Covered in scales and capable of curling into a ball for protection, pangolins are among the most distinctive of mammals.
Sadly, these gentle and largely nocturnal creatures are threatened by poachers, with tens of thousands trafficked each year.
Their scales, made of keratin, are used in traditional Chinese and African medicine despite a lack of scientific evidence for their effectiveness.
Pangolins are also killed for their meat, which is considered a delicacy in some countries.
“This support from the fund will help establish an environmental education programme in some target primary and secondary schools, where future stewards of the parks rich biodiversity will be engaged” – Aghah Valery Binda
Over the past decade, an estimated one million have been poached, and one is taken from the wild on average every five minutes.
Efforts to preserve Africa’s giant pangolin, a rarely seen animal that is particularly at risk because it is ground-dwelling, have been helped by a US$10k (Dh36,732) grant made by the Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund in its latest funding round last month.
The grant has been given to the Agriculture and Bio-conservation Organisation for Youth Empowerment and Rural Development (Aboyerd), which carries out research and aims to conserve pangolins in Cameroon’s Mbam et Djerem National Park.
Alain Delon Mouafo Takoune, Aboyerd’s chief operating officer, said the grant would help with core costs such as salaries and rent – and would have a direct impact on fieldwork.
“Part of this funding will be used to build the capacity of local assistants in field data collection, such as [through buying] camera traps to assist during this period where movements within the country are restricted,” said Mr Takoune, a doctoral candidate at Cameroon’s University of Dschang who is studying pangolins in the country’s national park.
More data from fieldwork is key, because the abundance, distribution and hunting activities of the park’s three pangolin species – giant, white-bellied and black-bellied – is unclear, which hampers conservation efforts.
A major threat facing giant pangolins in the national park, as elsewhere, is hunting for bush meat and for scales, according to Dr Daniel Ingram, a pangolin researcher at the University of Stirling in the UK and member of the Pangolin Specialist Group at the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
“Use of wire snares is a particularly prominent threat for giant pangolins because the snares are indiscriminate, and hunters can set many at a time,” said Dr Ingram.
Pangolins can also simply be picked up because their response of curling up into a ball leaves them defenceless, said Camille Nkoa Affana, Cameroon country co-ordinator for Man and Nature (Noe), a French conservation organisation.
“They pick them up and put them into a bag,” he said. “If you go to some markets, you will see them being sold openly, and along roads.”
He said local people may earn about 1,000 or 1,500 Central African Francs per animal, only two or three dollars.
Deforestation and human encroachment for agriculture, including cattle grazing, also affect pangolins in the region.
Growing illegal trade between Africa and Asia
Pangolins in Africa have so far not suffered the steep decreases in numbers of their counterparts in Asia, where most pangolin species are classified as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
Africa’s pangolins have, however, declined in abundance and two of the continent’s four species are Endangered and two are Vulnerable.
Alongside hunting for subsistence is a growing commercial demand.
The scales of African pangolins are often exported to Asia – even though the trade was banned in 2016.
This trade is linked to the increased presence in Africa of Asian interests, whether Chinese road builders or Malaysian foresters, said Dr Matthew Shirley of Florida International University, co-chair of the Pangolin Specialist Group at the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
“With increasing presence of buyers and middlemen from demand countries, there is increasing opportunity for international trafficking of their scales,” he said.
“This is made more complicated by the fact that habitat loss rates in West Africa surpass most other regions of the world.”
With authorities in the region often lacking the capability or resources to protect pangolins, the creatures face what Dr Shirley described as “a perfect storm”.
While the threats facing pangolins are often international, experts say the most effective conservation efforts can often be local, such as those of Aboyerd.
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Mr Affana said the organisation’s community-based approach was “highly welcomed” and had the highest chance of success, a point echoed by other pangolin experts.
“If you can get community buy-in, then the exploitation is mostly for subsistence, which has a higher probability of being sustainable in the long run,” said Dr Shirley.
Positive steps in pangolin preservation
Pangolins are significant in cultural, religious and socioeconomic terms, added Dr Shirley, so conserving them offers benefits to people as well as to the creatures themselves.
Eating as many as 70 million ants and termites a year, they are important ecologically too.
“Pangolins also excavate burrows, a process which helps in the turnover of organic matter and in soil aeration, thus improving soil quality,” said Aghah Valery Binda, Aboyerd’s executive director.
“These are exactly the same roles played by not just the giant pangolin in Cameroon’s National Park, but also the two other species found in the park. Their removal would destabilise these ecosystems.”
Fortunately, conservation efforts in the National Park in Cameroon may be changing how pangolins are perceived, and even poaching is decreasing, said Mr Takoune.
“When I started working on pangolins in 2017, a kilogram of scales cost $50 [Dh184]. Four years later, the kilogram of scales costs $10 [Dh37] and even local people are getting less interested in hunting pangolins,” he said.
Aboyerd promotes alternatives to hunting pangolins, supporting local people to carry out sustainable work such as commercial mushroom production, agroforestry and beekeeping.
“This support from the fund will also help establish an environmental education programme in some target primary and secondary schools, where future stewards of the parks rich biodiversity will be engaged,” said Mr Binda.
Dr Ingram said he was “fairly optimistic” that in some places decreases in the numbers of pangolin species could be reversed.
“However, as with many species, which share similar threats, this can only be achieved by reducing the main threats, such as overexploitation and deforestation, and preserving important habitats,” he said.