Meet the Tiger: A 15-Minute Book for Early Readers (Meet the Animals 14)

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He works as an undercover wildlife investigator for an international organization. Q has been able to pull off that deception because of personal connections. Someone in Q's network I'm not saying exactly who once was a tiger-trading and slaughtering kingpin. Ask him about it and Q matter-of-factly says that this man is partly responsible for the fact that there are only some tigers left in Sumatra.

But Q is making good on that connection.

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He uses his link to a now-deceased trafficker to get access to criminal wildlife-trading networks. I asked Q to help me understand the supply side of the pangolin trade. Where do the pangolins come from, and how are they shipped for export? He towed me into that world, which felt at times like I was being pulled into an episode of "CSI" or "Weeds.

At breakfast before we set off to meet with one of the pangolin mafiosi, he dropped on the table a jar containing a dead, baby pangolin floating in a yellow liquid.

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Q plays every situation, dangerous or not, with a smile and a joke. But Q knew I would be taping the interview with two hidden cameras. E ncounters with pangolin mafia, incident 1 of The first member of Sumatra's wildlife-trading mafia who Q helped me meet looked like Barack Obama -- cropped hair, coffee skin, a toothpaste-commercial smile. That lightened the mood a bit.


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I walked past his spiked gate, up the driveway and into his living room, which has a large rug with a lion's head on it. The trafficker, whose identity I'm withholding since I did not identify myself as a journalist, displayed a strange fondness for pangolins for someone who admitted to buying them from hunters and arranging their transport to larger cities. Q told him that I also was involved in the illegal wildlife trade in order to hold his cover. He built an entire room for pangolins in his house, in the Lebong district of Sumatra, but he couldn't keep them inside, he told me.

The good news: Some former hunters are now trying to protect the pangolin. The bad news: Pangolin is easy to find on menus in Hanoi. Some restaurants slit its throat in front of customers. In February, a restaurant in Hanoi kept this pangolin floating in rice wine. CNN reporter John Sutter was told it was removed after authorities were called. This man seemed to think pangolins had video-game-like powers. He told me the pangolins tried to escape from his house by curling up into balls and then spinning with Sonic-the-Hedgehog speed to burrow through the floor.

Every morning you drink one small cup -- and it can heal you from disease. There are four ways it will help: First, for skin disease.

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He said he's gotten out of the pangolin trading business recently because it's risky to ship them. He was trying to move pangolins by car from his town to Palembang for export usually to Vietnam, he said. The car's tire popped on the way and police threatened to confiscate the 1-ton load of pangolins in the back. He laughed about the bribe. T here was a time, perhaps a decade ago, when pangolins were so common in some parts of Indonesia that people literally hit them with their cars. Three such car-pangolin crashes were described to me on my trip. E ncounters with pangolin mafia, incident 2 of But on assignment in Sumatra, in a wildlife trafficker's living room, I had to say yes.

The trafficker, the one who gave Q the pangolin in a jar, looked like every drug dealer you've seen cast for a U.

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TV series -- surfer shorts, button-up, short-sleeve shirt, slouchy-but-I'll-kill-you demeanor. He led me into his back hallway and opened the door to what appeared to be or formerly was a bathroom. Dozens of rice sacks were tied at the top and each, from my understanding, contained a live python. I didn't quite believe that until this man grabbed one of the bags and dumped out a foot python at my feet -- my bare feet, by the way.

I jumped like a meerkat -- directly over the snake, which was slithering at me, and fast. The trafficker and my translator thought this was pretty hilarious.

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Where do you go from there except back to the sitting room to talk about trafficking pangolins? From my chair by the door, I could see the trafficker's kids around the corner watching TV and playing with little-kid toys. One no joke was holding a helium balloon in the shape of a panda, an endangered animal.

Q explained to me later that this trafficker uses pythons as a cover for his pangolin shipments. He puts them on top, because pythons can be shipped out of Sumatra with a permit and under a certain quota. I asked the trafficker if I could see a pangolin this was probably overly bold in retrospect and he declined. But it's getting harder to ship pangolins out of Sumatra, he said, both because there's more police presence thanks probably to the bust Q orchestrated in and because customers in Vietnam and China now demand live pangolins, for slaughter at the table, and live pangolins are more difficult to pack into cars and drive around.

Tellingly, none of that means the trade will stop -- it just means it's more expensive. L earn to speak trafficker! In addition to having their own nicknames -- "Iron Face," "Golden Scales" -- wildlife traffickers also speak in their own code language. K etenong, population , is squished between two picturesque national parks in South Sumatra Province.

That makes it prime poaching territory. No one here cared about pangolins -- never gave them a thought -- until a few years ago when a wildlife trader from Bengkulu came to town. Ruslan, a year-old who used to hunt pangolin, remembers the man well -- and what he promised. A wiry man with porcupine hair and a raspy, Joan Rivers voice, Ruslan worked in the rice fields by day, then climbed into the forest at night to hunt pangolin. He didn't know it was illegal, but he got quite good at it. Some pangolin hunters say they're just trying to support their families. They use the money to buy milk, not luxury items.

Ruslan, 58, and another pangolin hunter, Ropi, a year-old who wears a pink backpack, showed me one night what it's like to go on a pangolin hunt. Both men told me they're not currently hunting pangolin, but they took me into the forest to show me how it's done. I asked them not to actually trap any pangolins on my behalf.

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That's work! Trudging through mud that's shin deep. There could be tigers or rhinos to chase you down. Looking for an animal some consider satanic. When you hit it with a flashlight which we didn't it looks like a ghost -- you see its red, beady eyes. Crossed rivers I don't know how many times.

I don't know why I didn't lead with the leeches. I only got one leech stuck to my shoulder, but my traveling companions all had more.