Could you talk us through the interface between conservation and tourism that goes on at REST, and how it helps you to achieve your goals?
Integrating tourism at REST is a fragile balancing act. I must stress this. We cannot guarantee that you’re going to see animals. The closest thing we can give you to a guarantee is a viewing of the captive raptors or any babies that are being raised (conditions permitting). You may well see a pangolin on a walk, but can we guarantee you that? No. Most wildlife tourism is based on a much greater chance of sightings. At the end of the day we are putting the conservation first and the tourism second, because we cannot and will not keep an animal that should be released in favour of keeping it for tourism dollars. We have also introduced a no-touch policy because we must be careful about introducing people to the animals. By doing so we act in the best interest of the animals. It is a fine balance though because tourism is essential – we might get grants, but we must be financially self-sustaining. We also don’t charge for school groups who visit. That being said… integrating tourism is just right, I feel. I truly believe in tourism, whereas some pangolin people don’t. I like educating people and I really see the value in providing people with these experiences, so they can then return to their friends, family, school or workplace and talk about pangolins, or any of the other species we have here!
There are some bigger lodges beginning to look into setting up their own pangolin projects, but the fact of the matter is these animals are not tourism-friendly. They are the hardest animals to raise and you need the right money, facilities, expertise and passion to do so. People have asked me to draw up a protocol for pangolin tourism, but the fact of the matter is there is no protocol! Pangolins are special – while you can predict the behaviour of some animals with a fair degree of accuracy, each pangolin is totally different. As yet I have not been able to come up with a protocol for interacting with them… some like sour cream and some don’t, for example!
Pangolins are sought after primarily in Asia for their scales and body parts (which have purported “medicinal” properties) and their meat (a “luxury” foodstuff which reinforces social status). Protecting animals on the ground is one thing, but what can be done to change the minds of consumers who adhere to such deeply engrained traditional beliefs?
A lot can be done. There are two avenues that we pursue at REST – one of these is social media, as the young generation in Asia are very social media savvy. They respond well to images and videos, and they like leaving comments and smiley faces. Getting pangolin videos viral is fairly easy, regardless of whether the content is tragic or endearing. The second avenue is the use of international media stars. Jackie Chan and Angelababy, for example, have appeared in WIldAid video campaigns about pangolins. We provided the footage for one particular video in which Angelababy narrates the story of Honeybun, one of our resident pangolins; it got something like 50 million views in the first week. Having someone young, beautiful, who has that following, speaking in Chinese – this can really make a difference. We may not be able to change the minds of the 65-year-olds, but we can certainly have an impact with the younger generation.
What is the general prognosis for the future of the world’s pangolins?
I have to be positive. In 2000, I couldn’t count on my fingers the number of people who knew what a pangolin was. How could I get people to care or drum up funding for an animal if no-one knows what it is? But within a handful of years this situation has completely changed. Now when I attend a conference, people know what a pangolin is, but so too do law enforcement, governments and students. In the past, the Cape pangolin was considered Least Concern by the IUCN, even though I and fellow researchers knew how dire its situation was. Because of the way that IUCN and CITES work, we had to prove how endangered the species was for a listing to be changed; but how would we get data? Pangolins are nocturnal and hard to track. They cover vast areas and are almost impossible to keep in captivity. With no data to support a change in the listing, how would we secure funding to protect an animal listed as Least Concern? In the end, it wasn’t us researchers and conservationists who brought the pangolin’s plight to the world’s attention. It was the efforts to combat the illegal wildlife trade, chiefly in rhino and elephant parts, that showed the uninformed exactly what was happening with the pangolin. The label that the media attached to the pangolin – “This is the world’s most trafficked animal, and it’s one you’ve never heard of” – was our saving grace. If the pangolin was the world’s second-most trafficked animal, we wouldn’t be where we are today. IUCN and CITES were forced to change how they listed the eight different pangolin species, with their plight proven not by research but the sheer tide of dead pangolins being discovered by law enforcement agencies.