Pangolin: We’re not responsible

Words & Pictures by Alastair Marsh

Meet Amos; a rare male Ground Pangolin, a species been blamed for the pangolin coronavirus outbreak which has swept the world in early 2020.

Amos lives at the Rare and Endangered Species Trust (REST) located close to Etosha National Park in Namibia.

REST took Amos into their care after he was found injured on an industrial site and is now being looked after by leading world experts on Pangolin care and rehabilitation.

On planning my trip to Namibia in November 2019, I contacted REST about a year in advance at the possibility of visiting their centre and photographing Pangolins.

It seemed to be the only way of seeing these amazing creatures in their natural habitat during my two-week visit.

“Little did I realise then that Pangolins would feature heavily in the media in the coming months”

They’re so rare to see in the wild that I really would have needed every ounce of luck to see one that way let alone photograph one. The team at REST were very helpful and accommodating to my query on this, and it wasn’t long before we had ‘pencilled’ in a trip for me to visit.

The exact logistics of the visit would have to be sort out nearer the time, for I was informed Pangolins’ sleeping patterns vary through the year and, understandably, I was only able to see them when they were awake and foraging for food in the bush. As I got close to the departure date, I became eager in anticipation of visiting REST and seeing my first Pangolin. The date and time had been sorted, conveniently arranged for an evening during my stay at Ongava on the boundary of the Etosha National Park.

However, little did I realise then that Pangolins would feature heavily in the media in the coming months. Not from their plight as “the most trafficked animal on the planet” but with their link to coronavirus pandemic.

There are 8 species of Pangolin. 4 are found in Asia; the Chinese Pangolin, Philippine Pangolin, Sunda Pangolin and Indian Pangolin. The remaining 4 are found in Africa; the White-Bellied Pangolin, Giant Pangolin, Black-Bellied Pangolin and the Ground Pangolin (as illustrated by Amos).

All species are under threat. Their scales are a highly sought-after commodity in Chinese traditional medicine – they’re dried and ground up into a powder to cure anything from asthma to cancer.

Just like rhino horn there is no medicinal value as they’re made of keratin; the same stuff as our hair and nails. In January 2019 9 tons of Pangolin scales were seized in 1 shipment in Hong Kong. Due the proximity of Asian species to those who exploit them for this purpose the 4 Asian species are considered most at risk.

However, as they’ve been the primary target for poachers and traffickers their numbers have reduced to the extent that the African species are now being targeted.

The meat of the Pangolin is also widely received in Asia and some countries considered a delicacy. So much so that in February 2019 33 tons of Pangolin meat was discovered in Malaysia. The same article also reports that approximately 90,000 Pangolins were smuggled into China between 2007 and 2016.