- New film aims to raise awareness and strengthen protection and conservation of pangolins.
- Hunting and trafficking of these animals in Africa has sharply intensified to meet demand from Asia in recent years.
- Pangolins have historically been used for traditional medicine, decoration and gift-giving across Africa.
If people knew about pangolins and how special they are, says documentary filmmaker Bruce Young, “they might begin to care enough to help save and conserve them, and put an end to the illegal trade in their scales and meat.”
Young is the writer, director and producer of “Eye of the Pangolin,” a 45-minute film that aims to raise awareness and strengthen protection and conservation of pangolins, an unusual mammal frequently described as “the most trafficked animal in the world.” Premiering in South Africa on May 17, World Endangered Species Day, the film aims to reach 10 million viewers via social media.
“Eye of the Pangolin” takes the viewer on a journey to South Africa, Zimbabwe, Ghana and Gabon, in search of all four African pangolin species: Temminck’s ground pangolin (Smutsia temminckii), the giant ground pangolin (Smutsia gigantea), and the tree-climbing black-bellied (Phataginus tetradactyla) and white-bellied (Phataginus tricuspis) pangolins.
There are four further species of pangolin in Asia — threatened, like their African counterparts, by a combination of hunting for food and use in traditional medicine, as well as road and railway accidents, and habitat loss linked to deforestation.
The IUCN lists the Indian (Manis crassicaudata) and Philippine (Manis culionensis) pangolins as endangered species, and the Chinese (Manis pentadactyla) and Sunda (Manis javanica) pangolins as critically endangered. International trade of Asian pangolins was prohibited in 2000, with a complete ban on trade in any of the eight species agreed to in 2017 under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which regulates cross-border trade in wild animals and their parts.
The most trafficked animal in the world
“Eye of the Pangolin” concentrates on the hugely increased impact of illegal trafficking of African pangolins and their scales to meet demand from Asian markets and consumers. In April this year, the biggest ever single seizure of pangolin scales was made in Singapore: 26 tons of scales en route to Vietnam from Nigeria, worth an estimated $77 million.
In the film, Raymond Jansen, a professor of ecology at South Africa’s Tshwane University of Technology, calculates that the 69 tons of pangolin products seized by Asian customs authorities in the past year represents only 8 to 10 percent of the total volume of the illegal trade. Jansen is a member of the African Pangolin Working Group (APWG), which works to conserve the continent’s pangolin species and their habitat as well as retrieving pangolins from the illegal trade.
“[Pangolin trafficking is] highly organized,” he told Mongabay. “There are Asian syndicates operating, so it’s deep underground. It’s on the same level as rhinoceros, perlemoen [abalone] and elephant ivory are being traded, but we haven’t had any success breaking them.”
Estimating the scale of the trade and the threat it poses to Africa’s pangolins, Nicci Wright, a veterinarian and fellow member of the APWG, says it takes about 1,900 pangolins to make up 1 ton of scales. By this calculation, the Singapore seizure alone cost the African species about 49,400 pangolins. Shown in the documentary releasing an illegally captured pangolin back into the bush with an anti-poaching unit at hand, she says: “It’s a lot of animals, and they don’t weigh much.”
Most African pangolins are nocturnal; black-bellied pangolins are the only diurnal species. They’re covered in large keratin scales from head to tail, and when they roll up into defensive balls for protection, their scales form an impenetrable armor against predators like lions. But that defensive posture also makes it easy for humans to catch, store and traffic them. Their shy, solitary nature means researchers know less than they would like about these remarkable animals. Their relatively slow reproductive rate makes them particularly vulnerable to poaching – mating once annually, and typically producing one pangopup per birth which is nursed for 3 to 4 months and stays with its mother until it reaches sexual maturity at 2 years old.
The documentary also explores the potential cost to ecosystems if pangolins are lost. Ecologist Cleo Graf of the South African Wildlife College says that like aardvarks, pangolins eat vast quantities of ants and termites, serving as part of a natural check on these insects. “Pangolins are a keystone species that has an impact greater than you can expect for its biomass in the system,” she said. “They change the landscape; if you take something like pangolin out of the system, we don’t know what impact it would have on ants and termites, would they become superabundant? My guess is the impact would be huge.”
Graf cites a study in Venezuela, where a valley was flooded, creating isolated islands. The islands with anteaters showed continued healthy growth of vegetation, while islands with no anteaters were quickly stripped of their plants by unchecked populations of leafcutter ants.
Enlisting local participation to curb trafficking
Before it intensified to meet demand for trafficking to Asia in the last decade or so, the hunting of pangolins across Africa for local consumption was sustainable, the documentary says. The animals have historically been used for traditional medicine, decoration and gift-giving across the continent.
Maxwell Kwame Boakye is a Ghanaian researcher working to establish a clearer sense of pangolin population numbers. His research includes monitoring tagged pangolins, studying their ectoparasites, and developing a DNA database of pangolins, some trapped for research purposes by rangers or environmental activists, but many samples drawn from animals hunted for the bushmeat and medicine trades.
“Any information I want on the bushmeat trade, I can come to them,” he told Mongabay. “They are the ones who initially informed me of the Chinese trade — their purchase of the scales.”
Boakye’s relationships with bushmeat traders in Ghana show how hunters and traditional healers can play an important role in gathering data about illegal trade in pangolins for the traditional medicine. Strengthening protection for these animals will likely depend on the participation of local communities.
“It’s an urgent situation and we need many people to see this film as quickly as possible,” said Young, the filmmaker. “The importance of making the film free, particularly in the areas in Africa where poaching and illegal wildlife trade happens, is that we want to reach those people. It’s a huge mountain to climb as people are struggling to put food on the table, so why should they care about one species in the bushmeat trade? It’s a sensitive campaign because you are wanting to change people’s perceptions and how they relate to the wild, natural world that they live in.”
Dan Challender, chair of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Pangolin Specialist Group, was part of a research team that published findings on the trafficking and trade of pangolins in the Gulf of Guinea. “Campaigns can help raise awareness of the issue of pangolins being overexploited, but there is a need for more concrete interventions to get local people and communities on board in the long term, to not harvest and consume pangolins — or to do so within sustainable levels — where hunting and trade is legal.”
“The species are protected by law in most range states in Africa, but rural communities in many parts of West and Central Africa have consumed pangolins as bushmeat for generations,” he told Mongabay. “There are issues here of legality vs. social legitimacy of the law, i.e. the species are protected but local people feel their use is legitimate based on the cultural and historical context.”
In the month folowing its release on YouTube, “Eye of the Pangolin” was viewed nearly 20,000 times. Pangolin.Africa, the conservation nonprofit that produced the documentary, is currently working on reformatting and translating it as an educational tool for awareness and advocacy for schoolchildren in high poaching areas, anti-poaching units and law enforcement agencies.
A recent study shows that conservation communication works most effectively in concert with local enforcement-related events such as seizures of trafficked animals. To help raise awareness in the Asian market, Pangolin.Africa is in talks with Chinese partners to screen the film (as YouTube is not available in China), and subtitle it in Mandarin and Vietnamese.
Time will tell if “Eye of the Pangolin” achieves its aim by introducing pangolins, educating about the illegal trade and providing a forum for people to take action. From the documentary, the words of Vianet Minhindou, an ecotourism operator in Gabon who led the search for the rarely seen giant pangolin, are hard to forget: “If this giant pangolin species disappears, the forests die.”
Banner image: Temminck’s Ground Pangolin: Photo: Keith Connelly
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