What is a pangolin?
A pangolin is a very unique animal: it is the only mammal in the world with scales! Some people refer to them as a walking pinecone because of them. The scales are there for protection: when a pangolin is startled, they roll into an impenetrable ball and will “unroll” when the threat is gone. That’s how they got their name: “pangolin”, derived from the Malay word “pengguling”, which loosely translates to “something that rolls up”.
Pangolins are insectivores, only eating ants and termites. They have long, sharp claws to break ant and termite nests, to rip off bark from the trees and to give them a better grip during climbing.
Then there’s another special feature about the pangolin: their tongue! They have long and sticky tongues to lick up ants and termites as fast as possible.
Their tongues actually start deep in their chest cavity, arising from the last pair of ribs! Pangolins don’t have teeth. In stead, ants and termites are being “grinded” in their stomachs with the help of the sand or dirt they ingest while feeding.
They reach sexual maturity around 2 years of age and usually give birth to a single pup.
There are 8 species of pangolin in the world; 4 species in Asia and 4 species in Africa.
Asian pangolin species:
- Chinese or Formosan pangolin (Manis pentadactyla) – Critically Endangered
- Malayan or Sunda pangolin (Manis javanica)- Critically Endangered
- Indian or thick-tailed pangolin (Manis crassicaudata) – Endangered
- Palawan or Philippine pangolin (Manis culionensis) – Endangered
African pangolin species:
- Tree or African white-bellied pangolin (Phataginus tricuspis)- Vulnerable
- Giant ground pangolin (Smutsia gigantea)– Vulnerable
- Cape or Temminck’s ground pangolin (Manis temmickii) – Vulnerable
- Long-tailed or black-bellied pangolin (Phataginus detradactyla) – Vulnerable
Liberia is home to the White-bellied pangolin, the Black-bellied pangolin and the Giant Pangolin.
Unfortunately, pangolins are under threat…
Liberia has a long history of consuming bushmeat: from duikers and civets, to monkeys, snakes and pangolins; everything ends up on a plate.
In addition, many pangolins are being poached all over Africa to be shipped to Asia (mostly China and Vietnam), where they believe the scales of the pangolin serve medical purposes . This is not true, as pangolin scales are made of keratin, just like our hair and finger nails. Because the Asian species are becoming extinct, the Asian market is now targeting African species to supply the demand.
Pangolin meat is not only favored in Africa, it is also considered a delicacy, in Asia. The bushmeat trade and the demand for pangolin scales for medicinal purposes gave the pangolins the disputable title of “most trafficked animal in the world.”
Researchers estimate that more than 2 million pangolins have been illegally traded in the last 16 years. They are sought for more than elephant tusk, rhino horn and tiger parts COMBINED.
With increased scarcity, it has been difficult to estimate current populations of the 8 pangolin species. However, international pressure has mounted to prevent the pangolin’s extinction. Last year at CITES’ Conference of the Parties, where the world’s conservation agencies meet, pangolins received appendix I protection. Appendix I represents the highest level of protection offered by the organization and pressures the 183 affiliated nations to enforce the strictest possible conservation measures.
There is a new wildlife law in Liberia that has been passed in November 2016 that states that it is now illegal to eat, keep, catch, sell, kill or transport endangered and protected wildlife in Liberia, including the pangolins.
The Ebola crisis of 2014 had put a temporary halt on the consumption of bushmeat, only to start over again after the disease was under control.
If we don’t take action now, extinction is right around the corner…
What we do
So far, 65 pangolins have been brought to the sanctuary, ( 51 White-bellied pangolins and 14 Black-bellied pangolins) both young animals and adults. We already successfully released 44 pangolins, and others will soon be ready for release. Unfortunately, 21 died because of their injuries, stress, dehydration or starvation after being captured by poachers.
Pangolin rehabilitation is not easy, mainly due to their diet: they only eat ants and termites. As we cannot feed them ants and termites in a feeding bowl, we must walk them in the forest several times a day for at least 1 hour and a half so they can forage. Because this is not an easy task to do, combined with the care of the many other animals at the sanctuary, the sanctuary had to employ 3 extra staff (Local staff) to walk the pangolins, making pangolins the most expensive animals in our care.
Inside Liberia’s fight to save pangolins from extinction
Clutching a single-barrelled rifle in lush northern Liberia, Emmanuel says his 10 children were able to get an education thanks to his gun.
The small wiry man, whose full name AFP is withholding, ignores a ban on hunting bushmeat and earns most of his cash catching pangolins or monkeys in the surrounding jungle.
In the dry season, Emmanuel waits for dark and then hikes into the jungle with his rifle and machete.
Pangolins, scale-covered insect-eating mammals that are typically the size of a full-grown cat, are mostly active at night, snuffling through deadwood for ants and termites.
The species is under increasing threat worldwide, but remains a delicacy in the impoverished West African country.
Their scales — made of keratin, like human nails — are also prized by consumers abroad for their supposed medicinal properties, fetching much-needed money.
“We kill it, we eat it,” said Emmanuel, in a village in Gbarpolu County, five-hours drive north of the capital Monrovia along pitted dirt roads.
“Then the scales, we sell it,” added the hunter. “There’s no other option”.
Believed to be the world’s most trafficked animal, pangolins are only found in the wild in Asia and Africa, but their numbers are plummeting under pressure from poaching.
Asian pangolins once met the strong demand in East Asian countries such as China and Vietnam, where the animal’s scales are used in traditional concoctions.
But Africa became the major source for the trade from 2013, according to the UN’s drugs and crime office UNODC, in a shift likely prompted by falling pangolin numbers in Asia.
Countries such as Liberia, as well as Nigeria, Cameroon and Guinea, are all origin markets.
Phillip Tem Dia, who works for Flora and Fauna International, a non-governmental organisation in Liberia, said pangolin killings “really, really increased” since the start of the scales trade.
Liberia is a prime target for traffickers. Over 40 percent of the country is covered in rainforest and governance is weak.
It is also still recovering from brutal civil wars from 1989 to 2003, and the 2014-16 Ebola crisis.
With conservationists sounding the alarm, Liberia’s government has banned the hunting and sale of pangolins.
But it is battling a generations-old tradition of its impoverished citizens consuming the animal.
Patchy data hampers conservation efforts too. Pangolins are solitary and reclusive, and their number in the wild remains a mystery.
“There are huge gaps in our understanding,” said Rebecca Drury, FFI head of wildlife trade.
Available evidence suggests a stark decline in numbers, however.
Known as “ants-bears” in Liberia after their favourite food, pangolins move at a waddle and have no jaws or teeth.
They roll up into a hedgehog-like ball when threatened. Their scales provide protection.
But humans can simply pick pangolins up and carry them off.
“They are very sensitive animals,” said Julie Vanassche, the director of Liberia’s Libassa Wildlife Sanctuary, near Monrovia, which rehabilitates rescued pangolins.
Many die of stress in captivity, she says, despite round-the-clock care.
The sanctuary has released 42 back into the wild since opening its doors 2017, but the number is likely a drop in the ocean.
A 2020 study by the US Agency for International Development estimated that between 650,000 and 8.5 million pangolins were removed from the wild between 2009 and 2020.
“Either way, the numbers are staggering,” the study said, listing deforestation, bushmeat consumption, and the scales trade as reasons behind the decline in pangolins.
According to the UNODC, seizures of pangolin scales have also increased tenfold since 2014, suggesting a booming global trade. In July, China seized two tonnes of smuggled scales, for example.
Vanassche, a Belgian with a pangolin tattoo on her forearm, said the future is “not looking great”.
“We need to act very fast — it’s almost over,” she said.
Outside a market in Monrovia, a forestry agent pours gasoline over a pile of confiscated bushmeat, and lights a match.
The mound of dead monkeys, and at least one pangolin, goes up in flames as women gather round to hurl abuse at a dozen agents from Liberia’s Forestry Development Authority.
They have just conducted one their first market raids in the capital, after years of raising awareness about wildlife laws.
Liberia banned the sale of bushmeat in 2014 following the Ebola crisis.
In 2016, it also banned the unlicenced hunting of protected species, imposing up to six months in prison or a maximum $5,000 fine on wrongdoers.
The FDA agents — all tall men who say they are dedicated to stopping the bushmeat trade — appear to have little sympathy for the market traders, who are all women.
“Our protected species are being killed every day by poachers,” said FDA anti-smuggling unit head Edward Appleton, in battledress, adding that the country’s natural heritage was threatened.
But Comfort Saah, a market trader, was distraught as her merchandise burned by the roadside. She said she had lost the equivalent of nearly $3,000 in the raid.
The sum is enormous in a country where 44 percent of people survive on under $1.9 a day, according to World Bank figures.
“How are we going to live?” Saah said.
*This article was written by Libassa Wildlife Sanctuary.
LIBASSA WILDLIFE SANCTUARY
MARSHALL HIGHWAY, KPANS TOWN, MARGIBI COUNTY, LIBERIA