This animal reserve cares for pangolins, the world’s most trafficked mammal

This animal reserve cares for pangolins, the world’s most trafficked mammal

Pangolins are found throughout Africa and Asia, but all eight species are in danger of extinction, killed for their meat and for use in traditional medicine. In Liberia, they are often known as “ant bears” due to their very special diet of ants and termites, and this sanctuary is a sanctuary for them.

“Since I’ve started working with Libassa Wildlife Sanctuary, I feel like animals are a part of me,” Deh Jr tells CNN. “So when I see someone harm (an) animal, I feel like they are personally harming me.”

Deh Jr joined the sanctuary when it opened five years ago and says in that time he has cared for over 70 pangolins, most of which were brought here by the Liberian Forestry Development Authority after being confiscated, surrendered or orphaned as a result of the bushmeat trade.

Many people also live in forested areas. In Liberia, there is a long history of consuming bushmeat, from primates to civets (a cat-like mammal), and pangolin is considered a delicacy. Deh Jr grew up eating the animal – something he is ashamed of today. “As a child living with your parents, you don’t have a choice, because you can’t feed yourself,” he explains. “So even if you don’t want to eat bushmeat, you just have to.”

An international trade

But in recent years, another threat to local pangolins has emerged. Susan Wiper, director of the Libassa Wildlife Sanctuary, says some people kill the animal to meet demand from China and Vietnam, where the weight is used in traditional medicine.

Between 2014 and 2018, the number of seized pangolin shipments increased globally, according to a 2020 report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Most of the seizures were in Asia, and the animals largely originate from Africa. Uganda and Togo were the main sources of pangolins, and the report noted that there had recently been large seizures in Ivory Coast, with Liberia as the source country. Before 2009, most pangolin shells were obtained in Asia, and the report noted that the growth in African imports may be due to a decline in Asian populations.
While WWF estimates that over one million pangolins have been poached globally in the past decade, Wiper says accurate statistics are hard to come by. “No one has any idea about the numbers in Liberia, so every pangolin that goes is really a disaster,” she adds.
A pangolin being bottle-fed at the sanctuary.

Their scaly armor protects them from almost all predators – except one. “Pangolins don’t have natural enemies, except humans,” says Deh Jr. “If they’re startled, they roll into a ball, and no other animal can move through the weight. But (it) also makes it easy for humans to just pick it up and do whatever we want with it.”

Commercial trade in these animals has been banned internationally, and in 2016 the Liberian government introduced a law making it illegal to hunt, buy, sell, capture, transport or eat protected species – which include pangolins. But enforcing this law remains a challenge. Wiper explains that many people simply don’t know it exists and says education and awareness play a crucial role in the future of conservation in Liberia.
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Nevertheless, she remains hopeful that things are changing. She says the Liberian Forestry Development Authority is playing an increasingly active role in confiscating protected species taken from the wild.

Over the past four years, Wiper says the sanctuary has taken in nearly 600 animals — from pangolins to pygmy crocodiles, monkeys and others. She says the main goal is to rehabilitate and return as much Liberian wildlife to the forest as they can.

For Deh Jr, there are few greater rewards than this. “Putting it back into the wild actually makes you feel proud,” he says. “You feel like you’re moving forward because you’re really saving small animals.”

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