This article is brought to you by the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP). Read our other articles on the National Geographic Voices blog featuring the work of our iLCP Fellow Photographers all around the world.
Text and photos by iLCP Fellow Paul Hilton.
If a scene can be simultaneously destructive and beautiful, it is this; a palm oil plantation bigger than size of Jakarta. Hectare after hectare, row after row and canal after canal of oil palm.
Having spent the best part of 20 years documenting the environmental wins and losses of this part of the world, I am still struck by the majesty of our surroundings. I just wish I was here to bear witness to that, and not the needless decimation of yet another a species; this time the world’s most highly-traded mammal, with more than a million being poached from the wild over the last decade, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The illegal wildlife trade is estimated at US$19 billion a year.
I was determined to get on the trail of the poachers behind this lucrative, and highly destructive industry.
On assignment for WildAid, I wanted to get to the source of what was happening to the pangolin. For years, these small, scaly, creatures had enthralled me; peacefully scurrying about under the tables of restaurants I’d visited in Mainland China. One can’t help but be drawn to the pangolin’s innocent nature, and its resemblance to a friendly, flightless dragon.
Yet, there they also sat in cages, packed together, waiting to be slaughtered as some exotic delicacy. I had to find out what was going on, which meant a trip to Indonesia, home to one of the most critically endangered pangolin species.
As my team and the poachers walked through the night across the palm oil plantation, a pack of dogs begin to bark unknowingly alerting us to the presence of their pangolin prey. Surrounding a tree, they bay and scrape uncontrollably; the lights of the poachers torches allowing us to see amongst the branches what appears to be a big pine cone, but which we know (and the poachers) to be pangolin.
Like a skunk, the pangolin releases a foul smell when scared, and this specific animal is no exception. While the odour is sufficient to ward off most predators, sadly, it’s not nearly enough for a pack of hungry dogs.
It is then that their poacher masters move in, and with lightning speed, a clean grab of the pangolin’s scaly tail, into a cloth bag it goes, ready to be sold onto the black market to be killed and consumed.
It may be a difficult thing to understand; why anyone would want to consume a creature covered in hard, keratin scales but there are plenty of willing customers in China and Vietnam who believe that pangolin meat is a delicacy, and that their shiny, outer casing is best used for human ailments, like rheumatism, skin diseases, to reduce swelling, and to promote lactation in breast-feeding mothers.
Although there are many other remedies on the market, by the time the pangolins reach China, thousands of dollars will be exchanged.
Poachers across Indonesia sell live pangolins to middlemen for US$28 to US$31 per kilo; the average size of a single animal being 6 to 7kg. In 2014 the Sunda pangolin was listed as critically endangered on the IUNC Red List of Threatened Species. Earlier this year on January 26th, 125 kg of pangolin scales were intercepted by Indonesia authorities on route to Hong Kong.
One poacher tells us that he wouldn’t have to go hunting, if he got paid a decent salary working on the plantation. The average monthly wage for working a full time job on a palm oil plantation is US$47. “I can get 10 times that if I can catch a few pangolins. I have a family to support. When I first started hunting a few years ago, there were only a few hunters around. These days, almost everyone goes hunting. Also, there are no forests anymore. It’s getting harder and harder to find wildlife.”
At about 1am, we stop to build a fire and rest after walking hours through small sections of forest and canals. Without warning, the stillness is rattled by the jarring yelp of a dog galloping towards a giant felled tree, a reminder of the majestic forest, which once grew here, and is now populated to the horizon with oil palm. The poachers follow directly behind to find a young pangolin digging deep inside the hollow log.
Once again, a poacher grabs the animal, weighing just 1.5kg. What would be the point of keeping such a small creature? “We’ll keep him,” says the poacher, “until he’s 5kg or so and then we’ll sell him on. He’s not worth that much right now.” It strikes me that there can be such hollow disregard for the infant pangolin, yet the animal’s assailant sees fit to attribute a gender.
It is such a dichotomy, that I cannot help but question the poacher about his motives. “Many people are angry at me in the community for what I do, but I’m just trying to make a living. They are just jealous that I make more money than them”.
As a species, we now understand that our very existence is delicately interlinked with all living species. Pangolins racing to extinction can only mean we are one step closer to our own demise. What will be the true cost of losing species? Time will tell.
Through effective communication outreaches, the world now knows about the senseless poaching of many animals, such as the elephant, the tiger and the rhinoceros. But the gentle pangolin still remains largely unknown, even if its survival is currently one of the most precarious. Help us is spreading the word about the plight of the pangolin by sharing this article, and letting more people know, before the pangolin is gone.
To learn more about what WildAid is doing to save the pangolin, and to support their work, click on the following link: http://www.wildaid.org/tags/pangolin
Other organizations that are working to raise awareness of the pangolin include Save Pangolins and International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Species Survival Commission Pangolin Specialist Group.
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