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How Zimbabwe’s pangolins are being given a second chance…

By Mary Mundeya
Zimbabwe’s wildlife landscape is endowed with 350 species of mammals, more than 500 birds and 131 fish species all of which adorn its environment, yet due to the increasing levels of poaching, wildlife’s existence is under threat more than ever.

According to research, each year the country loses thousands of specimen wildlife (plant, animal and bird) to poachers. Among the commonly reported major wildlife crimes are the illicit trade in wildlife products, failure to comply with existing wildlife laws and the capturing of the near extinct pangolin, dubbed the most trafficked mammal.

The most prevalent species of the pangolin in Zimbabwe is the Temminck’s Ground which is commonly found in Chimanimani, Hwange, and Gonarezhou areas which are grasslands and woods with easy access to water. Although little is known about its situation in the wild its populations are believed to be declining.

Although many people in the Southern African country have never seen a Pangolin, this rare species has been bearing the brunt of excessive poaching due to the escalation of its value on the illegal wildlife trade market.

For centuries, Pangolins have been highly sought after by poachers because of how they are considered a delicacy as well as an integral part of traditional medicine responsible for treatment of cancer, inflammation, and other ailments in most Asian countries (although there is no evidence of their efficacy).

In some regions of China, the meat is believed to be nutritious and a remedy for renal problems. Some restaurants in Vietnam actually charge up to $150 per pound of pangolin meat.

The African Wildlife Foundation notes that, as overexploitation of Pangolins in Asian range states depleted populations, poachers turned to its counterparts in Africa, wiping out anywhere from 400,000 to 2.7 million of the mammals annually in the 14 African range countries and that the animal is being hunted and ferried across faster than it can breed.

Studies have shown that the world over, pangolin prices are on the rise, fetching upwards of US $600 per kilogram today in comparison to US $14 per kilogram during the 1990s. Scales processed for use in traditional medicine are roasted or dried, fetching almost three times the price in retail shops.

All 8 world pangolin species including those found in Zimbabwe considered threatened with extinction on the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, where they are categorised as Critically Endangered, Endangered or Vulnerable.

It is such worrisome developments that have compelled the Zimbabwe based Tikki Hywood Foundation which is a non-profit, wildlife orientated organisation to strive to bring recognition, awareness and sustainable conservation action to lesser known endangered species, such as the highly endangered Pangolin.

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In June 2017 the foundation partnered with the Gonarezhou Conservation Trust and introduced the Ground Pangolin re-introduction Program aimed at reintroducing to the wild, pangolins that would have been rescued from the illegal wildlife trade, handed in by general public.

In a post published on the Tikki Heywood Foundation (THF) face book page dated 29 December 2022 the foundation attributed the introduction of the ground pangolin re-introduction to having new and improved ways of conserving the pangolins.

“As conservationists, it is terrifying to know that there is this medium sized mammal, that is on the brink of extinction, and we know so little about it. It is especially challenging to rehabilitate this species and re-introduce it to a safe environment, without the basic knowledge of habits and behaviors, distribution and interaction with the same species and others. We needed to find answers, to help the pangolins we were rescuing and to blaze a trail for other conservation efforts to follow,’’ the post read.

Asked on how many pangolins the program had assisted to date as well as its other finer details , Hywood declined to comment sighting it as sensitive information only privy to stakeholders such as the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Authority (Zimparks).

However, information written on the Gonarezhou Conservation Trust (GCT) website gave us a sneak peek into how the critical project is being run.

“Pangolins that meet the criteria for release, are brought to Gonarezhou and are placed in the care of trained staff, half from THF and half from GCT. They are introduced to the habitats and environmental conditions of Gonarezhou, and over a period of a few weeks they are taken on daily foraging excursions where the minders make sure that they are able to successfully forage by themselves and navigate their way around the landscape without losing condition. On release they are equipped with VHF and or GPS trackers, and, the pangolin project staff are then able to follow up on their movements and verify that they are maintaining their condition during the first crucial weeks after their release,” the information read in part.

Hywood was more that happy to take Vic Falls Live through another initiative her foundation has been implementing to also curtail pangolin poaching.

“The foundation believes information awareness can play a pivotal role in reducing wildlife crime thus in partnership with the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP) and Zimbabwe National Parks and Wildlife (ZimParks) we launched a nationwide awareness campaign focusing on the message that ‘Zimbabwe takes wildlife crime seriously’,” said Lisa.

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“The campaign focuses on raising awareness by placing billboards on main roads in Harare and billboards in all International Airports in Zimbabwe (Harare International, Bulawayo and Victoria Falls International Airport) with support from Alliance Media Zimbabwe. In addition, printed awareness material is also being distributed to all ZRP and ZimParks headquarters and their outposts and courts in Zimbabwe to reach outlying communities,” she added.

The Tikki Foundation’s efforts for conserving the world’s most trafficked mammals have not been in isolation as they have been complimented by the country’s laws and law enforcement agencies.

Specifically protected under Zimbabwe’s Parks and Wildlife Act, the illegal owning or selling of a pangolin can result in a 9 year minimum mandatory sentence and the country has been walking the talk as far as eradicating pangolin poaching is concerned.

“Recently, more pangolin poachers have been found guilty of possession in Zimbabwe than any other African country, and they are currently serving their sentences,’’ said Tinashe Farawo, ZimParks spokesperson.

In 2020 the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP) declare war on wildlife crimes, and at least 82 persons were detained while 17 pangolins and more than 1000kg of pangolin scales were recovered.

Traditionally in Zimbabwe, pangolins have always been revered and fiercely defended. It is believed that if one kills a pangolin, they will be prone to bad luck for the rest of their lives, hence the fair number of the mammals having been preserved on this part of the world and the Zimbabwe National Traditional Healers Association (Zinatha) in cahoots with community traditional leaders are continuing to promote traditional practises that preserve the country’s wildlife.

“Pangolins are believed to bring good luck to whoever comes across them and that can only come to pass if one does not harm the animal in any way. If one encounters the animal, they are supposed to bring it to the Chief for safeguarding who in modern day Zimbabwe will make sure that its taken care of before surrendering it to the authorities.’’

“As an organisation, we have also barred all our members from using body parts of endangered animal spices such as pangolin scales as traditional medicine so that we eradicate their continuous poaching and the results we have seen so far have been encouraging,” said ZINATHA president George Kandiero.

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