Pangolin – the new rhino
Jamie Joseph reports from the front lines of the African poaching crisis.
After seven weeks of assignments, I flew out of Zimbabwe on January 4 and landed in South Africa’s Limpopo wilderness. I’ve been spending about six hours a day in the bush, and I’ve asked several rangers if they’ve ever seen a pangolin, and the answer is always the same, “No, they’re so rare, but I wish I had.”
Well I have, and until it happened, I had no idea how much it would mean to me. It was in the beautiful grounds of Tikki Hywood Trust’s private animal sanctuary, a trust founded more than two decades ago by Lisa Hywood.
Lisa led me into the nursery and opened the door of Bambanani’s crib on the floor. A couple of minutes later, the 10-week-old pangolin orphan opened her dreamy eyes and took a few steps forward into the dimly lit room.
I watched, mesmerised, as Bambanani made her way over to Lisa sitting on the carpet, burying her tiny head into her human mother’s jeans. Lisa gently ran her fingers along Bambanani’s copper scaled back and tail, while I sat beside them taking it all in, as if in slow motion. An aura of mysticism seemed to engulf the room, and the pangolin’s unicorn quality was suddenly undeniable.
Bambanani’s mother was poached, and she arrived at the Tikki Hywood Trust just one day old. The pangolin is the most trafficked mammal on the planet, especially vulnerable to syndicates because criminals don’t need a weapon to catch it, and so the risk is lower. They simply pick up the pangolin and stuff it into a sack. The animal then dies from suffocation, or the poacher kills it. The carcass is then boiled to remove the scales.
“100,000 African pangolins are being poached each year,” says Lisa. That’s 100 times more than rhino poaching. “Because pangolins are secretive and nocturnal, doing a census is virtually impossible. We don’t know how many are left, but what we can say is that in Asia the population has been decimated – and Africa is next.”
The demand for pangolin is very similar to that for rhino horn; China, Vietnam and Laos predominantly. The scales of the pangolin, made up of keratin (the stuff in your fingernails), are regarded to have similar medicinal properties to rhino horn, and even though this hocus pocus Asian medicine has never been scientifically proven to work, demand is insatiable.
In 2013 there was just over 600kg of African pangolin scales confiscated in Asia. In 2014 the number skyrocketed to 6.7 tons. Africa is the new, deadly playground for Asian consumption.
The Tikki Hywood Trust is putting up a fight, and in its pursuit for justice, the weapon of choice is the legal system. The Trust fills a niche, ensuring the preservation of smaller species that lack the attention that larger animals get. At the same time, rhinos and elephants, the two iconic species of Africa’s poaching crisis, are also benefitting.
“We address a problem as an ecosystem, from the smaller species; such as pangolin and bat-eared fox, all the way up to the large, charismatic species. I realised that if I really wanted to have an impact in conservation whatever I do in this stage in my life has to be implemented in such a way that, when I am no longer around, it still has an effect,” says Lisa.
Ironically, in a country where corruption and terror reign, Zimbabwe has some of the strongest wildlife laws in the world right now; however laws need to be implemented. Thanks to the dedication of the Tikki Hywood Trust, Zimbabwe is currently the most proactive country in the world on pangolin conservation.
“A few years ago the penalty for poaching a rhino was a couple hundred dollars,” continues Lisa. “The minimum sentence is now US$120,000, 17 years in jail and no bail. This is something that we changed through parliament, simultaneously increasing the fines for all wildlife that is poached within Zimbabwe.”
From 2011 to the end of 2012 everything was working well, people were getting prosecuted, but not to the full extent of the law. As Lisa explains it, the magistrates are the enforcers, and so she started working directly with the judiciary system.
Through workshops and discussions with magistrates, National Parks, police and the Central Intelligence Department, making sure the charges and affidavits are correct, the Trust follows each case to conclusion, putting the spotlight on any unjust legal wranglings.
In 2014 nine pangolin poachers were sentenced to nine years in jail, the maximum term.
The extensive work that the Tikki Hywood Trust has done with legislation – and then making sure the law is implemented – could fundamentally be a blueprint for Africa, and the world.
To find out what happens next follow the journey on savingthewild.com Jamie Joseph is a writer and environmental activist working full time on Africa’s poaching crisis. She is the founder of savingthewild.com. The Tikki Hywood Trust releases all animals back into the wild after rehabilitation and is recognised as a global authority in the rescue, rehabilitation, release and rearing of ground pangolins. tikkihywoodtrust.org