Despite their public profile soaring in the last three years, pangolins, dubbed “the world’s most trafficked mammal,” still face an uphill battle for survival.
In Asia, where misconceptions around the health properties of the animals’ scales—highly coveted for use in Traditional Chinese Medicine—are rife, pangolin numbers continue to plummet. As a result, the African pangolin population is now supplying this demand, with the scales a lucrative by-product for black market traders on the continent where pangolin meat is considered a delicacy. According to specialist wildlife trade organization Traffic, around 23.5 tonnes of pangolins were trafficked in 2021—about the equivalent of a loaded coach bus.
But protections for the endangered mammal are improving. In the last few years, several African countries have adopted variations of international and national conservation laws. Among them is Liberia, which adopted the National Wildlife Conservation and Protected Area Management Law in 2016. Located on the west coast of Africa, Liberia is home to three out of four pangolin species, making it a poaching hotspot.
Since enforcement has proven difficult, a “National Wildlife Crime Task Force” was created to consolidate operations to disrupt the trade. Among this network is Libassa Animal Sanctuary which, along with Liberia Chimpanzee Rescue & Protection, serves as part of a “confiscation unit” and the country’s only multi-species rehabilitation center.
The network is succeeding in bringing change. Marcus George, a ranger from the Forest Development Authority (FDA)—the primary agency dedicated to wildlife protection—recently sparked what he believes was the nation’s first wildlife prosecution involving the poaching and possession of pangolins. When George searched a car at a national park checkpoint, he discovered a sackful of protected-status animals including antelope, pythons, monkeys, and civets, likely destined for the bushmeat trade. The defendant was fined $200—more than a month’s wages—as an alternative to three months in jail.
Two white-bellied pangolins managed to escape relatively unscathed from the “pile of death,” the sanctuary says. The pair were transferred to the center where staff brought them back to health and released them 10 days later.
While former Libassa manager Julie Vanassche believes word of the sanctuary’s work is spreading, she says there is still a long way to go. During her time there, locals often came into the sanctuary to try and sell staff poached animals. “A lot of people thought the sanctuary was a zoo and we bought animals to display,” she says. “We always take the animal first and play along. As soon as it’s in our hands, we put it away and then explain it’s not a zoo and what they’ve done is illegal. They get away with a warning but next time it’s a fine. This way we hope the word spreads in the community.”
She cautions that as conservation laws are relatively new, they have not had time “to make a huge impact. We will not change a tradition which has been going [on] for decades,” she says. “It will take years and lots of effort.”
Pangolins sold roadside gradually became a rare sight during her time at Libassa, but Vanassche believes it is likely the sanctuary’s influence on the local community means poaching operations are hidden. “People now know there are fines attached to selling pangolin meat which is really popular and known as sweetmeat,” she says. “We’re making slow progress; people are becoming more and more aware—it’s baby steps but it’s still steps.”
The charity has come a long way since its establishment, having expanded to accommodate the myriad of exotic wildlife coming through its doors. But in the beginning, management was forced to live with the animals in their bedrooms.
“When we started in 2017, we had nothing other than a few enclosures,” says Vanassche. “My bedroom was an office and clinic and nursery and home. I had multiple animals in my room; pangolins, a potto, a mongoose, birds of prey. I even had a chimp in my bath at one point, so things got a little crowded. I have the most amazing stories about that time but when the animals are literally next to the bed you’re constantly working. But with the new facilities, staff have time to themselves, at least until the next bottle feed.”
Though the sanctuary continues to flourish, its financial needs remain great, with pangolins and monkeys among the more expensive residents. The pangolins need to be walked several times a day to allow them to forage for ants and termites, lapped up by long tongues rooted deep in their chest cavity. Thus far, three locals have been employed just to walk the curious critters.
A recently launched campaign is also hoped to raise $100,000 to release the resident monkeys, as groups need to be socialized and then monitored to ensure they are coping.
Other animals currently in the sanctuary’s care include endangered Tinmeh parrots, whose wings were clipped to stop them from flying, a blind crocodile, and a juvenile green monkey, Timi, who was being kept as a pet before he was brought in by an FDA ranger still tethered to a pole. The chain, finally cut loose after staff took to it with a hacksaw, had removed all the fur around his waist.
Sanctuary workers also found a sea turtle who had come to shore to lay her eggs. She spent the night turned upside down by traders who planned to sell her the next day. The team attempted to rescue her but she did not survive the journey.
On another occasion, they rescued a pangolin after being held upside down by a man on a motorbike, suffering neurological damage as a result. Fortunately, after days of force-feeding and medication, he was released six weeks later.
Manager Susan Wiper, who took over from Vanassche two months ago, says: “What appealed to me about Libassa is the amount of animals the sanctuary releases. Every animal that comes in would have died if it hadn’t come to us. There are good and bad days but I love it; it’s worth the perseverance. We care for them so much and some of them we’re feeding milk, so it’s quite intense being with them day and night, and just watching them wander back into the wild is amazing.”
Cat is a freelance feature writer and ethical vegan from Worcestershire in the UK. When not writing, she channels her creativity into plant-based cooking, sustainable crafting, and creating beauty products from nature.