Save Vietnam's Wildlife is a nonprofit organization in Ninh Binh, Vietnam. Its pangolin rescue and rehabilitation program works on saving pangolins from the illegal wildlife trade and putting them back into the wild. (Justin Mott)

A dead pangolin. The mammals are primarily hunted for their use in the bush-meat trade and for traditional medicine purposes. In traditional medicine, pangolin scales are used for skin conditions, low blood pressure, cancer and failure to stimulate milk secretion in lactating women. Pangolin meat is generally consumed as a sign of affluence. (Justin Mott)

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.”

The staff at Save Vietnam's Wildlife holds an emergency meeting after the death of a recent Chinese pangolin for unknown causes. (Justin Mott)

Save Vietnam's Wildlife head veterinarian Thuy Hoang, 29, puts an injured pangolin under anesthesia while she operates on his injured tail. (Justin Mott)

Head pangolin keeper Tran Van Truong reviews footage from a camera trap of a pangolin and her two-week old baby. Pangolins are nocturnal so they must be viewed in the evenings. Because of their fragility, camera traps are used to monitor their behavior. (Justin Mott)

Tran Van Truong, 27, checks on the heat lamps and collects camera traps from the quarantined area of the center. He does this during the day while the animals sleep. (Justin Mott)

Pangolins are similar in appearance to anteaters, hence their nickname “scaly anteaters” and have long snouts and even longer tongues. (Justin Mott)

A sick quarantined pangolin is taken out for a medical checkup. (Justin Mott)

A rescued and rehabilitated pangolin is tagged and then transported to the airport in Hanoi where he will be flown to Ho Chi Minh City and then released into a nearby national park. (Justin Mott)

The average life span of a pangolin is unknown. The animal's average size ranges from 45 inches to 4.5 feet long. A pangolin can weigh anywhere from 4 to 72 pounds. (Justin Mott)

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