World

Plight of the pangolin: Once coveted, now feared because of coronavirus

The COVID-19 pandemic may actually help conservation efforts to protect pangolins, but other endangered species aren't as lucky. A decline in Africa's tourism of late has contributed to a rise in hunting and poaching.

COVID-19 pandemic could be pivotal moment in conservation efforts for species at risk

The COVID-19 pandemic could become a pivotal moment in conservation efforts for species at risk from Asia to Africa. And some of the changes were sparked by COVID-19’s links to the wildlife trade. 6:00

Veterinarian Mark Ofua walks through rows of cages housing barking dogs and stray cats in the animal shelter he set up in Lagos, Nigeria's largest city, about five years ago. 

The ease with which the animals submit to his ministrations makes it clear it is a place of trust, a sanctuary for lost souls in the animal kingdom. 

Many Nigerians, struggling with the challenges of the coronavirus, are no longer able to afford or keep pets. 

But the shelter isn't just for domestic animals. Increasingly, Ofua finds himself rescuing wild animals, including one of the world's most endangered: the pangolin. 

One, in particular, has clearly captured his heart: a baby he rescued from a bush meat market when it was just a week old. He named the pangolin Juba.

"Now, I know buying these animals off them is wrong, because it kind of promotes the trade," he said in a Skype interview. "But imagine if Juba was not rescued." 

Juba is now about five months old, still fed from a bottle. But Ofua is also encouraging him to forage for ants and termites before he releases him back into the wild. 

Pangolins blamed for coronavirus outbreak

He's named after a character in the film Gladiator, because he's armoured like one, Ofua said.

Pangolins are mammals that look like anteaters but are covered in scales made of keratin.

But those chain-mail coats haven't been enough to protect them from a voracious illegal wildlife trade that sees their meat sold as a delicacy in Asian markets overseas, and their scales sold for alleged medicinal cures. 

"In the last couple of years the demand for pangolin has skyrocketed," said Ofua. "It has left the traditional role for bush meat and medicine. It has now moved on to the scales." 

WATCH | Veterinarian and a rescued pangolin:

Lagos-based veterinarian Mark Ofua has dedicated his career to rescuing animals. 1:00

Juba is a white-bellied tree pangolin native to Nigeria. There are eight species across Africa and Asia and all are either vulnerable or critically endangered. 

Negative attention could protect pangolins

Nigeria has become a world hub when it comes to trafficking them.

The UN's Wildlife Crime Report for 2020 found that almost 60 per cent of seized pangolin scales came from Nigeria in 2018, compared to 20 per cent in 2015.

Professor Olajumoke Morenikeji of the University of Ibadan said it's "absolutely ridiculous."

"[There is ] so much illiteracy when it comes to environmental laws, wildlife trade and so forth," she said. 

Morenikeji is also the president of the Pangolin Conservation Guild of Nigeria.  Her advocacy work has earned her the nickname Madame Pangolin but she doesn't mind if it gets people talking about them.      

A white-bellied pangolin which was rescued from local animal traffickers is seen at the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) office in Kampala, Uganda, on April 9. (Isaac Kasmani/AFP via Getty Images)

She also said that the negative press the pangolin received in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic — and speculation that it might have had a role in its jump to humans — could help them survive. People are asking her if they should stay away from them.

"We now know that most likely it is not from the pangolin. It might be from the bats or whatever," Morenikeji said. "But we know from history that there are instances we have had diseases jump from wildlife to man." 

 "I have more people listening to what I have to say about the situation," she said. "And I tell them it's not just the pangolin. There's the problem of zoonotics if you do not leave wild animals in the wild and you bring them into the system."

University of Ibadan’s Olajumoke Morenikeji work campaigning against the illegal trade of pangolins in Nigeria has earned her the nickname 'Madame Pangolin.' (Submitted by Olajumoke Morenikeji)

Early investigations into the source of the coronavirus outbreak focused on a market in Wuhan, China, where live animals were traded. 

But there are as yet no firm conclusions and a zoonotic source has yet to be identified. 

WATCH | Coronavirus: Where did it come from?

It started with animal to human transmission. But the novel coronavirus is now spreading between people. 0:25

In a move that many conservationists hope will be permanent, China banned the consumption and trading of wildlife in February, after the outbreak began.

Beijing also recently afforded the pangolin its highest protection status and banned pangolin scales from being used in traditional medicines.

Kaddu Kiwe Sebunya, CEO of the African Wildlife Foundation, an international wildlife conservation organization, calls it a huge step. 

"We are so happy this is happening," he said in a Skype interview from Kenya. 

"And you know we are not going to relent. We would like to see this also happening with rhino horns because they really have no medicinal properties." 

Poachers capitalize on COVID-19 outbreak

It's a potential ray of hope for the pangolin, but Sebunya said that in general, COVID-19 has been a tragedy for conservation efforts.

"Actually, what we are seeing is a spike in poaching across the continent," he said. "Because the tourism industry collapsed overnight and funding went to zero for conservation." 

Sebunya said tourism accounts for more than 80 per cent of conservation money directed toward most of the national park services across Africa.

"And so [anti-poaching] patrols are less," he said. 

Lagos-based veterinarian Mark Ofua has dedicated his career to rescuing animals. He is teaching Juba to forage for his own food before he can be released back into the wild. (Submitted by Mark Ofua)

Kruger National Park in South Africa might be an outlier, having reported a "significant decline" in rhino poaching since its lockdown in April. 

It has a well equipped anti-poaching unit, including helicopters and a canine team. 

But it's a very different picture in neighbouring Zimbabwe.

Bumi Hills Conservation Manager Mark Brightman says criminal poaching syndicates are taking advantage of the COVID-19 lockdown in Zimbabwe to increase their operations. (Ellen Mauro/CBC)

"We still have the criminal [poaching] syndicates that are operating, said Mark Brightman, conservation manager with the Bumi Hills Anti Poaching Unit along Lake Kariba in Zimbabwe.

"They haven't shut down the tools. In fact, they're taking advantage of the situation."

The Bumi Hills rangers are still operating as a deterrent for now, but two elephants were recently poached just outside their area. And Zimbabweans who used to rely on tourism for work are feeling even more economic pain in the face of the lockdown than normal. 

"People have got to feed themselves," said Brightman. He said there's been an increase in the number of people snaring animals to put meat on the table for their families. 

"We're not really concerned with that. It's the commercial poaching and the priority is elephant poaching and the bush meat trade that we cannot let get out of hand once more." 

'We'll have to do what is right by him'

The COVID-19 pandemic offers the world an opportunity for a reset, to have a global conversation about biodiversity and management of natural resources, according to Sebunya.

"People have seen what happens when we mismanage nature," he said.

"COVID-20 might come from my country. And it will shut down Toronto. So this responsibility is global responsibility. And we need more support. There has been a decrease in support to conservation in Africa." 

Conservation Manager Mark Brightman says the number of elephants in the Bumi Hills region dropped from 15,000 to 3,500 in recent years. Ninety per cent of the decline has been attributed to poaching. (Ellen Mauro/CBC News)

Back in the port city of Lagos, Ofua is walking the stray dogs twice a day and feeding baby civets along with Juba. He's bracing himself for the day he'll say goodbye to the young pangolin before releasing it back into the bush.

"I pray every day for grace to be able to let him go when it's time. I just want to make sure he's able to fend for himself properly." 

Ofua is working on building a kind of enclosed pangolin shelter where they can take first steps before finally being returned to the wild. 

Juba will be the first to try it. 

"It's going to be difficult but we'll have to do what is right by him," he said. "I try to let people see the connection between us and these animals. Conservation is not something we should do for fun or for pleasure or for sentiment. It's something we actually need to do deliberately to save mankind."

About the Author

Margaret Evans

Europe correspondent

Margaret Evans is a correspondent based in the CBC News London bureau. A veteran conflict reporter, Evans has covered civil wars and strife in Angola, Chad and Sudan, as well as the myriad battlefields of the Middle East.

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