I’m almost extinct, do I deserve some attention now?

DSC_0614Ever heard of a pangolin? A scaly anteater perhaps? Or a creature whose ancestors have walked this Earth for 40 million years, one of the Earth’s earliest modern mammals?

Doesn’t ring a bell? You’d be forgiven. Hardly anyone sees them in Southern Africa. They are nocturnal or crepuscular mammals that survive off eating ants. They have no teeth; their tail, body and head seem to merge into one; they can’t run and they roll themselves up into a ball when they feel the situations is getting dodgy. It is also an animal can be compared quite comprehensively to the rhinoceros.

National Geographic Footage of a pangolin

Follow the Spoor wildlife YouTube blog on pangolins

So why has no one heard about the pangolin? And what is so remarkable about this little mammal weighing a maximum of just 12 kilogrammes to be compared to the fierce and majestic rhino?

Pangolin rolled up

Pangolin rolled up

Pangolins exist in Africa and Asia, much like rhinos. Tree dwelling pangolins are more prominent in Indonesia, China and South East Asia, while ground pangolins live in Africa. Pangolins and rhinos have few natural predators – not much can penetrated their thick outer layers. The most telling comparison however is what can kill them and why they are being killed.

For the rhinos it is their horn. For pangolins it is their scales. Both scales and horns are illegally poached and traded as traditional medicines and aphrodisiacs. The main market for these commodities is South-East Asia, and the business is growing significantly.

The rhinos and the pangolins share one more common characteristic – their only defence mechanism is also their one-way ticket to extinction. What separates the pangolins from the rhinos is that the pangolins are going that way without as much fanfare – and thus much faster.

This pangolin's armour was severely damaged after a poacher kept the animal alive and clipped the scales

This pangolin’s armour was severely damaged after a poacher kept the animal alive and clipped the scales

In December 2012, Chinese customs officials seized 9 tons of pangolin pieces, comprising 2, 032 frozen individual animals and 325 kg of pangolin scales. This one seizure comprises of more poached individual animals than the number of rhinos poached in South Africa during the last 20 years!

What makes this seizure even more worrying is that while conservationists in Asia and Africa have a fairly accurate idea of how many rhinos exist, there are no such available data for pangolins. A recent survey conduct by an Ivy League researcher conducted in rural Namibia, once though to hold viable populations of pangolins, found that while many farmers knew what a pangolin was, they could not recall seeing one in the last 15 years, giving an indication that pangolin population are dropping drastically.

There is no telling how detrimental the pangolin trade is to the species. The lack of scientific data is due to two factors: the difficulty in observing the pangolins; and the lack of interest in the creatures beyond their commercial value.

A female pangolin

A female pangolin

The pangolins drew the short straw when it came to society deciding which animals it would idolize. This brings the question of what society deems is “worth saving”. The main problem I have here is not that the pangolins are being poached – rhinos, tigers and elephants share my sympathies. It is the fact that they are being killed in outrageously high quantities without the attention they deserve.

Are the pangolins just not newsworthy? A possibility. Cape vultures, Wild dogs, Riverine rabbits and Geometric tortoises also fall into this bracket. While rhinos face extinction in a storm of news coverage, these animals are disappearing very quietly.

Am I not pretty enough to save?

Am I not pretty enough to save?

The danger lies in deciding which creatures society will make an effort to conserve. If pangolins and rhinos are poached to extinction for almost identical reason, and society chooses to focus on one but not the other, we must ask ourselves to consider the real reasons for us supporting an anti-poaching initiative. Is it because we like the animal being poached? Is it because we don’t like the people behind the poaching? Or is it all a bit fuzzy, but it just happens to be easier to be anti-rhino poaching because there’s already a bandwagon waiting?

If this is the prevailing attitude, we’ve already lost the entire conservation cause. Taking a stand for something is not easy. It takes consistency, commitment and discipline. Society cannot, without a cloudy conscious,  choose to defend one and not the other  if the same injustices are being suffered by both.

Some of Africa’s most critically endangered animals are not getting enough media and conservation attention.

vulture

Cape vulture – perceived threat to livestock

Haas

Riverine rabbit – severe habitat loss

Psammobatesgeometricus

Geometric tortoise – habitat loss

african-wild-dog_02tk

Wild dogs (the painted dog) –  perceived threat to livestock.
 
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Keep the Trophy Hunting Elephant in the Room

Conversations about wildlife and conservation in Southern Africa almost always touch on trophy hunting, or the hunting of wild animals for sport.

And most times trophy hunting would be decried as a rich hunter’s folly, an outdated form of masculine exhibitionism, another animal lost to our collective greed or society’s hypocrisy at conserving on the one hand and hunting for sport on the other.

That is until the conversation turns to a massive elephant in the room. Something no one wants to mention but every conservationist has this hidden somewhere on his or her mind.

It is the enormously lucrative nature of trophy hunting.

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A hunter with a 60 pound tusk-carrying elephant in his or her   sights is looking at paying at least $46 000. And that’s just for the right to pull the trigger aiming at the elephant. Not the permits, transport, lodge fees, professional hunter fees, customs taxes or the animal’s carcass. That’s all included in the after-the-hunt-hangover. And that’s not even the expensive range – hunting a black rhino, a critically endangered animal, can cost up to $350 000.

If big game hunting isn’t your thing, then even a lowly steenbok, an animal whose trophy horns may compete with the length of a tarantula’s legs, will set you back about $400. So from the steenbok to the black rhino, wild animals are having big bounties placed on their heads. The question is not if someone will pay the trophy fee. It is how much these prices will increase as wild animals become rarer or their trophies become fashionable.

No wonder then that trophy hunting is still being discussed in conservation circles. What is intriguing is that it is being spoken of more frequently and more seriously.

Let’s face it – conservation is becoming very expensive. There, the elephant is out of the room!

Theoretically, trophy hunting isn’t such a biggie. It offers a much needed cash inlet for conservation and, if managed correctly, can be quite sustainable as well as lucrative. Most big hunting outfits attract and give significant funding to conservation schemes across Southern Africa. They also often benefit local communities by offering high-end tailor-made safaris that require much labour and local expertise.

Yet, aside from arguments about whether or not trophy hunting is really benefitting the wildlife or just the owners of the concessions to the trophies; or the negative ecological impact of trophy hunting, I fear trophy hunting will become too much of a good thing/necessary evil.

The gap between seeing a black rhino as an exotic, nice-to-own trophy and a priceless being that should be cherished is narrowing. And scales are listing towards the trophy hunter’s side. I can almost see the bounty advertisement with a sketched face of a black rhino. Underneath it reads: “Wanted: dead or alive”.

I’m worried particularly about the “dead or alive” part. Trophy hunters are willing to spend money on killing endangered animals. It is their choice and their money, but as long as their actions are permitted by society, the fate of the last big game will not be their responsibility. It will be ours.

I am not suggesting trophy hunting will lead to the extinction of wild animals. At the moment the poachers seem to be winning that race.

Yet trophy hunting and poaching share two important characteristics: firstly, if human society puts a price on an animal’s head – no matter for what purpose it is intended – it means the animal becomes a lucrative and, by definition, an expendable asset; and secondly, an animal killed by the bullets of trophy hunter or those of a poacher’s AK-47 is a dead animal – the only question is into whose bank account the bounty money gets paid.

A dead rhino poached

A dead rhino poached...

… or a dead rhino trophy hunted is still a dead rhino.

So if we’re not careful about freely putting prices on wild animals’ heads, there will no longer  an elephant in the room when we talk conservation and wildlife – undoubtedly he too will be mounted on somebody’s wall.

Why Keep It Wild In Our Lifetime?

They always said Africa was a wild place.

In the late 19th century, stories of Africa’s extreme landscapes, its hidden wealth and mysterious people made it an almost mythical world. But most of all: it’s iconic animals – great migrations of wildebeest, prides of lion marauding the savannahs, elephant herds moving like boulders across the horizons – captured the imagination.

Even African football teams, a pastime that has never failed to ignite excitement and fervour among the inhabitants of the continent, took on the names of iconic wild animals to represent a symbol of national pride, such as: the Elephants of Cote d’Ivoire,  Cameroon’s Indomitable Lions, the DRC’s Leopards and the Angolan Black Antelopes.

The Elephants of Cote d'Ivoire - the last remnant of the thousands of elephants killed in the ivory trade?

The Elephants of Cote d’Ivoire – the last remnant of the thousands of elephants killed in the ivory trade?

A century later, the only thing that seems wild about Africa’s animals is the depressing statistics. News reports regarding animal conservation continue to shed cynical light on humans’ ability to manage their interactions with wild animals, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa.

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The Lion King is one of the most iconic films about Africa ever produced. But how long will the icon match the reality of the ever desperate plight of lions in Africa?

To name a few: 2012 saw a record number of rhinoceros poached in South Africa, 25 000 elephants were killed in Africa and recent reports suggest nearly half of Africa’s wild lions face extinction in 20 to 40 years.

Despite concerted conservation efforts, it seems the general trend is that the number of wild animals is decreasing, their habitats are getting smaller and humans are continually seem to be reduced  wild animals from majestic ambassadors of the animal kingdom to expendable pawns in a game that is slanted to the financial needs of humans.

How did this happen? In the 21st century? At a time when the advances in technology, knowledge, expertise and conservation has placed humans in a the most enlightened and capable position to handle such crises?

Is this a true reflection of  humans’ clash with the evolved, fragile structure of the animal kingdom in Africa?  Are all our dealings with the lions, elephants, rhinos and smaller game doomed to fail eventually? Or are interactions between humans and animals at times in fact mutually beneficial?

I hope to publicise, analyse and encourage debate on issues looking at the nature of humans’ volatile relationship with the animal kingdom; issues that go beyond the poaching, the translocations and looming extinctions of wild animals; issues that reach the core of humans’ attempts to preserve what is left of the natural world wild making it economically viable in the competitive, dollar-driven interests of the modern world.

Which begs the question: why are most humans, at some level, tied into believing that they do actually have a responsibility to protect and keep the wild animals from extinction? As a good friend of mine recently pointed out: “The dinosaurs and the woolly mammoths died out way back when. We’ve done fine without them. We have pictures and skeletons of them. What does it matter if the rhinos die out as well? I doubt it will affect that many people.”

Rhino bull on the march - but for how long?

Rhino bull on the march – but for how long?

My friend has a point, if a little undiplomatically put. A statement like that would probably enrage a good conservationist. But such is today’s plight of the rhinoceros’s precarious survival that humans must contemplate a life in the near future where an oil painting of a grey, two horned mammal may be a curious five-year-old’s only reference to the rhinoceros.

So when that day comes, what will we tell that five-year-old? And when we tell the answer, how satisfactory will the it be, not only to him or her, but to us?