Natural World Hero

Maria Diekmann

As Founder of the Rare & Endangered Species Trust, Maria Diekmann is a key figure in the research and conservation of Namibia's lesser-known species, including the Cape pangolin.

Saviour of Namibia's forgotten fauna - Maria Diekmann

The Rare & Endangered Species Trust (REST) was established in Namibia by Maria Diekmann in the year 2000. Maria has served as REST’s Founder and Director ever since. Over the years she has seen her organisation draw worldwide acclaim, thanks chiefly to her work with the endangered Cape pangolin; Maria’s struggle to save the species was featured in the documentary The World’s Most Wanted Animal, which aired on the BBC and PBS in 2018. Maria’s collaboration with WildAid and Chinese megastar Angelababy has helped to raise significant awareness for the plight of the pangolin in Asia, with one 30-second video racking up tens of millions of views in the space of just a few days.

The Cape pangolin is just one member of REST’s “Forgotten Five”, a group of lesser-known species that also includes the Cape griffon vulture, dwarf python, spotted rubber frog and Damara dik-dik. REST’s mission statement is to bring attention to some of the most misunderstood and endangered animals in Namibia, with the aforementioned quintet serving as flagship species for Namibia’s biodiversity. Maria is committed to championing the cause of animals that may not receive the same attention as more well-known species.

Maria’s unflinching dedication to Namibia’s wildlife was confirmed when she devoted three and a half months to living with a rescued pangolin (Roxy) and her pup (Katiti), moving in to a converted vulture hide with the pair in order to monitor the entire journey for posterity – the first time this had been done in recorded history.

Before Roxy came along, Maria and the REST team had already made great strides in the conservation of another endangered species, one that was on the precipice in Namibia, with as few as 12 individuals remaining: the Cape griffon vulture. REST were the first team in Africa to fit a satellite tracking unit to a vulture, which they did in 2004, eventually tracking seven individuals and contributing to vital field work and research on the species.

From the intimacy of the vulture hide to starring on the international stage, from hosting tourists and school groups at REST to working on the ground with Namibia’s farmers, local communities and government ministries, Maria’s passion for the natural world is always evident. Though adept at research and a keen educator, Maria is adamant that the chief goal of REST must be successful conservation, now and always. It is her passion for the animals of her country, and a tireless zeal to ensure they not only survive but live in harmony with Namibia’s people, that makes Maria Diekmann a Natural World Hero.

 

To learn more about REST and find out how you can donate to their cause, visit the REST Namibia website.

What drew you towards protecting lesser-known African species?

About two decades ago I married a man whose family owned property on the Waterberg Plateau, in central Namibia. It just so happened that the cliffs on the property were home to Namibia’s last surviving Cape griffon vultures, which at the time were the most endangered animal in the country. I began to care for these vultures alongside my daily farming duties, and decided that establishing REST would be the best way to ensure the survival not only of these birds, but other endangered species in Namibia who also fly under the radar of mainstream conservation. We chose the Cape griffon vulture and the rest of the Forgotten Five as we believe they represent biodiversity. Species like these need attention just as much as lions, elephants and all the rest; when we first established REST in 2000, none of our Five were even listed as endangered by CITES.

We have to realise that it’s not just the big species that have an effect on ecosystems. Somebody has to care. The REST team act in situ and ex situ – research is a vital tool in understanding these animals and their plight, but we also need to work with the people who share the land with them. Starting with the vultures, we began making farmers aware of how important the birds are to the wider ecosystem. Intrinsically people aren’t going to care about an animal unless they’re told what impact they have.

Vultures are the coolest animals ever. For one, they help to stop the spread of disease – there is some groundbreaking post-doctoral research going on right now that points to vultures being immune to anthrax, botulism and rabies. By consuming the infected flesh they neutralise the threat it poses to the environment, which benefits farmers and their livestock.

Anthrax is a rising danger in Namibia. Anthrax spores can survive for 100 years in the soil before rains release it into waterways. Vultures can consume an infected hippo in an hour, whereas jackals and hyenas take days. All the while anthrax is seeping out into the environment which can affect local wildlife, livestock, and the human population – one that is already struggling with other issues like HIV.

Next, we all know the image of vultures circling around a dead or dying animal; this behaviour helps hunters who need to finish off a wounded animal, and it also turns vultures into a security asset, alerting authorities to the presence of poachers.

These are just some of the examples that show how just one species can have a positive impact on human communities and the natural environment. Many ancient cultures revered the vulture – it even served as the deity of Upper Egypt and is the first animal mentioned in the Bible, as nesher, king of the birds – but in recent times they have garnered a negative reputation. One of our goals at REST is to educate people about the importance of lesser-known species, and it all started with the vultures.

Do the roles of “charismatic megafauna” like African elephants and lions warrant the level of coverage they receive in conservation circles?

Absolutely. The difference is that we know a lot about these species. For example, there are captive-bred rhinos living in parks and zoos around the world – we know how to care for rhinos and we know that they will survive well in captivity. Compare the rhino to the pangolin. Many people have tried and failed to raise pangolins in captivity, and some – like us at REST or the Tikki Hywood Foundation in Zimbabwe – have seen some success. But generally pangolins are extremely difficult to keep in captivity, and as a result it is very hard to conduct research on them.

This is why REST focuses on the pangolin and other lesser-known species. There are many more pangolins in the world than rhinos, but we can be sure that the pangolin will go extinct before the rhino because we cannot adequately breed or research pangolins in the way that we can with rhinos. We try to piggyback off these bigger species who are getting (entirely deserved) levels of attention globally.

One of the most remarkable success stories accomplished at REST is the birth and subsequent raising of a Cape pangolin pup by its mother, which you monitored, recorded and oversaw over the course of three and a half months. Could you talk us through this experience and how it was achieved?

We received a call from a local businessman who had bought a pangolin off the black market. He felt sorry for it and thought that it could receive the care it needed at REST. When we received Roxy she had been kept in a box for five days. She was distressed, dehydrated and possibly suffering from pneumonia. Now, before she came to us, we usually released any pangolins that came to us as soon as we could. As I mentioned before, keeping pangolins in captivity is just not the done thing. The longer they stay in captivity, the lower their success rate of survival in the wild. But when Roxy left that box in the REST HQ, she walked straight up to me and began crawling all over me, something which never happens with pangolins. I knew she was different.

After a few days, Roxy was eating well and walking around the yard. We got word to our contacts that we needed a new satellite tracker for her, and were told that there’d be a 4-day wait. We decided to house her in the vulture hide in the meantime. We had no idea she was pregnant – one day when I was in there with her she crawled over to me and gave birth right in my lap. At first I thought this scaly little pup was a snake – that Roxy had curled herself around it somehow and that I was about to get bitten!

Usually I think of myself more as a conservationist than a researcher, but with the birth of Roxy’s pup I put my research cap on and realised the incredible opportunity I had to document the child-rearing process of a pangolin up close. I documented everything for months – when Roxy fed the pup milk, when she stopped feeding her milk, when she drank water… I have an entire book filled with nothing but documentation of their movements.

As time went on I would walk with Roxy, between midnight and 3am every night, so she could be outside. A few months in, she hadn’t been outside in a while as it had been cold and raining. Pangolins don’t do well in these conditions. But whenever Roxy wanted something she would beg for it by looking me straight in the eye, and when she started to do this more and more I knew she wanted to be let out. We let her out and we never saw her again.

Did she have an accident or had the time come for her to separate from her pup? Were we wrong in thinking that mother and pup stick together for nine months after birth? Roxy and I had an incredibly strong bond, but she left and I never saw her again. She raised her pup well though – we released Katiti (the only pangolin I have ever known before or since that likes sour cream!) after three or four years at REST. In fact, we released our fourth pangolin youngster just three days ago!

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.

What are the major threats facing the rest of the Forgotten Five?

The dwarf python is threatened mainly by the illegal wildlife trade. People point to the fact that they are being bred in the US, but this doesn’t necessarily provide us with a positive outlook for the species. They are like dogs – they need a healthy spread of genetics in order to survive and curb the negative effects of inbreeding. They are not a particularly widespread species in the wild either. As far as we know, they are only found in northern Namibia and southern Angola.

Hunting is the main threat facing the Damara dik-dik. Although found in fair numbers in pockets of their range – including on our property – they are by and large very rare, hard to find and thus very expensive as a trophy. To make matters worse, research indicates that they mate for life, and that they may not seek out another mate if theirs dies. This makes the population very fragile. They are also incredibly hard to keep in captivity.

The spotted rubber frog has been called Namibia’s least-known frog, so we cannot say for certain how endangered it is, but it is rare. I am one of the few people I know to have collected them from the wild. Like all frogs, they are victims of the same diseases that are causing a die-off of catastrophic proportions among amphibians worldwide.

As for the threats facing the Cape griffon vulture, what must first be understood is that this species is the apex vulture of southern Africa. Breeding only on cliffs and mating for life, they have always existed in sparse populations, so the decline in vulture populations across Africa is seen more markedly in this species. A collapse of one Cape griffon vulture population from 500 individuals to 12 is much more noticeable than another vulture species crashing from 10,000 to 6,000.

Incidentally, this decline is mainly a result of vultures consuming poison, which is set out either by poachers or by farmers who hope to kill predators that threaten their livestock. Vultures can consume poison directly or through the consumption of infected carrion. Some also drown in reservoirs or are electrocuted by power lines.

I’ve been to poison workshops to see what can be done about this. Poachers, instead of shooting elephants, now want to poison them to avoid detection. This is a devastating development when you consider that every poisoned elephant carcass can kill between 500 and 1,000 vultures. It’s a simply massive decline. I used to feed 350 - 500 birds every week at our “vulture restaurant” – now I’m happy to get 25 birds. I fear that the impact this loss will have on our wildlife and our human population is already irreversible.

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!

How integral to your research and conservation efforts are the local initiatives that you run in Namibia with schools, farmers, community leaders, etc.?

First of all, this is the backbone of what we do. I firmly believe that we can’t do anything conservation-related in Namibia without local support. We need the support of governments, authorities, farmers, local communities, and the Ministry of Environment and Tourism. Some people in this country think that farmers aren’t smart, but they very much are, and we work closely with them for mutual benefit. They graciously allow us to use their land, and we develop methods between us that benefit both livestock and wildlife.

We are really involved in the community – for example, with our Save Our Species (SOS) Campaign, we have helped to raise awareness of the plight of rare and endangered species with thousands of young Namibian schoolchildren. As part of the campaign, we ran an art competition with the support of the Disney Wildlife Fund, and at the end the winning design was printed onto 2,000 eco-friendly cloth shopping bags. Local businesses also help us by donating tools, funds and satellite tracking equipment.

Our Poison and Vulture Awareness Campaign – which includes visits to farmers’ days where we inform them of the dangers of poison use – has helped to arrest the decline in vulture populations. We recently moved headquarters and already the local community have come to us asking for help to lead the opposition against a proposed new paper plant near to our site. I have great pride in my country and my people. The police are also trying hard, and we are very fortunate that our Ministry of Environment and Tourism is well run.

When it comes to the survival prospects for endangered species, how would you rate the relative effectiveness of such initiatives against international public awareness campaigns?

This is a very good but difficult question. If I had to pick which was most effective, I would pick the grassroots initiatives, because we can survive on the ground protecting species without the international campaigns – although they can take our work and our message to a whole different level, taking them around the world. But both are vital. For example, our documentary The World’s Most Wanted Animal was narrated on the BBC by David Attenborough, which lends enormous credibility to our work. We received so much positive attention overnight just from having his voice lent to our project. The best method is to establish grassroots initiatives first, and then tackle the international reach of your project later.

Who is your own personal Natural World Hero and why?

The first person who springs to mind is Dr Jane Goodall. She is iconic. I have such admiration for her, especially as she’s remained humble throughout her life despite being a brilliant scientist known around the world – everyone just calls her Jane! This is a far cry from some 24-year-olds who insist on being called Doctor, despite having only just received their doctorate.

I have to mention Attenborough as well of course: just brilliant, and also iconic. No-one can duplicate his success. People expect that he’s been everywhere – he really has – and he still attends all these events, even now at the age of 93. He has such an infectious passion for the natural world, similar to Steve Irwin, whose enthusiasm bordered on the psychopathic… but that was who he was! He and Attenborough are true originals.

What has been your best natural world experience to date?

It was something that happened recently, actually. I had raised Honeybun for three and a half years and she had always had a tracker on her, but these small pieces of kit only last so long. After getting a new batch from our supplier, we had a mishap and the tracker malfunctioned – at the same time as Honeybun got out of her enclosure. We had no idea where she was. I was so upset and disappointed in myself, even though I know I hadn’t done anything wrong. I was so crazy about her, but I also recognised that science desperately needs the information we gain from having her here at REST. She was gone for six weeks and during that time we set out on numerous outings to search for her. We called for her, we looked in places she might have hidden, we even sometimes saw pangolin tracks, but we never saw her.

After being gone for six weeks, she walked right into our student house and crawled up into a student’s lap. Her return meant so much to me, because it showed me that I had raised her well – she not only survived, but she weighed more than when she had left. She chose to come back to me, which proved to me that I can provide for her safety. I can provide for a pangolin! My inkling is that she’s pregnant, and has returned because she knows REST is the best place for her to raise her pup.

What natural world insight would you like to leave us with?

Some people say to me, Maria, what is the point? Why don’t you choose an easier career or a less disheartening field of study? I understand where they’re coming from, I really do, but there is hope. I have to believe that. For example, there are people who have never heard of me, who have never seen a pangolin or even been to Namibia before, who send donations in. There are people donating to REST who have so little to spare. Some will give us $40 when they only have $50 left over after paying their bills. It is actions like these that give me hope for the future of the natural world.

Small actions make big differences. Recently a 9-year-old girl was asking us for help in raising money. What was I doing when I was 9? Riding my pony? She designed a paper handout to give to people, spreading awareness of endangered species, and raised over £1,000 in donations to cut off her hair, which she donated to a cancer survival charity. Amazing.

Small actions make big differences. We must never forget that.

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