Opinionista Tony Weaver 4 June 2019

Man Friday: Earth’s great gardeners of the wild under threat

Pangolins are now the most heavily poached mammal on Earth, but because so little is known about these elusive and enigmatic creatures, they don’t get anywhere as much attention as the more charismatic species, like rhinos, elephants and lions.

First published by Die Burger

I spent many of my childhood holidays in the bush, and a large part of my adult working life has been in the savannahs, deserts, mountains and rain forests of Africa.

I have tracked and seen some of Africa’s rarest animals – desert-dwelling black rhino and elephants in the Kaokoveld; Walia ibex and gelada baboons in Ethiopia’s Simyen Mountains; Ethiopian wolves and giant mole-rats in the Bale Mountains; gerenuks and Grevy’s Zebra in Kenya’s Samburu; 13 different primate species in one day in Uganda’s Kibale Forest; and even an incredibly rare melanistic black leopard in Kenya’s Aberdares National Park.

But I have only ever seen a pangolin once – a dead Temminck’s ground pangolin, killed by a bush fire in Zambia’s Kafue National Park.

It takes around 1,900 pangolins killed to produce one ton of scales. In 2018, 48 tons of scales were seized, the equivalent of 91,200 pangolins – a helluva lot more gets through undetected. Pangolin scales are a lot easier to smuggle than rhino horns or elephant tusks.

Pangolins are now the most heavily poached mammal on Earth, but because so little is known about these elusive and enigmatic creatures, they don’t get anywhere as much attention as the more charismatic species, like rhino, elephants and lions.

There are four species of African pangolin: African white-bellied pangolin, giant ground pangolin, Temminck’s ground pangolin and black-bellied pangolin.

Film-makers Bruce Young, director of the acclaimed documentary, Blood Lions, and Johan Vermeulen set out to capture all four species on film. The result is the documentary, Eye of the Pangolin.

The film, which recently had its only big screen showing, in Cape Town, has now gone straight to YouTube for free viewing and maximum exposure as part of a campaign by the NGO, Pangolin Africa.

Pangolins, or scaly anteaters, have always been part of the bushmeat menu in Africa, but they have been hunted in a completely sustainable way for their flesh, not their scales.

But in recent years, like rhino horn, their scales and foetuses have come into high demand for traditional medicine in China and Vietnam, where they are used to “treat” everything from arthritis to cancer.

Although very little research has been done on them, in part because of their elusive, largely nocturnal character, scientists are now beginning to realise they play a crucial role in especially forest ecology.

Walking on their hind legs, they have over-sized claws on their front legs, used for digging up ants and termites, turning over the top surface of the earth, composting it, and burying seeds for germination.

Interviewed in the film, Lisa Hywood of Zimbabwe’s Tikki Hywood Foundation, says “if we lose the pangolins, we lose the Earth’s great gardeners.

We know pretty accurately how many elephants and rhinos there are, but we have no idea how many pangolins there are.”

Launching Eye of the Pangolin straight on to YouTube is unconventional, and a calculated move on the part of the film-makers and their backers to garner as much publicity and spread knowledge about the plight of pangolins.

The film is compelling viewing, please download and watch it – and spread the word. Pangolins need urgent intervention if the great gardeners of the wild are to be saved from extinction. DM

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