With its scaly exterior, peculiar body shape and propensity for rolling into an armored ball when threatened, the pangolin has invited comparison to the artichoke and the pine cone.
But a 3-year-old female pangolin at the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center here seemed oblivious to her odd appearance and unaware that she was missing two feet, both lost to a poacher's snare.
Accompanied by her lone male offspring, she ambled through the leaves and underbrush, sniffed amiably at a visitor's shoe and headed off to check for leftovers in the bowl of mashed insects prepared by a caretaker at the center.
Elephants and rhinoceroses often serve as the poster animals for the illegal trade in wildlife - the elephant killed for the ivory in its tusks, the rhino for its horn.
But the most frequently trafficked mammal, wildlife experts say, is a far less familiar creature: the pangolin, an insectivore with a tongue longer than its body and a tail so powerful it can hang upside down from tree branches.
Pangolin meat is considered a delicacy in parts of China, where it is believed to nourish the kidneys. Pangolin scales, made of keratin, like human fingernails, are used in traditional medicine to treat skin diseases and other ailments. Trade in the animal has a long history: In 1820, King George III of England was presented with a suit of armor made from pangolin scales.
But the demand for pangolins - and with it the hunting of the animals - has grown sharply in recent decades. Poaching has increased not only in Southeast Asia but also in Africa, according to Traffic, an organization that monitors wildlife trade.
Customs officers seize thousands of pangolins and hundreds of pounds of pangolin scales each year, often disguised as other goods. In late January, officials in Uganda said they had seized two tons of pangolin skins packed in boxes identified as communications equipment. In France a few years ago, more than 200 pounds of pangolin scales were discovered buried in bags of dog biscuits.
"You've got a big ship coming from Indonesia and it's labeled frozen fish, and it turns out to be 14 tons of frozen pangolins," said Annette Olsson, a technical adviser for Conservation International in Southeast Asia who helped open the pangolin rescue center in Phnom Penh but now works in Singapore. The Cambodian government runs the center with the assistance of the Wildlife Alliance, a conservation group.
Most countries, including Cambodia, have laws against hunting pangolins. But enforcement is often weak, and the incentive for local poachers in poor rural areas to catch and sell pangolins and other wildlife to middlemen for smuggling organizations is strong, said Bunra Seng, Conservation International's director in Cambodia.
Sunda pangolins, one of eight pangolin species, were once common here. Mr. Bunra said that as a child, he used to see them in the countryside.
But so many have been killed that they and Chinese pangolins are listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The international union considers all of the pangolin species threatened.
"The pangolin runs the risk of becoming extinct before most people have even heard of them," Britain's Prince William said last fall in a promotion for an Angry Birds video game tournament intended to bring attention to the animals.
Peter Knights, the chief executive of WildAid, said that his and other conservation groups were mounting efforts to rescue the pangolin in advance of the 2016 meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.
Pangolins are listed under the convention's Appendix II as animals that are not yet threatened with extinction but may become so. WildAid and other organizations argue that pangolins should be moved to Appendix I, which prohibits all commercial trade.
The pangolin's odd appearance has not helped its cause, Ms. Olsson said.
"That's one of the problems with species like pangolins," she said. "It's not huge and not very charismatic. It's small and weird and just disappearing."
Yet, a scaly creature with beady eyes, a narrow snout and a long tail is not without whimsy. A Pokemon character, Sandslash, was loosely based on the pangolin, thought to be the only scaled mammal. And a Colombian company, Cyclus Manufactura, makes a folding pangolin backpack based on the animal's biomechanics, according to the firm's website.
Scientists are slowly beginning to learn more about the pangolin's physiology and behavior. These nocturnal animals are difficult to observe in the wild, even more so now that they are growing scarce, and their habits have been "literally a black box," Ms. Olsson said.
Once thought to be a relative of the anteater, the sloth and the armadillo, the pangolin belongs to the taxonomic order Pholidota, and genetic studies suggest it is more closely related to raccoons and giant pandas than to animals it resembles.
Burrowing in trees or tunnels, pangolins have weak eyes but keen noses to smell insects and powerful claws to dig them up. Their long tongues are sticky, able to scoop up hundreds of ants at once, their ears closing up to prevent the ants from swarming inside. Like skunks, pangolins can emit a foul odor when threatened.
Pangolins from the Cardamom Mountains often arrive at the rescue center here with severed limbs from poachers' snares or bites from hunting dogs. Rous San, 33, a veterinarian, cleans and bandages their injuries.
The animals are easily stressed in captivity and do not do well with artificial food, Ms. Olsson said. But with the proper mash of ants and termites, they can thrive. Once they have recovered, the pangolins are slowly reintroduced to the wild in a soft release program that places them in an open enclosure in the forest with ready access to food.
The mother and her offspring at the center seem in no hurry to leave. A group of children gathered around the pangolins' enclosure, gawking as the younger animal, now 2, dug furiously at a tree root and contemplated a dip in a shallow pool.
"Sometimes, we feel hopeless," Mr. Bunra said of efforts to save pangolins and other species in Cambodia from extinction. "But we try our best."
(Source: New York Times)