Conservationist details the lives, and challenges, of pangolins

20 July 2020 - 13:16 By mila de villiers
'Pangolins: Scales of Injustice' by Richard Peirce.
'Pangolins: Scales of Injustice' by Richard Peirce.
Image: Supplied

A revered and sacred creature in San culture, described as "magical" by many who cross its path, as elusive as it is desired: pangolins have become synonymous with the illegal trade in wildlife, yet there's far more to these shy, nocturnal, ant-snacking mammals covered in scales than their alarming status as the world's most trafficked animal.

Enter Richard Peirce's informative and captivating eBook, Pangolins: Scales of Injustice, in which he explores their habits and personalities, role in myths and legends, and vulnerability and conservation. 

Here Peirce discusses his account of these enigmatic beings which have been on earth for roughly 80 million years...

Although you include scientific facts about pangolins and explore their 'role' as possible carriers of Covid-19, you take a remarkably personal approach to these singular mammals. This is most apparent in the case study of the pangolin dubbed Zambezi, wherein you imagine his daily life and emotional and physical response to being smuggled from Zimbabwe into SA. Why did you decide on delving into the 'psyche' of Zambezi, as opposed to writing a purely factual book about pangolins? 

All of my books for Struik Nature start by telling the true stories of real animals. Sometimes I know most of the facts, but other times I have to construct a narrative based on logic and probability. Zambezi’s story didn’t just involve a real animal, it involved real people. I try to get conservation messaging across to those who perhaps were not aware, or had only casual interest. I try to achieve this by telling real stories, almost as adventure stories. I hope this hooks readers who will then be more interested in taking on board the more serious messaging and facts in later chapters.

In your preface you note: When I asked people to tell me about these animals and why they were special, all their answers contained similar and unusual descriptive threads. The eyes were always mentioned, and the animals were themselves described as being magical, bewitching and like no other creature. You had a similar experience when you met your first pangolin at the Johannesburg Wildlife Veterinary Hospital. Please elaborate on this moment for those who haven't - yet - read Scales of Injustice.

Before I met my first pangolin I had been told they were enigmatic and captivating creatures. People spoke of their magic, mystique and innocence. Their eyes, and the way they look at you, were often mentioned. I couldn’t wait to meet my first pangolin, but the expectation bar had been set very high, and I was ready for a disappointment. I met my first pangolin at the Johannesburg Veterinary Wildlife Hospital and decided that in some ways, yes, they are enigmatic, mystical and magical, and their eyes are special, but there is another word to add to the descriptive list and that is ‘contradictory’. In some ways they are an ugly, weird looking little animal, but they are also beautiful. In some ways they do seem innocent, but their eyes are knowing and wise, and the contradictions don’t stop there. There is, however, no contradiction to their being special. They are very special.

As a conservationist, you attach value to wildlife and devote yourself to the preservation thereof. This is no easy task, for - as you aptly write in relation to Joseph, a young Zimbabwean who was forced into smuggling -'poverty is a powerful persuader that leaves people like Joseph little choice if they are to survive'. Poverty alleviation is a long-term, and near impossible, solution to decrease and/or end the illegal trade in animals. How can one feasibly end/lessen trafficking?

There is no one easy answer to stop wildlife trafficking. It is a jigsaw puzzle of measures, and for the jigsaw to present an effective ‘stop’ picture, all the pieces must be present and in place. China is the world’s largest consumer of wildlife ‘products’. At the moment the Chinese government is reviewing their wildlife protection laws. Changes to their laws resulting in reductions, or better still bans of wildlife consumption, would be a huge step forward.

In chapter 10 - 'Ineffective and Ignored' - you detail your inspection of wet markets in Vietnam and Laos and visitations to restaurants serving trafficked animals (listed as 'exotic' on their menus). Dogs, cats, bats, birds, shellfish, scorpions, piglets, monkeys and even a bear were on display in the markets. You were also offered 'delicacies' such as snake wine, tiger cake, civet cat, and pangolin meat in the restaurants you visited. Please discuss what your grim observations reveal about regulations regarding the international trafficking of wildlife, and your findings regarding whether pangolins are, in fact, the carrier of Covid-19.

My investigations into wildlife consumption in south east Asia revealed that most south east Asian governments make little or no effort to enforce the international wildlife trade laws they have signed up to.

The trade in wildlife is like a regular commodity market with established price levels for the various products.

The wildlife trade is run by sophisticated international criminal gangs. The gangs, not the law enforcers, seem to rule the roost.

There is a widespread lack of public awareness regarding the legal status of many wildlife products, and the existential threats to some species being caused by their consumption. 

The most likely way the latest SARS novel coronavirus, Covid-19, got to humans is from bats via another animal carrier. There is considerable evidence pointing to the Malayan pangolin having been the intermediate animal carrier. However, there is no 100% scientific consensus yet.

Has the increasing evidence of linkages between highly dangerous viruses and the human use of bush meat contributed to arguments in favour of conservation efforts?

This latest zoonotic transfer of a virus has again highlighted the need to stop wildlife consumption in the interest of global human health. Covid-19 has brought the world to its knees. If this increasing danger is recognised as such and effective measures are taken to ban or limit wildlife consumption, it will make major contributions to the survival of many species, including humans.

Finally, when will local English-speakers know which animal I'm referring to when I mention an 'ietermagog'? 

February 20 2021, on World Pangolin Day, because I will tell them in all my interviews when launching the hard copy of the book.

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