ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Most people have never heard of the most illegally trafficked animal in the world - the pangolin. They're about the size of a cat, armored with a full body of scales, and they curl up into a ball when they're scared. Katie Blackley from member station WESA reports on the debate over how best to save their population.
KATIE BLACKLEY, BYLINE: When we open the cage of a white-bellied tree pangolin at the Pittsburgh Zoo, the sleek, snake-like animal is fast asleep in a crate covered in a pink blanket. She isn't thrilled to see us.
KEN KAEMMERER: Sometimes they'll make a hissing sound.
(SOUNDBITE OF PANGOLIN HISSING)
BLACKLEY: It's bedtime for the nocturnal pangolin, but with a little encouragement, she emerges and wraps her long tail around a log. She's very curious, but very shy.
KAEMMERER: This is one of the things about pangolins, is that there's so little known about them because they are nocturnal and they are secretive.
BLACKLEY: That's Ken Kaemmerer. He's the curator of mammals at the Pittsburgh Zoo. And he's very excited about the pangolins.
KAEMMERER: Pangolins are best known for - sometimes called scaly anteaters. But in fact, actually, they're not related to anteaters. They're more related to carnivores like dogs and cats, which is somewhat fascinating.
BLACKLEY: Kaemmerer really wants to save the pangolins, and he thinks having them in zoos is a great way to start. Each year, millions of pangolins are killed for their meat and their scales, which some cultures believe have medicinal qualities. It's difficult to determine just how many pangolin are left because of the demand. And animal experts can't agree on how to save them. Jeffrey Flocken with the International Fund for Animal Welfare thinks having pangolins in zoos is the wrong approach.
JEFFREY FLOCKEN: We are trying our hardest to stop the poaching, stop the trafficking and stop the demand. Unfortunately, when zoos buy wild-caught pangolins, they're adding to the poaching, the trafficking and the demand.
BLACKLEY: Flocken says moving pangolins from their habitats in Asia and Africa can be incredibly stressful for them. He estimates that for every pangolin transported to a North American zoo, several die in the process.
FLOCKEN: The real goal is not to get the individuals used to being in captivity but, in fact, bringing them back to the health, then go right back out in the wild.
BLACKLEY: Flocken wants zoos to stay out of the pangolin conservation business. He says on the ground, pangolins can eat their natural diet of ants and termites. They don't need supplements. They're also living in the wild, not a fabricated zoo environment. So far, there is no record of any captive-bred births. But Justin Miller, founder of Florida-based Pangolin Conservation, who provided the Pittsburgh pangolins, says the benefits of having the species in zoos outweigh the negatives.
JUSTIN MILLER: From the start of this project, it was pretty much asking, what had failed in the past? And what were the reasons? And then are we able to correct them?
BLACKLEY: Miller says he's created a captive diet that the pangolins enjoy and will slurp up with their super long tongues. And he says he takes time with the pangolins and he conditions them to recognize humans before they're moved. Having pangolins in zoos, he says, is important because that's where scientists can study their mating, gestation and behavioral patterns. Plus, millions of people visit zoos each year. Miller says he hopes by spreading the word about pangolins, it'll create an awareness of the trafficking.
Ken Kaemmerer with the Pittsburgh Zoo says their three wild-caught pangolins will live in a naturalistic environment when they go on display. But that won't be for another two or three years. For NPR News, I'm Katie Blackley. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.