Pangolins are not only unique in appearance, but also very reclusive. A sighting of a pangolin in the wild is a rare experience and for this reason, many of us know very little about this species. © Gareth Thomas
Interview by Rory Francis
Pangolin – the venerable ‘wise old man’ of the African bush – is said to be a totem of good luck and the bringer of rain. This enigmatic creature that holds the secrets of 85 million years of evolution is now the most poached mammal on the planet. – African Pangolin Working Group
The African Pangolin Working Group is a multidimensional organisation at the forefront of protecting the four African pangolin species. APWG conducts a multitude of efforts, including retrieving pangolins from the illegal wildlife trade, pangolin rehabilitation, research, and education. Professor Ray Jansen is the chairman of the organisation and a member of the ICUN Species Survival Commission Pangolin Specialist Group. He is highly educated on a diverse range of research interests, holds a Ph.D. in Zoology, and is on a mission to conserve Africa’s Pangolins.
Professor Ray Jansen is the Chairman of the African Pangolin Working Group and is working to protect the four African Pangolin species. © Gareth Thomas
How did your passion for protecting wildlife and, in particular, Pangolins begin?
I’ve been passionate about wildlife and the African savannahs since I was a young boy. I was introduced to pangolins in 2009 when a past student requested me to supervise his master’s study on the Temminck’s pangolin in the Kalahari. I was immediately bewitched by these mysterious creatures. At this time, I realised how much trouble they are in and subsequently founded the African Pangolin Working Group; the first organisation of its kind directly focused on hands-on work in reducing the illegal trafficking of pangolins.
Two of the four African species were recently reclassified from ‘Vulnerable’ to ‘Endangered’ why is it so crucial that pangolins are protected?
The only direct threat to the entire pangolin Order (the Pholidota) is persecution at man’s hands. Pangolins are the most trafficked mammals in the world, and for this reason alone, it is our responsibility to combat this illegal trade and to reverse their declining numbers.
Why are Pangolins poached so heavily, and how valuable are they?
Pangolin scales are ground up into a powder and used in various cultural medical and spiritual remedies in Asia, particularly China. I have identified 60 different commercial products that hold this powder as an ingredient in China, and these products are manufactured and sold at an industrial level in vast quantities. In 2019 alone, I recorded more than 97 tons of pangolin scales leaving the African continent destined for Asia, equivalent to more than 150,000 African pangolins. If this volume of trade continues unabated, all eight species may be declared extinct within the next two decades. Females only have one pup a year, so the recruitment to natural pangolin populations is very low, and they will not survive this onslaught.
African Pangolins are among the most trafficked species in the world. © Gareth Thomas
Why is the Pangolin trade so much higher in rural market hubs than in cities? Is it purely because of the proximity to habitat?
I don’t believe that to be the case.All pangolins are sourced rurally and then transported to urban hubs such as cities and then moved to various destinations in Asia. Once they arrive, they are processed in large manufacturing centers. We need to bear in mind that pangolins are sourced locally in Africa and Asia for consumption, and sold as delicacy food items. Hence, we find them in rural markets close to their natural habitat where hunters source them.
In a previous interview, you said that some tribal leaders weren’t aware or perhaps willing to accept that Pangolins may go extinct. What are some ways the African Pangolin Working Group tries to overcome these misconceptions?
We have various educational programs more recently focussing on the rural youth via their schools. We have partnered with multiple organisations who have existing networks and educational programs within these schools and have started a pangolin comic book campaign to bring the plight of pangolins to the people on the grassroots level throughout sub-Saharan Africa.
As pangolins hold strong ties to traditional medicine and status, can the species be protected while also protecting traditional culture?
The use of pangolins in cultural practices in Africa is reasonably sustainable. Their use in Asia is entirely unsustainable. The belief that pangolin scales cure various medical ailments in Asia, particularly China, is not valid. This belief should be removed from cultural practice as it holds no substance. Pangolins cannot be afforded protection in China if this cultural “value” is maintained.
How crucial is APWG’s collaboration efforts with the South African government and the Johannesburg Wildlife Veterinary Hospital to oversee pangolin rehabilitation?
Our association with the South African government is critical, and our existence and success are based on this relationship. The JWVH is most likely the best wildlife veterinary hospital in the world that deals with and treats pangolins, and we are fortunate to have such a close working relationship.
The African Pangolin Working Group conduct sting operations to retrieve illegally poached and trafficked Pangolins. © African Pangolin Working Group
READ THE AFRICAN PANGOLIN WORKING GROUPS STATEMENT ON THE NOVEL CORONOVIRUS (COVID-19) PANDEMIC AND A RESPONSE TO THE CALL ON THE TOTAL BAN ON GLOBAL “WET MARKETS”