by Paula Froelich
In the rainforests of the Congo, Cameroon and Central African Republic (CAR) lives an elusive mammal that looks like a cross between an anteater, an armadillo and a pinecone. And thanks to poachers, the pangolin is the most trafficked animal on earth.
In April 2019, Singapore seized a world record 25.6 tons of pangolin scales, worth $76.5 million, from an estimated 38,000 of the creatures. In December, scales from some 50,000 African pangolins were seized by Chinese authorities.
In all, it is estimated that more than 100,000 pangolins, mostly from Africa, were killed by traffickers last year — compared to 200 rhinos and 1,000 tigers.
“It’s because of this scale, this unique feature [that makes)] them a target,” said Tessa Ullman, a volunteer at the Sangha Pangolin Project, a preservation society. “The Pangolin burrow and create holes, so [the scales are] associated with circulation. It’s used as an ingredient in traditional Asian medicines … They’re used to help mothers for lactation, and for blood pressure. But none of this has been clinically proven.”
But that’s not stopping true believers.
According to the ASEAN Post, “Sunda pangolins in Indonesia are at risk of extinction [and the country] has already lost up to 10,000 a year to illegal trade.”
Due to demand from China and Vietnam, pangolins in South East Asia are almost extinct.
“What’s happening, basically, is that the four Asian species have been all but decimated because of the trade,” Ullman said. “So African pangolin species are now being targeted to feed the demand in Asia … It’s really the illegal trade in scales that’s threatening the species the most.”
Last year, I had the opportunity to come face to face with the coveted animal during my stay at the Sangha Lodge near the Dzangha-Sangha National Park in the CAR, in the Tri-National Protected Area that abuts Cameroon and the Republic of Congo.
There, I met the founders and volunteers of the Sangha Pangolin Project. Rod Cassidy and his wife, Tamar, are South Africans who have been in the CAR since 2009 when they turned the former research lodge into a retreat for tourists as well as conservationists, who control and protect an area that is 725 square kilometers.
I saw a black-bellied pangolin, named Cookie, amongst the trees of the Sangha Lodge’s protection zone, as well as a baby white-bellied pangolin, Mata, who was being raised at the center after being rescued from a bushmeat market in Bangui, CAR.
“There’s a lot of bushmeat going from the countryside through to the cities, which is part of the bushmeat trade,” Rod said. “This baby was for sale and somebody bought it … so that we could raise it and release it into the wild, which is what we do. We are not into keeping any of the animals yet. They have to go back into the forest.”
Rod and Tamar have had success doing this with several other pangolins in the past. “We’ve released over 90 into the forest,” he added.
But while Mata was saved from being bushmeat, the real threat to her species remains the scale trade.
I saw it firsthand in 2014 when I visited the Farraday Market in Johannesburg, South Africa — a “Muthi” market specializing in traditional medicine. While many Muthi, or healers, use herbs and plants, others favor animals: That day, I saw chimpanzee hands, lion parts, a wide assortment of animal horns and three dead pangolins.
“Roadkill,” the vendor said when I asked him about the carcasses and scales.
Five years later, the problem has escalated.
To protect the species, the Cassidys have hired more than 50 locals — most of them Ba’Aka hunters who subsistence hunt in the area, to run their hotels, track the pangolins in the wild, and help with construction. Much of their work includes research and education of locals.
“The locals might want to carry on eating . . . But at the same time, we don’t want them to trade [scales],” Cassidy said. “We have to sensitize people and [encourage them to feel] ownership of this and not allow these animals to go extinct on their watch.
“[The problem] is exactly the same as rhino poaching syndicates, who set up shop in Lagos and put the messages out that they want scales. It’s big guys in the cities, little guys in the smaller towns and poachers in the villages.”
But Ullman is determined to call them out.
“It’s been almost a silent extinction because this is an animal that no one really knew about,” she said.
If you want to visit with the pangolin, contact The African Adventure Company.