Having the opportunity to see work on the ground, Byron Pace gives us an account of efforts to save pangolin in South Africa.
These days I seem to do most of my writing at altitude, as indeed is the case as I put this article together.
To be honest I would rather be trying to catch up on some sleep during the short flight from SA to Windhoek in Namibia, but I am already on the wire to meet the copy deadline for this article.
I have been in the country now for 21 days, and I don’t think I have seen much more than a four-hour sleep average a night. It’s been non-stop, but also endlessly rewarding.
My clients have all now safely returned home after seven days of hunting, all seemingly affected by their experience here. Africa gets under your skin, and it’s true. You will never view anything the same again once you have spent a bit of time here, syncing with the bush and the wildlife.
On leaving the hunting camp for the northern borders of South Africa, I was excited to be heading into new bushveld.
It had been some time since I had stepped onto the rich, red earth of the northern provinces; scattered, iconic baobab trees standing like sentinels across the land. For the next week I would be immersed in the world of pangolin conservation.
I was destined for an undisclosed location near the Botswana border, following Francois Meyer in convoy to the new release site for a rehabilitated pangolin.
We met face to face for the first time just outside Pretoria, where we were joined by the founder of the African Pangolin Working Group (APWG), Professor Ray Jansen, who would be handing over his precious cargo, a sub-adult female pangolin which had been confiscated from illegal traffickers.
Now healthy, it was time for her to undergo a soft release process so she could be returned to the wild, with procedures in place to monitor and track her movements for research.
One day previously I had met Ray at a coffee shop on the outskirts of Johannesburg, before having the privilege of meeting their most recent intake to the rehabilitation hospital, a young pangolin called Ramphy.
Ray gave me a potted version of the organisation’s history and ongoing work, answering my many questions about a species I knew very little about.
Our contact with the group had been made through Francois Meyer, who is currently studying under the direction of the APWG. Through discussions and a greater understanding of the challenge the species faces, it became our primary fund-raising effort for 2019.
It is something we try to do every year through our company and podcast, with our first concerted push delivering funds to the Lwiro primate sanctuary.
This year, through the kind and generous donations of many companies and individuals, we auctioned off items to buy equipment for the continued research and conservation of pangolin through the APWG.
With more equipment yet to deliver, I personally handed over eight motion cameras and a thermal imager to the people on the ground during my stay. Ray expressed how grateful the team was to have such support, and passed on his sincere thanks to everyone who helped pull the funds and items together.
After chatting for a time, Ray took me to meet their youngest intake. During the rehabilitation process, each pangolin is walked for four to five hours a day.
Under supervision, this allows them to re-establish themselves in a natural environment, and importantly, feed on their primary food source of ants and larva.
Without tube feeding, it is almost impossible to provide suitable nutrition without pangolins feeding naturally on their food source, and this makes for an extremely labour-intensive rehabilitation process.
I am not sure what I expected when seeing a pangolin for the first time. It’s not like I hadn’t thought about it at all – but nevertheless, nothing could have prepared me for quite how mesmerising and intriguing they are.
We walked up from a dirt track, cutting through the bush towards the volunteer who was playing the role of caretaker for the day. I said nothing, simply watching as the world’s only scaled mammal, and most illegally trafficked on the planet, stood before me, merrily going about his business, snuffling the ground in search of the next meal.
In silence, I sat down beside him with my camera in hand. I could feel the unexpected welling up of emotion as I watched Ramphy excavate another ant’s nest with his short, powerful front legs. Full of character, he was like an armoured dog.
Pangolin are traded for their scales, fulfilling the same market as the illegal trafficking of rhino horn: a seemingly endless demand, which marches on towards the extinction of a species. In February alone, 42 tonnes of dried pangolin was found in a container destined for China.
When I asked Professor Jansen what the future was for pangolin, he seemed in little doubt. “If we don’t do something to change the current trend of illegal trafficking, we will see the last pangolin within 20 years.”
There are four African pangolin species, and four Asian. In South Africa, where I was, we were dealing with the Temminck’s ground pangolin. As a species they have no real predators.
Their defence mechanism is to roll into a defensive ball, which, due to the interlocking nature of their scales and remarkable strength with which they clamp closed with their tail, is impervious to most attacks. However, this makes them easy picking for humans.
This is not a story of hunting. It’s a story of the importance of our role as guardians on this land, for the species we hunt and for many we do not. We are at the tipping point for so many animals around the planet.
It seems inevitable that some of the species I have grown up knowing will not be there by the time I leave this world. We all must work out how we can support good work on the ground to halt this.
The pangolin that we released near the Botswana border is doing well, monitored by a volunteer family who own a 5000-hectare hunting farm.
By working with their neighbours and with the help and support of the African Pangolin Working Group, they are playing their role in putting one more of these incredible creatures back where they belong, wandering the darkness of the African bush at peace.
A massive thanks to Francois Meyer and the African Pangolin Working Group for their help in raising awareness of pangolins in Africa. Their work is forever appreciated.
You can learn more by visiting their website: https://africanpangolin.org
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