By Anne-Marie Weeden, Uganda Conservation Foundation
The giant pangolin and her baby had spent the night in a secure Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) facility, having been rescued from poachers the day before by rangers. Curled up together in a protective ball, this is how the Uganda Conservation Foundation (UCF) team found them early the next morning. Working quickly and quietly so as not to panic the animals any further in this alien environment, the rangers eased the pair into an old maize sack and placed them gently on top of a mattress in the back of the UCF pick up. These two pangolin were the latest of these armour-plated creatures retrieved alive from poachers intent on selling them illegally – for use as meat or medicine – and UCF and UWA were working together to ensure the safe release of this mother and baby.
Not a sought-after sobriquet by any means, but one that has recently catapulted this scaly anteater into the conservation spotlight. And with the recent, positive news from a global wildlife summit that a total trade ban in all pangolins has been effected, these beleaguered animals may now just stand a chance.
There are eight pangolin species worldwide, with four species hailing from Asia and four from Africa. Uganda is home to all four of the African species; black bellied (or long-tailed) pangolin, white bellied pangolin, ground pangolin (also known as Temminck’s pangolin after a 19th century Dutch zoologist of the same name), and the giant pangolin. Their name comes from the Malay word “penggulung”, meaning ‘something that rolls up’, due to their habit of curling up into a protective ball whenever danger is nearby. Handy against an inquisitive lion, which cannot then penetrate their scales, but much less effective against a human predator.
Despite their prevalence in Uganda, you could be forgiven for never having heard of them. Indeed, even some of the longest-serving safari guides in this country have yet to see one in the wild. Pangolins are naturally shy and mostly nocturnal creatures, so are rarely spotted on your average trip into the bush.
Unfortunately for the pangolin, their meat is a delicacy in China and Vietnam. In addition – and despite scientific studies proving they have zero medicinal or curative properties – their keratinous scales are also very much in demand. Pangolin scales are ground up and used in traditional Chinese medicines, (wrongly) believed to promote circulation, stimulate lactation, as well as reducing swelling and pus.
This has fueled demand for pangolins in Asia, leading to an extensive decline in the Asian pangolin populations. In the year 2000, the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) placed a zero quota on Asian species, to try and protect them from this threat.
Believe it or not, Chinese wildlife legislation has also taken steps to regulate the consumption of pangolin products. Article 22 of China’s Wild Animal Protection Law, which came into effect in 1988, outlaws the selling and purchasing of protected wild animals and their products, including pangolins. However, there are loopholes which can and have been exploited, allowing trade to occur if the animals or their products are used for the purposes of scientific research, captive breeding, exhibition or other special cases, such as traditional Chinese medicine. This has permitted the sale of verified stockpiles of scales, with a controlled distribution of these products via licensed hospitals and pharmaceutical companies.
Yet despite this regulatory framework and the zero trade quota on Asian species, the black market in pangolin products is thriving. Asian populations had already been decimated by poaching, and African populations are now under extreme threat. In the space of just four weeks earlier this year, Hong Kong authorities seized two shipments originating from Africa, comprising nearly 12 tons of pangolin scales. Whilst the different pangolin species vary significantly in body weight from 1-2kg to over 30kg on occasion, an estimated average scale yield of 2.38kg per individual suggests these shipments represented nearly 5,000 dead pangolins.
Arrests by UWA rangers and other law enforcement authorities in Uganda of poachers or traders caught with pangolin scales, or even live pangolins, have also been increasing. (Incidentally poachers and traders often keep the animals alive, not just because their armour-plating makes them physically challenging to kill, but also to keep the meat fresh, or – as some suspects have freely admitted – for breeding in order to multiply their illicit earnings from the initial capture.) The two pangolins confiscated from the poachers caught by UWA rangers in Murchison Falls Conservation Area last month are just one such example among many.
There is no doubt that previous legislation has not been robust enough to protect this valuable creature, but conservationists are now fighting back. The official delegation from Uganda Wildlife Authority was at the forefront of a recent effort by African conservationists to up-list all pangolin species to Appendix One under CITES legislation, a move which effectively categorises all African and Asian pangolin species as exempt from any kind of trade. Outlawing all trade makes it much easier for authorities to enforce protection of this much-beleaguered animal. When the global wildlife sector gathered in Johannesburg in September 2016 at CITES Cop17 (a short name for the seventeenth meeting of the Conference of Parties to CITES), the vote was unanimous amongst all 182 nations present.
Now the legislation is in place, the challenge is to enforce it. UCF is working closely with UWA and other partners – including one of the foremost experts in the rescue and rehabilitation of African pangolins, Lisa Hywood of the Tikki Hywood Trust in Zimbabwe – to develop a pangolin project in Uganda which will help raise awareness of the problem, research populations and their range in Uganda, and provide rescue and rehabilitation protocols for law enforcement authorities to follow when a live pangolin is recovered from poachers.
The project is still in its infancy, but when our team were in the field in Murchison Falls Conservation Area last month, they collaborated with UWA on the release of the two afore-mentioned pangolins. Substantial in size, with the adult weighing circa 18kg and the ‘baby’ around 10kg, it seemed we were handling two Giant pangolins – a relative rarity in pangolin rescue circles. After assisting their loading into the vehicle, the UCF team helped to transport them to a safe location for their release. Along the way, the team co-ordinated with Lisa Hywood for her expert advice on release protocols, and after finding a quiet location deep inside Murchison Falls Conservation Area, unloaded the pair.
The team watched from a distance as the two slowly unfurled and examined their surroundings. It took no time at all for them to find their feet; the mother took a long drink of water from a nearby source – dehydration is a common problem for pangolins who have spent time with poachers in captivity – whilst the baby immediately started to check out its surroundings by burrowing. It was a great way to kick off the pangolin project and delivered a happy ending for all concerned!