about pangolins. It’s a bias, and I agree. The All-embracing Union for Absorption of Attributes says the sunda pangolin citizenry (which includes Lucky) acceptable has beneath by 50% in contempo years — but cipher knows what baseline the breed is starting from. An amend is due out afterwards this year, but the alone affair bright about pangolin science is how little of it is actuality done, and that’s because so little of it is actuality funded. What we’re larboard with is anecdotal evidence, like the belief I heard from Thai in Vietnam. He grew up here, not far from Cuc Phuong Civic Park, and remembers seeing pangolins alfresco the esplanade aback he was a kid.

Now, he said, it would be absurd to acquisition a agrarian pangolin anywhere nearby. You could sit alfresco all night — night afterwards night — and never, anytime see one.

I spent two nights at Cuc Phuong Civic Park, and the best I backward the added I started action like a pangolin. That’s weird, I know, but it’s not absolutely afterwards precedent. A few years ago, children’s columnist Anna Dewdney (if you accept adolescent kids, they apparently apperceive her “Llama Llama” series) visited Cuc Phong to see pangolins afore she wrote the book, “Roly Poly Pangolin,” about a shy beastly that learns to accomplish friends. She based it on her adventures at the park.

“They’re like little tiny dog dragons,” she told me. “They attending like dragons but they’re absolutely nonaggressive and aback they get to apperceive you they’re absolute friendly. They’re absolute shy. They’re like babyish children. So they don’t balmy up to you appropriate abroad but already they apperceive you, they bond.”

Her admirer recommended she attending into accomplishing a book on pangolins because he’d apprehend about them somewhere, and they reminded him of her.

Dewdney’s awesome, so she didn’t booty breach at that.

“As a babyish child, aback I acquainted afflicted or abashed of situations, what I would do is go off by myself and draw. I would go to my allowance and shut the door. And it’s still what I do. I can’t animate in a burghal because of the affiliated battery of things and people. I animate in Vermont area it’s about absolute quiet.

“When I feel overwhelmed, I shut the aperture and be by myself in my own little safe world. Pangolins do that at any acclimatized moment. They aloof coil up into a brawl and they are in their own little apple in that way. Literally, they attending like a little annular planet.”

A little annular planet. I adulation that.

Pangolins are trafficked by acreage and sea in Southeast Asia and China. As aliment abate in the region, pangolin is additionally actuality sourced from Africa, experts say. Source: Education for Attributes Vietnam

I’m not abundant of a beheld artist, but I anticipate about anyone can see a bit of themselves in those stories. I was an awkward kid, bad at baseball, acceptable at gymnastics; I anticipate all of us appointment situations in which it ability be advantageous to coil up into a brawl of armor and cautiously delay out the world. I would feel that way afterwards on this trip, in Sumatra, affair with the mafia-esque wildlife traffickers.

At Cuc Phuong, I backward in what seemed like an alone building. There was no heat, and the windows didn’t shut all the way. I acquainted like a pangolin as I burrowed beneath all the blankets I could find, aggravating to breach balmy during the 40-degree nights, crimper up in a ball.

My aboriginal night in the park, I backward up backward to try to see one of the nocturnal pangolins in action. It’s difficult to glimpse them because they appear from their burrows for alone several annual at a time and afresh acknowledgment to safety.

I was advantageous abundant to bolt a pangolin accustomed alone as P21 rummaging about that night. This pangolin, I learned, was abandoned for three years (three years!) not because she was ailing but because the centermost didn’t accept abundant money or allowance to move her into the beyond pangolarium. The night I saw her, she seemed to appetite to absolution some of that pent-up energy.

At first, all I heard was a complete — the acute of a fence, which articulate like a actuality banging on a typewriter. I looked up to see P21 skittering beyond the chain-link cage. She seemed to be adequate herself, active up the fence, beyond a timberline annex — then, suddenly, up my thigh. She looked at me absurd for a moment and afresh went aback to her rounds.

All that was cute, but P21 won me over aback she latched her aback legs and able-bodied appendage assimilate the fence and levitated into the air — her complete anatomy affiliated out horizontally, her claws extensive advanced in a Superwoman pangolin pose.

She backward that way for absolutely a affiliated time, sniffing the air.

She apparently was adorable for ants, but I absurd her absent to fly.

A pangolin with a dream.

The abutting night, I saw Advantageous in action.

Phuong brought an ant backup and propped it up in his cage. It wasn’t affiliated afore he smelled the ants. I heard him sniffing the air — SNNNF SNNNF SNNNF — like the complete a automatic air pump makes aback you’re topping off a car tire’s pressure.

Lucky’s not as quick-moving as the added pangolins, but there was article bewitched about seeing him in his aspect — out in his cage at night.

I begin myself animated ear to ear, bedlam for no reason.

It’s usually accurate that the added time you absorb aggravating to get to apperceive someone, the bigger you analyze with him or her, and the added you like anniversary other.

That was the case with Advantageous and me. I abstruse — aback he wasn’t absorbed to my arm — that Advantageous is the alone pangolin at Pangolin Adjust with a nickname. He got it from Thai, the spiky-haired, motorcycle-riding advance who rescued him from a barn in December 2006, afterwards the government bedeviled 60-some pangolins. Admiral told Thai, as he anecdotal it to me, that he alone could accomplishment the bristles pangolins that advised the least. Pangolins, like cocaine, are awash by weight. And the admiral planned to resell the added pangolins at bargain to annual the government.

(That base but aforetime acknowledged convenance has aback been discontinued, a government ecology official told me. He did not abjure that such auctions had taken abode in the past. Environmentalists would adopt the pangolins be euthanized so they don’t go into the actionable bazaar and end up agriculture appeal for the animals.)

Lucky was one of the aboriginal pangolins.

Totally expendable.

And that’s absolutely why he fabricated it.

Time-out for a quiz:

Is the pangolin your spirit animal?

Answer yes or no to these bristles questions.

If you answered yes to any of these questions afresh — congratulations! — you ability aloof be a pangolin person. Maybe it’s best to accumulate this to yourself …

T actuality were six pangolins aback I acclimatized at Pangolin Adjust and bristles by the time I left.

Thankfully, none of them died of journalist-related stress.

But one of them, P26, did leave for a new home.

His car acclimatized about 4 a.m. I met Phuong about 3 to watch him get the paperwork ready. The antecedent day, he’d added a radio-tracking accessory to P26’s appendage by conduct two holes in one of his scales. P26 is accomplishing what Phuong hopes all of the pangolins actuality will eventually do: He’s action aback to the wild, to a civic esplanade in the south of Vietnam, area the altitude is warmer and the blackmail of actuality bolter is a little lower.

So far, the Carnivore and Pangolin Absorption Affairs has appear bristles pangolins in Cát Tiên Civic Park. Advisers are aggravating to prove such releases are viable, but three of the pangolins accept absent their tracking accessories (Phuong put P26’s lower on his tail, in hopes that ability help) and one of their transmitter batteries died. In January, one of the pangolins that had been appear died as well.

It’s cryptic what absolutely happened, Phuong said.

His guess?

Stress.

“It’s a absolute sad story.”

That was Phuong’s admired pangolin, the liveliest of the bunch.

Lucky, one of the added pangolins that’s gotten to him personally, acceptable will never be appear into a park, Phuong told me. The advisers accord the pangolins tests to see if they’re accessible for release. They adumbrate their food, coffin it hardly underground, adviser them added closely. The ambition is to see if they’re accessible to bulwark for themselves in the agrarian — or if they’ve gotten acclimatized to action in captivity.

Lucky could never pass, Phuong said.

He wouldn’t dig for the food. He waits to be served.

He’s too acclimated to humans.

Phuong Quang Tran prepares to put animate all-overs in a basin for a pangolin alleged Lucky.

JM for CNN

I kept my headlamp on as I followed Phuong accomplished the vats of bottom antibacterial and to the apprehension cage area P26 was waiting. Phuong helped move him into a board box he’d fabricated by hand. It’s the affectionate of beastly carrier you’d apprehend to see in a cartoon: holes on the ancillary for air, packing blooper absorbed to the top.

P26 would be apprenticed to Hanoi, afresh aureate to Ho Chi Minh City, and afresh apprenticed to Cát Tiên Civic Park, area he would be released, on March 17.

I could acquaint Phuong was afraid as he watched the car abandon in the pre-dawn darkness. “OK, acceptable luck to you!” he said in a singsong way that articulate about like a prayer.

I was told afterwards by Louise Fletcher, who handles pangolin releases at Cát Tiên Civic Park, that advisers put P26 out in the esplanade central a box, opened it, and waited for him to run. This was no “Free Willy” moment. He didn’t budge.

So they larboard the box out there overnight, acquisitive this pangolin — anticipation to be the shyest of all these Morrissey types — assuredly would get up the assumption to leave.

I said goodbye to the Pangolin Adjust centermost aboriginal the abutting day, cerebration how advantageous I was to accept met some of these amazingly camp animals, anniversary with its own personality and characteristics. P8 is huge. P26 is shy. P21 is an acrobat.

None is aloof like the next.

There’s article admirable about encountering a beastly you had no abstraction existed, and that millions of years of change helped create. The ancient pangolin fossils date aback to the Eocene epoch, 35 actor to 55 actor years ago, anon afterwards the dinosaurs went extinct. It already was anticipation that pangolins were best carefully accompanying to anteaters, sloths and armadillos. New evidence, however, suggests they may be added agnate to carnivorans, a assorted accumulation of animals that includes cats, civets, dogs and pandas. All eight breed of pangolin, four in Africa and four in Asia, are in the adjustment Pholidota, which is fabricated up absolutely of pangolins. The name pangolin comes from a Malay chat acceptation “one that rolls up.”

Just acumen they’re animate — and in such an adorable anatomy — has a assertive abracadabra to it. And afresh there are all the little surprises — that P21 can levitate; that P8’s sniffing sounds like a DustBuster; that their scales feel like balsa wood; and that they can awning their eyes and aerial so all-overs don’t clamber in while they’re eating.

They’re analytical little bastards.

And I developed an absurd affection for them.

Which fabricated the abutting leg of my cruise all the harder.

From Cuc Phuong Civic Park, I collection to Hanoi, a bustling, old-world burghal that’s beat by honking motorbikes and old women cutting cone-shaped hats. The burghal is accustomed for its ambrosial pho, or brainstorm soup, which barter eat while sitting at plastic, alfresco tables sized for 2-year-olds. The soup is lovely. You about don’t accept to order. Aloof sit bottomward and a bucket-sized basin arrives in no time, clouds of beef ascent from the broth.

There’s little adventitious you’ll be served brainstorm soup with pangolin.

The meat is far too expensive.

To eat pangolin, you accept to go looking.

And you allegation lots of cash.

With the advice of a wildlife abomination investigator from the accumulation Education for Attributes Vietnam, I went out in coursing of restaurants that advertise pangolin meat. I was a little afraid about this for several reasons: It’s actionable to buy and advertise pangolin; I was filming with a hidden camera; and I absolutely didn’t appetite to eat a pangolin.

My editor, however, did appetite me to adjustment it — both to prove that it’s accessible and to acquisition out what it tastes like. What if it’s delicious? she asked afore I left.

I squirmed at the anticipation of it.

Like I’m action to arise aback proclaiming pangolin the new pork belly?

The aboriginal stop we fabricated was at a high-end restaurant with a regal-looking bobcat categorical into its window. The aperture was lined with angle tanks, and the hostess stood beside a fan of peacock accoutrement ancient into a affectionate of calm approach tree.

All of the waitresses were dressed alike: sherbet-orange blazers and gold bespatter dresses. One showed us a menu. In the “wild animal” section, abreast the back, was a annual of a animate pangolin. (Imagine, for a moment, a U.S. card with an angel of a animate craven on it — well, alfresco the appearance “Portlandia.”) It was labeled acutely — and the “appetizing” alertness options included: “blood wine,” “stir-fried pangolin bark with onion and mushroom,” pangolin “steamed with amber and citronella,” pangolin “steamed with Chinese acceptable medicine”; and, for the unadventurous, the bodies who would rather eat pangolin at Chili’s, there’s “grilled” pangolin, too.

Pangolin could be able in about 30 minutes, a waitress said with a smile. You accept to adjustment it whole, at a minimum of 5 kilos (11 pounds). Price: $350 per kilo.

Or $1,750.

(Maybe it’s best to breach it with a group).

I advised acclimation it appropriate then, although I wondered how I would annual for an endangered-animal meal on a CNN bulk report.

Sir, it seems you’ve exceeded your per diem limit.

Traditional anesthetic has a affiliated history in Vietnam and China. Pangolin scales are fabricated of the aforementioned absolute as fingernails but are claimed to advice with lactation issues and added ailments.

JM for CNN

I talked it over with Z, the wildlife investigator who was my bout adviser and whose character I’m denial because he continues to investigate the wildlife barter in Vietnam undercover. He appropriate that I not abode the adjustment – or that he didn’t appetite to be a allotment of it if I did. I’d be giving a abundant bulk of money to a actionable industry, he said. And I’d additionally be ensuring that one specific animate pangolin (I anticipation of Advantageous in this moment) would end up dead.

That aftermost allotment didn’t absolutely accomplish faculty to me.

I ample pangolins, like craven or whatever, would already be asleep in a meat freezer in the kitchen. Consequently, I ample I could altercate (to myself and to you) that I hadn’t absolutely asleep a pangolin by acclimation it. It was already dead.

See! Not my fault!

But that’s not how it works.

As the waitress explained, with the address of a “Downton Abbey” casting member, the agents would accompany the pangolin out to the table animate — and aperture its throat.

Right in advanced of us.

Think of it as a affection affirmation measure, advised to prove to us that we absolutely were bistro real, endangered pangolin. Not a substitute.

Won’t the claret get everywhere? I asked, acumen that’s apparently not a catechism a 18-carat pangolin eater would absolutely be anxious with. No, she said, giggling. Of advance it wouldn’t. And we’ll serve the claret to you with wine if you’d like.

Rattled by this — they aperture its throat at your table?! — I asked for added advice about the alertness methods. Accession waitress, aural earshot, approached us with her phone. This is what it looks like, she said, affairs up a photo of a pangolin lying on its aback on a plate, chubby little legs afraid up in the air, claws coiled under.

Was this served here? I asked.

Yes.

Have you anytime tasted it?

Yes.

What does it aftertaste like?

Delicious.

I bald to anticipate this over.

Thanks, I said. Maybe we’ll be back.

“What does pangolin aftertaste like?”

Super-scientific poll results:

One man was served pangolin at an end-of-year university party.

Another ate it not to draft his awning as an investigator.

In November, the Vietnamese government issued a decree bumping pangolins up to the accomplished class of acknowledged protection, banning any use, auction or control of animate or asleep pangolin, according to Do Quang Tung, the government’s administrator of CITES, the United Nations accord that governs barter of endangered breed of plants and animals.

The best penalty, he said, is $25,000 or seven years in prison.

Strike two for bistro pangolin, right?

Maybe not. Administration doesn’t absolutely complete rigorous.

At accession restaurant, the waitress absolutely told me acclimation pangolin is legal.

And here’s an extract from my chat with Tung:

Me: “When I was in the country afresh it was adequately accessible to acquisition aliment affairs pangolin scales and restaurants affairs pangolin meat. I’m apprehensive what your animadversion is on that. It was my consequence — and it’s the consequence of some ecology groups — that this absolute is awash adequately openly.”

Tung: “This affairs is not acclimatized in Vietnam.”

Me: “Does it appear though?”

Tung: “No.”

Me: “It’s article that I saw there immediate …”

Tung, backtracking: “Yes, of advance there accept been some restaurants or some areas affairs that, but it’s actionable now.”

“Of advance there accept been.” Added like there are. I begin pangolin meat for auction in three restaurants; pangolin scales for auction in three acceptable anesthetic shops; and a advancing pangolin artefact on affectation at a fourth restaurant in Hanoi.

All of this was in a bulk of hours.

At the fourth restaurant, we saw four bottle jars displayed acutely on the aback bank of the dining room. Three of the jars were covered in red velvet, and all were beneath spotlights. With the permission of the delay staff, but afterwards anecdotic myself as a journalist, Z and I pulled aback the bolt on the covered jars.

Floating lizards, buck arms, baron cobra. And pangolin.

Floating in rice wine. The pangolin’s argot afraid grotesquely out of its mouth.

No way I’m bubbler that, I thought. (And it would be absurd now, I’m told, aback the pangolin wine was removed afterwards Z arise it to the police).

But the abutting day, we did go aback to the throat-slitting restaurant.

Composite card of endangered wildlife:

For Hanoi, Vietnam; prices according to Z and added agents at Education for Attributes Vietnam, unless contrarily noted; all blossom allowances are, of course, declared but ambiguous and irresponsible:

There are affluence of agency to rationalize a pangolin purchase.

Here in Vietnam, it’s a assurance you’ve fabricated it. The country is still antipathetic — red flag, chicken brilliant — but its economy, like China’s, has opened up and boomed in contempo years. Cachet ability has followed. I saw at atomic three couples in Hanoi demography their bells photos — like their actual, for-real bells photos, white dresses and the accomplished bit — in advanced of the logo for a Louis-Vuitton store.

Eating cornball horn, tiger cartilage or pangolin meat has a agnate effect.

We’re rich, y’all. Booty a look.

Who cares whether the beastly is rare, right? The point is it’s expensive. Like bistro added alien animals, it’s a “VIP-only” experience, one pangolin eater told me.

The altercation is altered for pangolin scales. They’re awash for about $600 per kilo in bright artificial accoutrements in acceptable anesthetic shops in Hanoi. Broiled and curled, they attending like seashells or pork rinds. Not absolutely appetizing. But a history spanning accoutrements of years emphasizes the use of pangolin scales to cure lactation issues in women. Aback I went into these shops, I was additionally told the scales, aback arena up and eaten with rice, can breach claret apportionment problems and cure cancer.

It’s not about status, it’s about declared healing.

It affairs beneath whether this absolutely works (keep in apperception pangolin scales absolutely are fabricated of the aforementioned absolute begin in fingernails) than that bodies accept it does.

Neither of those arguments works able-bodied for me.

I’m not a affiliate of the Vietnamese nouveau riche.

And, thankfully, no one’s allurement me to lactate.

The added actuating altercation is that I’ve eaten attenuate animals before.

This hunting dog in Sumatra, Indonesia, has been accomplished on the aroma of pangolins, which are difficult to acquisition at night.

John Sutter/CNN

Pangolin scales are awash in acceptable anesthetic shops like those begin in an old division of Hanoi.

JM for CNN

Pangolin fetus is an ambiguous aphrodisiac.

Courtesy TRAFFIC Southeast Asia

On appointment for CNN in Alaska, for example, I ate walrus stew, with beard still on the chunks of blubbery meat; and broiled allowance meat, which I biconcave in “seal oil.”

I didn’t seek out a walrus- and seal-eating experiences. But I was blockage in alien aboriginal villages, and families were affectionate abundant to action these dishes to me. I anticipation it would be unthinkably abrupt to refuse.

Why not aloof catch bottomward and adjustment pangolin?

These thoughts ran through my apperception as Z and I went aback to the aboriginal restaurant and sat bottomward at a table. There was a aphotic allotment of me that capital to eat a pangolin.

Who isn’t analytical about the new or forbidden?

What does it aftertaste like?

The alertness adjustment didn’t absolutely bulk that abundant to me. In a way, it’s added honest and ethical to watch an animal’s throat be aperture in advanced of you than to pretend, as best of us do in America, that worse things don’t appear in branch farms, far alfresco our restaurants and kept, intentionally, far from afterimage and mind. We’re big hypocrites aback it comes to animals in America, and I’ll accommodate myself in that assessment. I’ve consistently been a meat eater, but I accept acclimatized that up, at atomic temporarily, afterward this advertisement trip. Bodies actuality in Hanoi eat dogs, which we’d never dream of doing. But Americans eat pigs, and they’re aloof as acute and loving.

For pangolins, what affairs is that they’re rare.

And they’re faced with the anticipation of extinction.

I anticipation about Lucky. I accustomed the after-effects of acclimation pangolin, both for an beastly I’d weirdly arise to affliction about — and for a bent action that’s affiliated in with added awful networks. One pangolin bang-up in Vietnam is nicknamed “Iron Face,” and she’s anticipation to accord in added adulterous appurtenances as well. Some pangolin administration are accustomed to barter cornball horn, for instance. (The aftermost Javan cornball in Vietnam was poached in 2010, according to Apple Wildlife Fund. Now, as few as 35 individuals remain, all of them alfresco this country.) Added wildlife abomination networks accept been affiliated to Al-Shabaab, the East African active accumulation that the United States identifies as a agitator organization, and to the smuggling of accoutrements and drugs, which alike bodies who aren’t beastly lovers can accede is bad.

It’s arrogance and ignorance, all of it.

Because I knew all that, I couldn’t abdomen pangolin.

I capital to — for the adventure of it, mostly, and for the adventure — but I couldn’t.

Z and I got the pho instead.

It’s absurd to say absolutely area Advantageous and the added trafficked pangolins in Vietnam came from. But there’s acumen to doubtable Indonesia, the 253-million-person nation fabricated up of accoutrements of islands that alternate the equator.

In August 2013, about 7 accoutrements of pangolins from Indonesia were bedeviled at a anchorage in Haiphong, Vietnam. In 2008, about 14 accoutrements of pangolins, frozen, were bedeviled in Sumatra, the westernmost island, acceptable apprenticed for Vietnam or China.

The man amenable for that 14-ton apprehension — I’ll alarm him Q to assure his character — best me up at the airport in Sumatra. He’s a put-together guy who wears button-up shirts, genitalia his beard in the average and listens to jazz.

He additionally leads a bifold life.

He works as an clandestine wildlife investigator for an all-embracing organization.

His adolescent accouchement anticipate he’s unemployed.

Q has been able to cull off that bamboozlement because of claimed connections. Accession in Q’s arrangement (I’m not adage absolutely who) already was a tiger-trading and slaughtering kingpin. Ask him about it and Q artlessly says that this man is partly amenable for the actuality that there are alone 400-some tigers larboard in Sumatra.

But Q is authoritative acceptable on that connection. He uses his articulation to a now-deceased baron to get admission to bent wildlife-trading networks.

And afresh he shuts them down.

He’s had a hasty bulk of success.

I asked Q to advice me accept the accumulation ancillary of the pangolin trade. Area do the pangolins arise from, and how are they alien for export?

He towed me into that world, which acquainted at times like I was actuality pulled into an adventure of “CSI” or “Weeds.” I hoped the accomplished affair wouldn’t end up like “Locked Up Abroad” — me in jail, or worse, larboard in the calmly of bloodthirsty traffickers.

Q wasn’t too abating on that front.

At breakfast afore we set off to accommodated with one of the pangolin mafiosi, he alone on the table a jar absolute a dead, babyish pangolin amphibian in a chicken liquid.

A baron we were action to accommodated gave this to Q as a gift, he told me.

Q plays every situation, alarming or not, with a smile and a joke. But Q knew I would be taping the account with two hidden cameras.

He knew what could appear if this guy noticed.

“Big boss,” he kept cogent me in heavily absolute English. “Big boss.”

Subtext: Don’t end up like that pangolin in the jar.

Encounters with pangolin mafia, adventure 1 of 2:

The aboriginal affiliate of Sumatra’s wildlife-trading mafia who Q helped me accommodated looked like Barack Obama — circumscribed hair, coffee skin, a toothpaste-commercial smile. That lightened the affection a bit. I absolved accomplished his acicular gate, up the driveway and into his active room, which has a ample rug with a lion’s arch on it.

The trafficker, whose character I’m denial aback I did not analyze myself as a journalist, displayed a aberrant affection for pangolins for accession who accustomed to affairs them from hunters and alignment their carriage to beyond cities. (Q told him that I additionally was complex in the actionable wildlife barter in adjustment to authority his cover).

He congenital an complete allowance for pangolins in his house, in the Lebong commune of Sumatra, but he couldn’t accumulate them inside, he told me.

The acceptable news: Some above hunters are now aggravating to assure the pangolin. The bad news: Pangolin is accessible to acquisition on airheaded in Hanoi. Some restaurants aperture its throat in advanced of customers.

JM for CNN

In February, a restaurant in Hanoi kept this pangolin amphibian in rice wine. CNN anchorman John Sutter was told it was removed afterwards authorities were called.

John Sutter/CNN

They kept digging their way out through the asphalt floor.

“Oh, I anticipate this beastly is absolute smart!” the baron said, lighting up.

This man seemed to anticipate pangolins had video-game-like powers. He told me the pangolins approved to escape from his abode by crimper up into affirmation and afresh spinning with Sonic-the-Hedgehog acceleration to couch through the floor.

He said they can adumbrate underwater for upwards of 15 annual afterwards air.

And he told me their claret has bewitched healing backdrop — four of them.

“My bang-up says if you appetite to accomplish anesthetic from pangolins, you booty rice wine and abscess it with a babyish pangolin, and put it in a jar,” he said in a bounded dialect, which I recorded and had translated later. “You don’t accept to mix it with added ingredients, you aloof abscess it with the wine and you put it in a jar. Every morning you alcohol one babyish cup — and it can alleviate you from disease. There are four agency it will help: First, for bark disease. Second, it will accomplish you consistently feel fresh. It will advice you breathe calmly (that’s three) … and I airship what the fourth acumen is.”

I would let the four-reasons affair go, except that he kept action with it: “I agreement you, if you alcohol that wine, you will get healed from those four diseases.”

Right, four.

He said he’s gotten out of the pangolin trading business afresh because it’s chancy to address them. He was aggravating to move pangolins by car from his boondocks to Palembang for consign (usually to Vietnam, he said). The car’s annoy popped on the way and badge threatened to accroach the 1-ton amount of pangolins in the back. “We had to pay about 300 actor (rupiah, or $26,000) to get the pangolins and car out of there,” he said. He laughed about the bribe.

Police threw in a chargeless additional annoy as allotment of the deal.

“With money,” he said, “you can accomplish aggregate easy.”

There was a time, conceivably a decade ago, aback pangolins were so accustomed in some genitalia of Indonesia that bodies absolutely hit them with their cars. Three such car-pangolin crashes were declared to me on my trip.

From them I can draw two conclusions:

None of the pangolins died on impact. The drivers said they checked.

Encounters with pangolin mafia, adventure 2 of 2:

“Would you like to see the snakes?”

That’s a catechism that, in accustomed life, I would consistently say no to … 100% of the time. But on appointment in Sumatra, in a wildlife trafficker’s active room, I had to say yes.

I affectionate of capital to say yes.

The trafficker, the one who gave Q the pangolin in a jar, looked like every biologic banker you’ve apparent casting for a U.S. TV alternation — surfer shorts, button-up, short-sleeve shirt, slouchy-but-I’ll-kill-you demeanor. He led me into his aback alley and opened the aperture to what appeared to be (or aforetime was) a bathroom. Dozens of rice sacks were angry at the top and each, from my understanding, independent a animate python. I didn’t absolutely accept that until this man affective one of the accoutrements and dumped out a 12-foot python at my anxiety — my bald feet, by the way.

I jumped like a meerkat — anon over the snake, which was slithering at me, and fast. The baron and my translator anticipation this was appealing hilarious.

Where do you go from there except aback to the sitting allowance to allocution about trafficking pangolins? From my armchair by the door, I could see the trafficker’s kids about the bend watching TV and arena with little-kid toys. One (no joke) was captivation a helium airship in the appearance of a panda, an endangered animal.

Q explained to me afterwards that this baron uses pythons as a awning for his pangolin shipments. He puts them on top, because pythons can be alien out of Sumatra with a admittance and beneath a assertive quota. I asked the baron if I could see a pangolin (this was apparently anytime adventurous in retrospect) and he declined.

But he did accomplish an offer.

“Yes, there are affluence of pangolins here,” he told me, cerebration that, because I’d arise with Q, conceivably I capital to bang up a deal. “If you accept abundant money, for one month, I could accumulation you with two or three tons” of pangolins.

He asked for an aggrandized amount – the Chinese price, he said.

Three accoutrements for about $790,000.

Some time ago, he would accept accustomed maybe a third of that.

But it’s accepting harder to address pangolins out of Sumatra, he said, both because there’s added badge attendance (thanks apparently to the apprehension Q orchestrated in 2008) and because barter in Vietnam and China now appeal animate pangolins, for annihilation at the table, and animate pangolins are added difficult to haversack into cars and drive around.

Tellingly, none of that agency the barter will stop — it aloof agency it’s added expensive.

“I accept admission at every akin of the badge force in the region,” the baron said. “I accept to pay them every ages — about 15 million” rupiah, or $1,300 total.

Learn to allege trafficker! In accession to accepting their own nicknames — “Iron Face,” “Golden Scales” — wildlife traffickers additionally allege in their own cipher language.

A key, address of Q:

Ketenong, citizenry 580, is squished amid two arresting civic parks in South Sumatra Province. That makes it prime poaching territory.

No one actuality cared about pangolins — never gave them a anticipation — until a few years ago aback a wildlife banker from Bengkulu came to town. Ruslan, a 58-year-old who acclimated to coursing pangolin, remembers the man able-bodied — and what he promised.

“You acquisition pangolins, and I’ll accord you money.”

Simple enough.

So Ruslan did.

A agile man with amazon beard and a raspy, Joan Rivers voice, Ruslan formed in the rice fields by day, afresh climbed into the backwoods at night to coursing pangolin. He didn’t apperceive it was illegal, but he got absolutely acceptable at it.

Some pangolin hunters say they’re aloof aggravating to abutment their families. They use the money to buy milk, not affluence items.

John Sutter/CNN

Ruslan, 58, and accession pangolin hunter, Ropi, a 29-year-old who wears a blush backpack, showed me one night what it’s like to go on a pangolin hunt. Both men told me they’re not currently hunting pangolin, but they took me into the backwoods to appearance me how it’s done. I asked them not to absolutely allurement any pangolins on my behalf.

Let me aloof acquaint you, pangolin hunting is adamantine work.

A few addendum from my account access that night:

“Holy s***! That’s work! Trudging through mud that’s shin deep. There could be tigers or rhinos to coursing you down. Adorable for an beastly some accede satanic. Aback you hit it with a flashlight (which we didn’t) it looks like a apparition — you see its red, beady eyes. Crossed rivers I don’t apperceive how abounding times.

I don’t apperceive why I didn’t advance with the leeches. I alone got one drain ashore to my shoulder, but my traveling assembly all had more. One had seven. We were out in the backwoods for maybe two hours, patrolling like aegis guards with flashlights. It’s about absurd to watch area you’re action and attending for pangolins, which agency you’re about sliding bottomward mud-covered mountainsides, accepting ashore in tangles of ferns and accouterment and plants with spikes on them. I reiterate: This is hard.

“The additional hunter climbed up a glace cliff, hoisting himself up vines, chopping bottomward added frondescence with a machete. The aboriginal affective my duke to cull me up to a (pangolin) backup — shone ablaze on the “tracks,” which were so aside in the Martian red mud that I couldn’t see them alike with his guidance.”

Ruslan helped me accept the acquaintance by accretion it up this way:

“If we were affluent people, we wouldn’t appetite to go into the backwoods to coursing pangolin.”

We didn’t acquisition a pangolin, but the acquaintance was enlightening. Pangolin hunting is the worst. And it hasn’t fabricated Ruslan and Ropi rich. They’re not motivated by greed. They’re not affairs adorned cars — any cars — or big, chichi houses. I went in both men’s homes. Ruslan’s accumulation of electronics includes a (non-smart) cellphone, a babyish TV and a rice cooker. Ropi lives in a apprehensive copse home that appeared to accept two rooms. Their apple alone got electricity two years ago — and abounding rice farmers actuality alone acquire the agnate of about $2 per day. This is a atrocious place. Ropi told me he alone considers action out to coursing pangolin afresh aback he sees his two adolescent children, a boy and a girl, and realizes that, afterwards the added assets from the hunt, he doesn’t accept abundant money to buy them milk.

People in this allotment of Indonesia already saw the pangolin as cursed.

Find one in your abode and accession in your ancestors ability die anon — or the abode ability bake down. Some people, according to Q, alike believed that pangolins were mystical, about satanic. If lightning struck, they could abandon in a flash.

Now those behavior are gone.

International appeal has adulterated this place.

“I anticipate aback you acquisition the pangolin you are lucky,” Ropi told me.

“You can change the pangolin (into) money.”

Estimated amount of a pangolin:

To a hunter in Indonesia: $18 to $27 per kilo

To a low-level banker in Indonesia: $45 per kilo

To a mid-level banker in Indonesia: $80 per kilo

To a high-level all-embracing trader: $265 per kilo

To a restaurant in Vietnam: $350 per kilo

I told one of the hunters, who had been accepting $18 to $27 per kilo for pangolin, what restaurants in Vietnam charge. “Wow! That’s a absolute absurd price!” he said.

Then he anticipation about it.

“I anticipate that’s unfair.”

My cerebration about pangolins got bent in a bend afterwards visiting the hunting apple of Ketenong. Is bigger administration of the law the solution? I didn’t like the abstraction of cops arresting bodies like Ropi and Ruslan, the men in the aliment alternation with the atomic to gain, although I did apprehend that the blackmail of arrest is an able deterrent.

Enforcement should focus primarily on the all-embracing networks – on breaking bottomward the barriers that insulate the complete players in this barter from arrest.

Part of that agency acclaim out corruption.

Part of it agency hiring added bodies to convoying the forest. Rangers I met told me their numbers in Sumatra are ridiculously bald to assure wildlife here.

But what about added solutions? Education? It seems like a adamantine advertise to anticipate that answer to bodies why pangolins are important — article I accept abundant adversity articulating afterwards about two weeks of talking about them — would aback change the minds of big-boss wildlife traffickers or below poachers.

At atomic that was my agnostic appearance afore I met a man alleged Suryatin.

Suryatin has managed about singlehandedly to about-face a apple of pangolin hunters into pangolin protectors. And he’s done it by acclaim adulation bodies to Do the Appropriate Affair by bartering them with bigger advice about pangolins.

“If the backwoods is destroyed, action is additionally destroyed,” he told me.

“Enforcement isn’t able out here. Bodies allegation to apperceive why you’re not acclimatized to coursing pangolin,” he continued, afore alms the best accurate ecological altercation for the pangolin’s accent I’d heard. “Next aperture is a elastic plantation. Sometimes the all-overs eat the elastic trees. Why that happens is because there are no added pangolins — so because of that, I try to argue bodies to let the pangolins live.

“Letting the pangolins animate can advice the elastic copse survive.”

Where was this guy two weeks ago?

It’s not aloof about the elastic trees, of course.

Suryatin, 63, and the 1,260-person town’s mayor, Yendra, absolutely buy pangolins aback from poachers if they see them abrogation boondocks to advertise to a collector. They pay abounding bazaar price, he told me, or about $22, because he cares that abundant about pangolins — and because he sees it as a teaching moment. He takes the befalling to explain to the ambitious poacher that pangolins are different and admired — a cornerstone of the bounded ecosystem, and that abounding industries would breach afterwards it.

“I aloof allocution about why I affliction about wildlife and pangolins,” he said, as if that’s the simplest and best why-didn’t-you-know-that band-aid ever. “People who buy the pangolins don’t accept the allowances of the pangolins for nature.”

It’s working, but not for absolutely the affidavit he thinks.

I met one above pangolin hunter, Zainal Abidin, 54, who had one of these confrontations with Suryatin. He acclimated to clue pangolins by complete — alert for the CRRRUK CRRRUCK CRRRUK of their scaly cape awkward adjoin the timberline branches — afore spotting them with a flashlight and, sometimes, clubbing them on the head. He told me he heard Suryatin’s arguments about the pangolin’s ecological value, and he understood. “Pangolins are absorbing animals,” he said. “Pangolins are aloof like humans; if the pangolin goes abolished it will affect the humans, too.” But there were added factors in his accommodation to stop poaching: He is accepting older, for one, and hunting pangolin is hard. Bastille time is allotment of it, too.

But he additionally begin accession job.

When the bread-and-butter allurement to coursing went away, it was no best a consideration.

Education is an important allotment of the solution, but bodies additionally allegation jobs.

That’s absolutely article Suryatin can understand.

He got on this enviro bang several years ago aback he accustomed training from Apple Wildlife Fund, to alpha a timberline nursery to advice in reforestation efforts. He’s done absolute able-bodied for himself, burying 5 actor copse aback 2003, he told me. He concluded up affairs the acreage beyond from his greenhouse because it’s home to an astronomic “root tree” area pangolins are accustomed to nest, and area bodies acclimated to coursing them.

If he endemic the land, he thought, he could stop the poaching.

Ropi, a 29-year-old in Sumatra, Indonesia, said he has bolter pangolins to augment his kids; not to get rich.

John Sutter/CNN

The basis timberline is a afterimage — a coil of accouterment that’s calmly three belief alpine and as advanced as a babyish house. Anticipate of the timberline from “Avatar” or article out of “Fern Gully.”

It’s that spectacular.

Suryatin calls it — and I’m not badinage — “The Timberline of Life.”

I had no abstraction I would accommodated Suryatin aback I catholic out to his village, which is declared Karang Panggung and is the abutting affair I can brainstorm to a Sumatran enviro-utopia.

I anticipation I was traveling there to go on accession pangolin hunt.

But that’s not draft actuality anymore — not abundant at least.

I talked with several bodies who bidding Suryatin’s action for nature. And I affectionate of fell in adulation with the place. I spent allotment of an afternoon demography photos with kids who were arena volleyball. They accomplished their English on me: “Good morning I adulation you!” About every home seems to accept abridged copse out front, because abounding association are allowance in reforestation efforts.

So, instead of action on a pangolin coursing on my aftermost night in Sumatra, I absitively to booty several bodies from the apple with me to the Timberline of Life.

I hoped we could see a pangolin in the wild.

Headlamps and flashlights in tow, we absolved over to the timberline about 8:30 p.m.

I asked one of my assembly what added animals we ability acquisition out here. “Oh, tigers and leopards,” he said. “You can see leopards in the accessory backwoods like this.”

Great, I thought.

Tigers by dark.

The aboriginal hour was apparent with lots of activity. One man climbed at atomic 20 or 30 anxiety into the timberline to attending for a pangolin that angry out, fittingly, to be a chameleon, the adept of disguise. Some of us paced circles about the tree. Others absolved the adjacent forest, animadversion our lights like bastille wardens. At one point, there was a aside ablaze affective amid the roots. A pangolin eye? Nope, lightning bug.

Around 10 p.m., we absitively to accept a bench and wait.

“Everyone about-face off your flashlights,” said Q, who still was traveling with me.

“Let’s try actuality silent.”

The abutting hour and a bisected was one of the best bewitched periods of my cruise to Southeast Asia. I looked around, blockage for pangolins and leopards, afresh lay bottomward on my aback and listened. The boscage will comedy music for you if you let it. An owl hooted on the upbeats; birds in the ambit articulate like they were cutting lasers in video games; frogs squeaked like bite toys; and article abaft my appropriate ear articulate almost like a car with an agitation disturbing to fire.

(Please be a tiger. Don’t be a tiger.)

The best we were quiet, the added layers of complete appear themselves. Sumatra is home to absurd plants and animals — to elephants, rhinos, orangutans and the bigger accustomed annual in the world, Rafflesia arnoldii, with a blossom 3 anxiety across. All of those icons of attributes are featured on civic esplanade brochures and Wikipedia pages. But in the alveolate blackout of that night, I was reminded of why the assortment of action matters.

The insect cord section. The aside WHOOP WHOOP of the gibbon.

All of them are bald for the song to continue.

We’ve apparent and alleged conceivably 10% of the breed that abide on this absurd planet, according to Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson. The unknowns are mostly the little guys — the fungi, bugs and microbes. For me, the claimed annual of “unknowns” included the pangolin. It was new to me at the alpha of my journey.

Who doesn’t appetite to animate in a apple area those discoveries are accessible — area the planet is abounding of achievability and wonder?

The another is awful: Knowing that we animate in a abode that is always accepting beneath diverse, beneath interesting, beneath able of bartering altruism with accurate discoveries and medicines and better/stronger materials.

And, best importantly, beneath able of acknowledging life.

The planet, like the pangolin, is decidedly fickle.

“As afterlife spreads, some of the absent forms prove to be antecedent species, whose dematerialization brings bottomward added breed and triggers a ripple effect,” Wilson wrote in his 1992 book, “The Assortment of Life.” “The accident of a antecedent breed is like a assignment accidentally arresting a ability line. It causes lights to go out all over.”

Perhaps that could be the case with pangolins.

Too little is accustomed to be certain.

But aggregate in the accustomed apple is connected. All of it matters. As one wildlife abomination expert, Crawford Allan, put it to me: What’s the point of extenuative Mona Lisa’s smile if the draft of the painting is gone? That’s the complete allegory for what’s draft with the wildlife trade. Advocates accept become so focused on nature’s celebs — the rhinos, the elephants, the tigers — that they’ve alone the bigger picture.

It’s accessible to avoid a breed like the pangolin.

But we do so at our peril.

At first, lying there on the ground, I was telepathically accommodating a pangolin to appear from the dark. Arise on pangolin — this would be the complete way to end this story. Us affair out actuality in the wild, beneath the “Tree of Life” no less. I allegation an catastrophe here!

But the added we waited, the added at accord I was with the abstraction that I acceptable never will see a pangolin in the wild. Appropriate then, beneath the tree, that seemed perfect. Not aloof OK, but better. I knew from what Suyratin and the others had told me that at atomic two pangolins absolutely do animate in the tree. If they’re acute abundant to adumbrate from us, they’re apparently bigger off than the pangolins in Vietnam, whose developed allegation for absorption has amount them their freedom. These pangolins are astute — and they’re lucky. They animate in a apple where, alike if they did present themselves, they would be protected. Bodies actuality apprehend the apple is a bigger abode with the pangolin — a little stranger, a little added wonderful. They’re adequate because they’re understood.

That’s the best the average pangolin can achievement for.

And that’s absolutely absolutely a lot.

In 2013, added than 30,000 CNN.com readers voted for columnist John D. Sutter to awning bristles amusing amends issues as allotment of his Change the Annual project. The actionable wildlife barter is the third of bristles issues readers called for the series. Upcoming belief will focus on baptize absence and adolescence poverty. A sixth affair will be called by CNN’s editors, based on your suggestions. This is journalism as democracy. For more, chase Sutter on Twitter and appointment CNN.com/Change.

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