Dr Serena Oh is Assistant Director and Head Vet of Veterinary Services in Wildlife Reserves Singapore. She leads a team to provide quality medical care to over 15,000 animals in Jurong Bird Park, Night Safari, River Safari, and Singapore Zoo. The four parks are designated rescued wildlife centres and in addition to the living collection in their charge, Serena and her team provide intensive care to rescued wild animals – including some rare animal species.
Here Dr Serena shares her experience with hand-raising Sandshrew, a critically endangered Sunda pangolin. Number of wild Sunda pangolins have fallen by nearly 80 percent in the last 21 years according to the IUCN.
April 19, 2017 by Dr Serena Oh
Sandshrew the baby Sunda pangolin was brought to the Wildlife Health and Research Centre on 16 January 2017, reportedly found stranded in the Upper Thomson area by a member of the public. Sunda pangolins rank among the rarest animals in the world today and each rescue is critical to the survival of the species.
Weighing in at 522g on arrival, we estimated him to be about 1.5 months old. He was in good condition save for a tick infestation which we managed to treat.
At this tender age, chances of survival in the wild without his mother would have been slim. Baby pangolins usually subsist on their mother’s milk until they are ready to be weaned at 3 months old or above. With no information on the whereabouts of his mom, there was no other option but to raise the baby under human care. I became his surrogate mother.
My daughter – no stranger to my adopted babies as you can imagine – has the charming privilege of naming rescued animals under my care. With Pokémon Go still fresh in her mind she named him Sandshrew, a name which immediately draws resonance in all who can see the resemblance.
Pangolins do not vocalise, but they can exhibit vastly different characters through their behaviours and body language. I hand-raised another rescued baby pangolin named Pungut just a year ago, a much gentler soul than feisty little Sandshrew who has a mind of his own.
Being quite accustomed to his mother’s milk, Sandshrew was resistant at the start to taking the artificial teat and milk formula I fed him. Every bottle feeding was a little battle where I had to coax him to drink, and this would take hours at a time! When he decided that he did not want to drink, Sandshrew would curl up to hide his head and adamantly push the bottle away with his right hand and pull the bottle away with his tail. My hands and arms sustained many scratches as a result. I just had to try again later to see if Sandshrew got hungry enough to accept the milk formula.
Now, at about 3 months in, I have gradually reduced milk feeds from four to once a day, and introduced ants’ eggs into his diet for evening feeds. Thankfully he has been receptive so far, lapping up this pangolin delicacy with gusto. Ant’s eggs are part of a pangolin’s natural diet, and the hope is that he will develop a taste for this and learn to forage on his own.
Sandshrew is growing at a steady pace, and has more than doubled his weight to 1216g. At a playful and exploratory age, he has managed to get up to a good deal of mischief. The escape artist has learnt to open swing and sliding doors and topple a few things while wandering about. This heightened activity indicates that he is approaching weaning age and it is almost time for him to return home.
Growing up in a man-made environment, my aim now is to condition Sandshrew to natural surroundings so he can learn to survive in the wild. For now, we go on daily walks in a vegetated area, where he can practice survival skills like digging and climbing. We have further plans to introduce him to an exhibit in our parks with natural substrates for a prolonged period before his eventual reintroduction to the wild.
The plan for his release is firmly underway. We will conduct a soft-release together with our colleagues from National Parks Board once a suitable habitat is found and after we establish that Sandshrew can care for himself independently. As part of the soft release we will also attach a small radio tracker to his scales so that our research team can monitor his post-release progress.
Sandshrew is a little charmer and I am quite attached to him. Yet, when the time comes it is best for him to return to where he came from. I take comfort in knowing that we will be watching over him, at least in the initial stages of his release.