Written by Alice Péretié
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By: Chengeta Wildlife 09 September 2021
Written by Alice Péretié
Rescued and released black-bellied pangolin (photo by Tessa Ullmann)
Maybe dragons really do exist, and perhaps more so in the form of a small and ancient creature. A shy and secretive mammal that humbly feeds on ants and termites, that adorns an armor of golden, bronze or gleaming black scales. Considered by some to be a sacred spirit responsible for the ever-blessed rains, this almost mythical animal is at the heart of many traditions across the world. Yet it is also tragically a prime target for the global, illegal and devastatingly efficient wildlife trade, with up to 2.7 million pangolins poached a year. Though of great importance within both ecological and cultural belief systems, the majority of the Western world was very much unaware of the existence of these animals until 2020 and Covid-19 hit. While links between wet meat markets, bats, pangolins and the current pandemic have not been confirmed, the past year brought pangolins to the attention of millions of people. And as the world’s most trafficked mammal, it’s about time.
Yet, these fascinating creatures may well disappear before the world gets to know how unique they truly are. Would you have guessed that pangolins have a tongue as long as their body, that they move noiselessly like friendly ghosts in the night (or day in the case of the black-bellied pangolin), that their main defence mechanism in the face of threat is to curl up in a ball and freeze? That the mothers carry their young on their back, and give birth to a single pup each year? Though perhaps, by now, you may have gotten a glimpse of them as pangolins took the international spotlight in 2020. If that’s the case, you’ll probably also have come to read or know that out of the 8 extant pangolin species ranging across Africa and Asia, all of them are threatened with extinction over the course of the next two decades.
Rescued white-bellied pangolin who, despite a terrible machete injury, survived after round-the-clock care from the SPP team (photographed by Alessandra Sikand)
Like a vinyl disc stuck on repeat, this story sounds all too familiar. One of animals, driven to the brink of extinction, continuously over-harvested for their body-parts. Perhaps the most infamous example is that of rhinos, repeatedly hunted for their keratin horns, or of elephants decimated for their ivory tusks. In the case of these little pine-cone mammals, it is for their keratin scales, grounded to powder in the name of conferred medicinal attributes in Asia, and, to a much smaller extent, traditional African muthi. On one side, an international illegal and criminal network threatening a very ancient animal with extinction. On the other, an animal that plays an important role in ecological systems and is at the heart of traditional beliefs thousands of years old. But the similarities end here. Behind the trafficking of scales lies a truly complex and fascinating web embedding cultural heritage, notions of justice and inherent complexities. But also, solutions.
Chengeta works hard on the ground to dismantle wildlife trafficking, and to ultimately put an end to poaching. We train and mentor rangers across Africa with a comprehensive program that ensures frontline wildlife protectors are well equipped in terms of skills, organization, resources. In the last year alone, Chengeta provided investigations, analytics, mentoring and training to almost 1000 rangers across 6 countries in Africa to help keep rangers and communities safe in the face of illegal activity. And though Chengeta’s mission seemingly focuses on rangers, our main objective is to empower and enhance local communities’ actions and voices, operating at ground-level to intertwine conservation within local perspectives.
“Those not willing to co-operate with the law, those engaging in more criminal activities – we work towards shutting them down, either by stopping them or deterring them”, explains Rory Young, CEO and Founder of Chengeta Wildlife. Counter-trafficking involves heavy analytical and investigation-led work for both reactive and proactive protocols, with a strong focus on the latter. Proactive investigations work on a preventative basis, shutting networks down before they activate, and before they turn into something uncontrollable that can spread across borders to join international markets. Every step of the counter-trafficking process is carefully monitored, considered and planned.
The tracker dogs Chengeta employs have learned to detect pangolin scales as well as ivory – their competence is such that they can detect the rustle of a scale in the back of a motorbike, engine on. Rangers are trained to apply specific protocols in the event of a live seizure, and collaboration with local projects aims to increase knowledge about what to do with specific species like pangolins (identification, handling, etc.): it’s not just about arresting poachers. Rangers have an important role amongst their peers, facilitating active communication, community outreach, local education and engagement to spread awareness and prevent environmental crime. By protecting the community and its wildlife, the rangers’ presence is a deterrent to those seeking to transgress both social and cultural rules, and the law. “But fundamentally, the goal is to stop poaching, and not require rangers anymore”, says Rory.
And indeed: developing ranger skills, collaborating, gathering information, analytical work are essential components in dismantling networks, but local contributing factors, like poverty, lack of awareness, or hunger, must be addressed if we are to bring an end to the trade.
Bushmeat in a local market includes pangolin – a popular local delicacy (photographed by Tessa Ullmann)
One of the protected areas in which Chengeta is the most involved is the Dzanga-Sangha Protected Areas Complex in the Central African Republic (CAR), a landlocked tropical country in the Congo Basin. Here, pangolin trafficking is tied to the local and regional wild meat or ‘bushmeat’ trade in the area, which is part of why closing down networks is quite a complex affair. “Whilst we can shut down in some ways the networks for ivory poachers, with pangolins, it’s a lot more subtle”, explains Rory. He expands on the differences between complex versus simple crime: ivory poaching is a process involving many steps, and weaknesses lay in its complexity. Indeed, from the organization and planning of the poaching mission to supplying ammunition, training of poachers, finding porters for food and ivory, hunting, storing the ivory and getting it to market, much more forethought is required than for bushmeat poaching. Easier to slip, make a mistake and ultimately get shut down. A bit like robbing a bank versus stealing a watch on the street and running away.
For bushmeat, the hunt is much more straightforward. Someone goes in, finds and traps a pangolin, eats or sells the meat, and keeps the scales for a long time until a market opens. A hunt that doesn’t require heavy caliber weapons: pangolins are small and very concealable animals that can fit in a basket or a backpack. The situation grows more complex as we turn to the Congo Basin where pangolins are a popular local delicacy, and still relatively common – their alarming decline is fairly recent. “It can be quite surprising to people on the ground when we tell them about the threat to these animals”, recalls Dr Carolyn Robinson, Chengeta’s Director of Sociocultural Research and Community Research, and indeed – extinction doesn’t exist as a concept in many African belief systems. Two of the four Asian pangolins are critically endangered, their meat, consumed as a luxury dish, and scales used in traditional medicines. Which is why we are now observing a transcontinental shift in the supply chain as demand turns to African species. considered more abundant – for now. Indeed, white-bellied and giant pangolins were recently up listed from vulnerable to endangered status by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). But in Africa, and particularly central Africa, local communities have been hunting pangolins for millennia, and both people and animals have continuously evolved alongside one another, in a predator-prey dynamic that has been well tolerated by the species… until now.
Time is ticking for elephants and pangolins, and we simply don’t have time to wait for markets to shut down. “So we believe in attacking all steps of the process”, firmly declares Rory. And in that respect, Chengeta and our partners support the outreach potential and positive relationships with communities that rangers have as they work within the park.
Empowering communities involves slow conservation and long-term methods that ultimately reduce the number of criminal networks. Hunger and poverty coupled with barriers to accessing healthcare, clean water, and reliable income can be significant drivers for individuals who need to feed their children, send them to school, and don’t see other viable alternatives. “It’s too easy to demonize groups of people for the choices they make. A potential poacher is preyed upon by networks in the same way people in the west and other cultures are preyed upon if they are in a vulnerable situation”, explains Dr Robinson.
Close up of pangolin scales (photographed by Rod Cassidy)
Ask yourself this – how do you go about defining poaching, particularly when local communities have been subsistence hunting for millennia? Where does one draw the line, when contemporary laws about hunting species don’t necessarily make sense to those whose ways of life rely on access to the forest? It’s not about romanticizing or demonizing communities, simply observing a range of scales under which threats posed by hunting (and poaching) can be measured, as we try to shift perceptions. The trouble arises when scales start to overlap: in some areas, pangolins are targeted by criminally organized groups of people for the trade. In others, a farmer or hunter could have stumbled across a pangolin in the forest, and taken it to earn extra income by selling the meat at a local market.
From anthropological and environmental justice perspectives, poaching refers to large-scale illicit trafficking networks trading ivory, scales, rhino horns and other wildlife-related products. And that’s it – grey areas persist in terms of what defines poaching versus hunting. The next scale is bushmeat hunting (of ungulate and primate species, like monkeys and duikers, and other species) for international meat markets. More and more, there seems to be a new rise in demand for wild meat in urban areas, a growing threat that puts pressures on struggling wildlife populations. Lastly, subsistence hunting, smaller scale hunting for local markets and self-sustenance is observed as a lesser threat.
Whilst Chengeta works heavily on illegal networks and trafficking, this isn’t how the majority of the community experience animals in this area “Linguistically, in CAR, the word for ‘meat’ and ‘animal’ is the same. For example, with foragers, you come to understand that meat isn’t just meat: it has social, cultural, economic values, it’s indicative of how able you are to provide for your family”, expands Dr. Robinson. A study published in 2011 noted that Central African foragers who reported having less meat in their diet showed signs akin to depression from a medical perspective. Meat is a source of protein, of which is needed in sufficient quantities to be alive and functional: it’s also an important food group consumed by almost all ethnic and linguistic groups in the Congo Basin. They traditionally eat small animals, like porcupines, duikers, rats…and pangolins. “Telling them now that they mustn’t eat pangolins is a bit like saying to an Italian to stop putting tomato on their pizza”, jokes Rory…. which goes to show how incredibly important cultural perception is to make progress on the conservation front. “If someone asks me to consult for them on a project that would tell locals to stop eating bushmeat in the Congo Basin, I’d simply refuse”, explains Dr Robinson. It’s not for us to tell people what to do – which can be incredibly counter-productive – nor to take away a source of livelihood and income, particularly as foreign conservationists who may inadvertently perpetuate new forms of colonialism.
Instead, we listen, talk, and listen some more. More than ever we need to be able to adopt perspective and compassion towards people – and not just in conservation. Chengeta Wildlife Communities programmes works with communities to develop locally based, lasting solutions towards the protection of natural resources, including self-monitored hunter off-take studies with local hunters. Chengeta also works to promote and support another independent community programme, the Sangha Pangolin Project (SPP). The SPP is a a truly inspiring local research initiative located in the Dzanga-Sangha Protected Area – a small initiative with a huge heart and mission. “It’s imperative to understand local ways of life and perceptions before we start designing projects. We can’t just go in with assumptions and expectations, otherwise we run the risk of disappointing the very people we’d like to engage with”, explains Tessa Ullmann, researcher from the SPP. « The SPP does not focus on reducing pangolin meat consumption, but rather on raising awareness on the growing threat of the scale trade and discouraging people to participate in it ».
Empowering communities begins with understanding the perceptions of various ethnicities, be it towards conservation and those who practice it, pangolins, illegal trade and what it means if a species integral to their culture goes extinct. Culture is a continuously evolving and dynamic entity, adapting and responding to change much in a way that species do biologically. Thus, shifting perceptions at a local level to either find alternatives or spread awareness requires a lot of communication. In line with Chengeta’s approach to communicating with local communities, SPP led a conservation campaign designed to spread awareness about the pangolins’ plight from village to village. “What they are, who we are, why they need protection”, says Tessa. A simple, illustrative and poignant campaign that tailored the message to diverse ethnicities populating the Dzanga-Sangha area: no two villages are the same. The BaAka for instance, are hunter-gatherers who hold incredible knowledge and understanding of the forest, intimately tied to their understanding of balance. They immediately reacted to what ecological consequences would arise if pangolins came to disappear. Similarly, Bantu tribes were more receptive to the concept of legacy and whether their children and grand-children would be able to grow alongside pangolins in their lifetime.
“We ask people how they feel about individuals at the other end of the chain who earn a lot of money and benefits from depleting the forest as opposed to local communities. We ask, ‘What if some of the meat you hunted last week stayed in the forest or your community? There would be more tomorrow, which means children can be fed, school fees paid’. We must allow people to make their own decisions when faced with different perspectives”, explains Dr Carolyn Robinson.
The responses of the awareness campaign were overwhelming: people want to help, want to get involved with protecting their livelihoods and legacies, and the next phase of involving the community is underway. “The Q&A at the end was fascinating, because it helped us understand what concerned each village the most, ranging from finding alternatives to their sources of protein to how they could be a part of putting an end to the trade”, Tessa concludes excitedly.
Tessa with two BaAka men looking at the notes they have taken as part of CPMP – an important way SPP engages with the local communities (photographed by Maja Gudehus)
In the early days of 2021, 8.8 tonnes of pangolin scales were seized in Nigeria. Whilst elephant poaching has plummeted in most areas of Chengeta’s operation, like CAR and Mali, “the pangolin scales movement is harder to measure”, explains Rory. Rangers have made increasing arrests, seized more and more scales, but it appears that the trade across the region (Cameroon, CAR, DRC) continues to escalate, and that the increase in seizures is perhaps proportionate to the increase in trade volumes. Counter-trafficking is working well, but pangolins are too easy and precious a target, which is why more than ever local livelihoods are crucial sentinels.
On the community front, progress is there – but slow conservation takes time. With guidance from Chengeta, the Sangha Pangolin Project developed an initiative to involve the local community in data collection to support research and understanding of current pangolin dynamics – the Community Pangolin Monitoring Project (CPMP). They work closely with the BaAka specifically – who better to involve than hunter-gatherers carrying incredible knowledge of the forest? The hunters, equipped with GPS trackers, collect data (sighting time, location, species, activity) and monitor the area, reporting unusual findings…More than just utilizing indigenous knowledge, the CPMP is a way to include the community in the conservation process, and to provide an incentive to keeping pangolins alive and in the forest. It was designed with the intention of providing an alternative activity involving pangolins that does not involve their consumption, going beyond tourism or solely relying on foreign conservationists.
Information like this is invaluable, as it provides insight into the presence of individuals specifically searching for pangolin scales – and as pangolins are fairly easy to catch, a target hunt increases pressure on the species. These targeted hunts expose the rise in demand for scales, and shine some light on how fast the trade is spreading. But they also reinforce the determination of the tribes we work with to put an end to it, facilitating social internal policing. “We’ve observed voluntary turnover of scales, in addition to confiscation, which not only highlights the fact that confiscation alone isn’t a valid metric in regards to anti-poaching, but suggests that communication on the ground does work”, says Dr Robinson. Local communities are much more willing to share information about poachers, particularly as they understand the notion of transgression and of being robbed.
In the absence of exact population numbers for pangolins in Dzanga Sangha, pangolin scale seizures offer insight into the scale of the impact of the trade. SPP’s analysis of the scale seizure currently held at Dzanga Sangha Reserve’s HQ, has helped gather information towards understanding trade dynamics, key towards efficiently implementing counter-trafficking. And indeed – the scales talk. More seizures occur in December, particularly over Christmas and the end of year when people are hunting more. This may indicate an increase in poaching of pangolins during a certain time of the year. According to the seizure analyzed by Tessa – which currently weighs in at approximately 109 kg – 97% of the scales belong to white-bellied pangolins: they’re nocturnal and easier to hunt, more targeted and more common (for now). Black-bellied pangolins are diurnal and stick to the treetops, which protects them from being over-hunted, and giant pangolins, the most cryptic of pangolins, are much harder to find. Over time, it’s crucial to keep analyzing seizures, to see if the number of hunted pangolins varies and to try and measure the impact Chengeta and SPP are having in the Dzanga-Sangha area. For now, more data is needed. Though anecdotally, it does seem like positive effects are emerging from the SPP’s exceptional work.
Collaboration, data, information and analytics sharing has never been so necessary. It’s thanks to incredible partnerships like those between Chengeta, SPP, WWF, the EU, and so many others, that the fight for the survival of fast-disappearing creatures is far from being lost. Pangolins are an ancient species, an important socio-ecological symbol illustrating the complexities existing between culture and nature, society and ecosystem. But also, they are a startling symbol of the desperate need to intertwine interdisciplinary realms of knowledge, perceptions and skills as we address their plight and networks that go well beyond solely scales.
Tessa examining giant pangolin scales from a seizure (photographed by Tamar Cassidy)
To some, pangolins may seem far away, unrelated, irrelevant. Physically, this may hold to be true, particularly as nature conservation is often perceived as niche, or for those who can afford it. But ultimately, this gentle, bizarre, wonderful creature highlights the intricate rapports between mankind and nature, mankind and culture, mankind and identity. And that is something that will hit home within every single one of us. To paraphrase the brilliant Sir David Attenborough, “it’s not just about protecting nature, it’s about protecting ourselves”. It’s the same struggle.
Virtual interviews with:
Conciatore, J., 2019. Up to 2.7 million pangolins are poached every year for scales and meat. [online] African Wildlife Foundation. Available at: https://www.awf.org/blog/27-million-pangolins-are-poached-every-year-scales-and-meat[Accessed 5 February 2021].
Dounias, E. and Froment, A., 2011. From foraging to farming among present-day forest hunter-gatherers: consequences on diet and health. International Forestry Review, [online] 13(3), pp.294-304. Available at: <https://www.cifor.org/publications/pdf_files/articles/ACIFOR1106.pdf > [Accessed 5 February 2021].
Kriel, A., 2019. The traditions and beliefs threatening the endangered pangolin. [online] Earth Journalism Network. Available at:<https://earthjournalism.net/stories/the-traditions-and-beliefs-threatening-the-endangered-pangolin > [Accessed 6 February 2021].
Turner, A. and Grant, D., 2020. The world’s most trafficked animal. Pangolins with Prof. Ray Jansen.. [podcast] The Wild Life Conservation Podcast. Available at: <https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/this-wild-life-conservation-podcast/id1513139424?i=1000474443033 > [Accessed 7 February 2021].
Alice Péretié is a Wildlife & Conservation Photographer and Storyteller passionate about exploring the ways in which to (re)connect people and nature. Website: aliceperetie.com