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Zimbabwe’s pangolin warrior

Zimbabwe’s pangolin warrior

Lisa Hywood wastes no time with small talk. She’s on a mission. The conservationist and director of the Tikki Hywood Foundation based in Harare, Zimbabwe shoulders worriment for Africa’s endangered wildlife, but carries in her heart the plight of the pangolin.

I meet Lisa at her Harare office on a sunny, late-summer day to discuss the obscure, endangered animal that has become the most trafficked creature on Earth. We sit at a long table of polished ornate wood surrounded by beautiful, poster-sized photographs of her beloved pangolins.

“What do you want to know?” Lisa asks abruptly. An enigmatic figure, she’s fierce and openly passionate about underdog wildlife species but is personally guarded. She shuns questions about herself but effuses when asked about the foundation and the efforts to save pangolins.

The Pangolin is revered

Pangolins, pangolin

Lisa Hywood with Pangolin.

Lisa established the foundation in 1994 in memory of her father, the late Tikki Hywood, to create awareness of lesser-known and endangered species, and to champion sound conservation practices. At ground level, the foundation engages in the rescue, rehabilitation and release of needy animals, and the pangolin serves as an institutional symbol.
“In Zimbabwe culture, the pangolin is revered and placed above all other totems,” Lisa tells me. “Only a chief can accept
a pangolin.” Its esteemed status, the declarative reason a pangolin is incorporated into the foundation logo, is to honour the leadership passed down from her father.

One of the first animals accepted by the Tikki Hywood Foundation (THF) in 1994 was a female ground pangolin named Negomo. Lisa collected the animal along a dusty African roadside, handed to her in a sack. “It was obviously abused, and I could only imagine the stress of that animal,” Lisa says. “I knew nothing about how to help. It was terrifying.”

The environmentalist soon learned that each pangolin has a unique, independent character, and Negomo’s was one of patience and understanding. Lisa recalls fondly how Negomo stuck by her as she learned and made mistakes in the rehabilitation process, and how the two of them became emotionally attached.

Pangolins are sensitive animals with a wide range of physical and dietary needs and, since that first experience, Lisa has become one of a few conservationists worldwide to successfully rehabilitate them in captivity. In fact the THF has been responsible for the rescue, rehabilitation and release of 180 pangolins.

Vulnerable to exploitation

Nocturnal pangolins

Sadly, few people have seen a pangolin and many who do, fail to recognise it. The secretive, nocturnal mammal, sometimes called a scaly anteater, forages for ants and termites with a long, thin tongue. It has a tiny head and wide tail, and its body is covered in scales. Among eight species found in the world – four in Asia and four in Africa – the ground pangolin Smutsia temminckii, also known as Temminck’s pangolin or the Cape pangolin, inhabits sub-Saharan regions of Zimbabwe
and South Africa.

Three features of the ant-eating mammal make them vulnerable to exploitation. Foremost, their docility and tendency to roll into a ball when frightened allows for easy human capture. The flesh of pangolin remains cherished as bushmeat in many regions, but most devastating is that the outer scales are used in Asian culture for traditional medicines.

Lisa tells me that China remains the largest recipient of trafficked pangolin scales for use in about 400 Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) formulae. The scales are made of keratin, the same substance as human fingernails, and science has concluded they present no medicinal value. Additionally, there are suitable botanical substitutes for each of the 400 maladies treated with the scales.

Evidence exists to suggest that the Chinese demand for scales has led to the decimation of pangolins on the Asian continent, increasing pressure on African species. The value of scales on the international scene makes it cost-effective for smugglers to poach and ship them from Africa to the Asian markets.

Lisa points to 40 tons of pangolin scales seized in the early part of 2019 as a red light for their survival. It takes about 1 900 pangolins to make a ton of scales and the number of scales found represents a fraction of the illegal harvest. Criminal syndicates that traffic scales are well-organised, and cross over with the illegal ivory and rhino horn trade.

Zimbabwe arrests and convicts more than anywhere else

Curled up pangolin

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In response to the burgeoning international trade in pangolins, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species elevated it to Appendix I, the highest level of protection afforded a species, and an indicator of potential extinction.

“The fact that it [pangolin trafficking] is now Appendix 1 is bad,” Lisa says in a raised voice. “That means we have failed.”
Lisa vociferously bemoans countries that fail to enforce laws and impose strict sentencing on conviction but praises the efforts of Zimbabwe, a country whose officials recognised the problem early and, in 1975, placed the pangolin on the country’s Specially Protected Indigenous Species list.

“More people are arrested and convicted [in Zimbabwe] than in any other country,” the fiery conservationist tells me, and the sentencing can be stiff. A person convicted of pangolin trafficking in Zimbabwe can expect a nine-year jail sentence and, if the pangolin dies, a $5 000 (about R74 000) fine.

The wildlife crime units attached to National Parks and the police are ‘on the radar’ when it comes to poaching and the
THF supports their efforts. Lisa says Zimbabwean wildlife officials know to contact the foundation when they confiscate any animal, particularly a pangolin, and then it’s all hands on deck. “We are not a zoo in any way,” Lisa reminds me, explaining that their sole purpose remains rehabilitation and release.

Typically, a pangolin comes to them in a barrel, sack or container of some sort, denied food and water for an extended length of time and handled by someone with no knowledge of care. The animal must be monitored and nursed to general health. The pangolin is eventually assigned a ‘minder’ that follows the weakened mammal as it roams freely, eating specific species of ants and termites to aid digestion.

The animals are not placed in cages, and eat only food natural to their environment. The release process is complex, as it’s all about timing, finding the appropriate protected site to meet dietary needs, as well as adapting to a new environment and avoiding poachers.

The THC engages in ongoing research, and one component is the use of transmitters to follow up on released animals. In fact, a transmitting device demonstrated to Lisa the ultimate success of their efforts and afforded her one of her most rewarding experiences.

Pangolin reunited

Nursing a pangolin

Six months after the release of Negomo, the field team tracked it and Lisa was reunited with the animal that most captured her heart. They have great memories, she says, and the reunion came with big emotion. Negomo sniffed, chuffed, blew deeply and raised its hands in a typical pangolin greeting. “It was a wow moment to release an animal and find it where it should be,” Lisa says. The rehabilitation process is a long, labour-intensive ordeal and it is satisfying to see positive results.

The THC, under Lisa’s leadership, has become a leader in pangolin rescue, rehabilitation and research, not only in Southern Africa but globally. Lisa suggests pangolins are simply a microcosm of worldwide environmental abuses. Over the last 25 years, there has been a major decline in many bird and wildlife species around the world, not only as it relates to poaching but in terms of open space, habitat, land preservation and global warming, she says.

“We don’t have time to wait for the next generation,” Lisa says. “If we don’t realise now what is happening, we are going to lose.”

I ask about other animals under her care, and she tells me of an otter in the process of rehabilitation. I ask if we can take some photos and, perhaps, spend additional time in the field, but she shakes her head and tells me the story is not about her, but about the animals.

Lisa looks at her watch and squirms in her seat, and I can see my time has expired. She has projects to attend to and a hungry otter waiting. I ask her where she draws the motivation to fight daily the heartbreak of abused animals and the underbelly of poaching. “Everything I do is for my father. He was my chief,” Lisa says, and the nuance rings loud and clear.

Tikki Hywood Foundation

Tracking South Africa’s Pangolins

tracking the pangolin

Wendy Panaino tracks
a pangolin fitted with
a transmitter through
the Kalahari as part of
her ongoing research.

A devoted researcher hangs hot on the trail of South Africa’s Temminck’s pangolin. The young scientist has spent close on four years following pangolins through the sandy landscape of the Kalahari in one of the world’s first studies of pangolin physiological behaviour. “Very little [research] has been done on the ground pangolin,” says Wendy Panaino, a Wits University doctoral student, who remains fully immersed in the life habits of pangolins. “There have been maybe three or four people who have studied them in the wild.”

The ground pangolin maintains a wide range throughout the sub-Saharan territories, including the northern tier of South Africa and the Tswalu Kalahari Reserve, where Wendy conducts research. She follows animals fitted with radio transmitters to quantify pangolin body temperatures in response to changing climatic conditions and prey availability. The effect of a warming environment on ants and termites, the pangolin food source, plays into the ecological balance. Wendy tells me her research conclusions are not ready for public release but will soon be published. In the meantime, she remains excited to share many of her observations.

“There is a pangolin that I have made a special connection with,” the researcher tells me. “Each pangolin has its own little personality and his certainly stands out.” Wendy describes the “pango” as relaxed and unphased in her presence and a bit clumsy, tripping and face planting itself into holes.

Wendy’s interaction with this and other pangolins uncovers interesting behavioural characteristics for an animal that has been rarely studied. “I was surprised to learn how far they can move,” she says. Wendy tracked one pangolin over 40 kilometres in ten days. The scientist has also recorded male-to-male interactions, scent marking and a surprising amount of diurnal activity.

Wendy identifies electric game fencing an imminent threat to the ground pangolin and climate change as a potential future crisis. “The Kalahari is predicted to get hotter and drier. An understanding of how pangolins respond to seasonal change will help us to understand how they might respond to the predicted effects of climate change,” she says.

Wendy credits the Tswalu Foundation with supporting her research into pangolins and points to a wide range of other ongoing research projects sponsored by the Tswalu Kalahari Reserve in the Northern Cape.

To learn more about the ongoing research visit www.tswalu.com

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