Since 2018, photographer Justin Mott has trained his lens on people who dedicate their lives to animal conservation.
In Kenya, he photographed the guards who work 24/7 to protect the last two northern white rhinos, as well as the team of scientists trying to save them. In Thailand, he photographed the Soi Dog Foundation, which rescues stray dogs and cats. In Malaysia, he spent time with a woman who has committed her life to rescuing and rehabilitating gibbons. And in Suriname he told the story of a woman who does the same for sloths. Last year, Mott stayed close to his home base in Vietnam where he documented pangolin rescue at Save Vietnam’s Wildlife Rescue Center in Ninh Binh.
Pangolins, also called scaly anteaters, are an elusive animal. They are nocturnal. When threatened, they curl up into a little ball of armor. They’re considered the most highly trafficked mammal in the world. They are desired for their scales, which have been used in traditional medicine as a treatment for a variety of ailments. Pangolin meat is also considered a delicacy, sometimes found on restaurant menus at an extremely high price.
At the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, pangolins were suspected of being an intermediate host for the virus, perhaps passing it on to humans. No conclusive evidence has been found for this and suspicion has shifted to bats.
The future looks dim for the pangolin. Of eight different pangolin species, three are listed as critically endangered, three as endangered and two as vulnerable on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species. Mott said that it seemed as if the Vietnamese government was cracking down on the illegal pangolin trade.
Save Vietnam’s Wildlife was founded to rescue and rehabilitate a wide variety of species, but it concentrates on pangolins. When rescued pangolins are ready to return to the wild, they are flown from the Hanoi airport to Ho Chi Minh City and driven to Cat Tien National Park where they are released. Pangolins are fragile, and because so little is known about them, they sometimes die unexpectedly in captivity.
Mott spent three days documenting the staff at Save Vietnam’s Wildlife Rescue Center. Photographing pangolins is not an easy task. Mott would follow the caretakers as they checked on the pangolins, relying on the light from their headlamps to illuminate the animals.
“I shoot my whole project with manual focus because I’m trying to keep this consistent [minimalistic] style, shooting everything with two lenses,” Mott said. “Sloths? Easy, because they’re slow. I can predict. I can wait. Gibbons were ridiculously hard. Pangolins weren't hard for speed, but they're just hard for light.”
While the work at Save Vietnam’s Wildlife can be thankless, the team continues to make an effort to keep pangolins safe from illegal trade. They have rescued over 1,300 pangolins and have released more than 60 percent of them. Some pangolins sustain injuries that prevent them from being released back into the wild, but these pangolins have a safe home at the rescue center and can even be “adopted” by people who want to help. Mott said that to really help the pangolins, there needs to be a change in culture where they’re used as a product for medicine and as food.
“It’s just sad, but the work they do is just fascinating to me,” said Mott, whose photos are part of his self-funded Kindred Guardians project. “I love that someone’s fighting the fight because someone has to do it, and they are.”
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