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THE STORY OF A
LITTLE PANGOLIN WHO’S MAKING
A BIG DIFFERENCE

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by
SIMON ESPLEY
5 September, 2014

Namibia’s Herero people believe that the pangolin has transformative powers. The story goes that if a pangolin is found, it should be taken to the chief who will throw it in a fire to be roasted alive, and that by eating the flesh one can attain great luck. But one pangolin is changing that. His name is Katiti, which means “little one” in the Herero language. He might actually be the luckiest pangolin yet.
   One of my favourite encounters with one of these curious creatures was in Botswana’s Kwando Reserve, just south of Namibia’s Caprivi Strip. “Pangolin! Pangolin! Pangolin!” came the excited cry as our guide, Mark Tennant, gunned the safari vehicle towards a distant group of wild dogs that were bouncing up and down like pogo sticks in the long grass. As we got closer I counted five dogs, all atwitter as they danced about – in response to what, I could not see.
   “Call me sceptical,” I muttered from the seat beside him, “but how do you know there’s a pangolin there?”
   “That’s what wild dogs do when they find a pangolin!” came Mark’s breathless explanation. And sure enough, there it was, a Cape pangolin curled up in a perfect, armoured ball.
   Realising they could do nothing with the pangolin in its protective mode, the wild dogs made off. But instead of following the dogs on their hunt, the group of 8 safari-goers aboard the vehicle agreed to spend time with the pangolin. Such is the allure of this elusive creature.

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A prime example of a Cape pangolin.
©African Pangolin Working Group

It took ten minutes of awed silence for the shy creature to uncurl itself and amble off in that strange floating hovercraft way, unhurried and seemingly unperturbed by his groupies and their whirring shutters. It was broad daylight and, although I am privileged to have seen many pangolins on this awesome continent I call home, this was one of my most memorable sightings. I am sure that pangolin lives on in those lucky people’s memories and photo albums.
   But the hope is that they don’t only live in memory. The dominant news about Africa’s pangolins is that they are being harvested in great numbers to satisfy the veracious demand for Eastern food and medicinal cures. It’s not surprising that the Asian pangolin species are on the brink of extinction, and now the great Eastern tide is sweeping through Africa, hoovering up more and more of the little “scaled artichokes”. Click here to learn more about the trade in pangolin meat and scales (Takes you to another page in this magazine)

A Cape pangolin was rescued from such a fate. She was wild caught and taken around a Namibian town in a box, no doubt to be sold on the black market. A shop owner felt sorry for the pangolin and bought her before passing her on to local wildlife organisation, Rare and Endangered Species Trust (REST). The founder and director, Maria Diekmann, took it upon herself to rehabilitate the pangolin so it could be released into the wild.

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Top: A strong bond formed between Maria and the pangolin, Roxy.
©Dave Lowth
Middle: Roxy rests her head on Maria’s shoulder.
©Scott & Judy Hurd
Bottom: Roxy, the expectant mother.
©Scott & Judy Hurd

As she was nursing it back to health, a strong bond formed between Maria and the pangolin she named ‘Roxy’. As hard as it was for Maria to watch her go, Roxy was destined to return to the wild, but not before leaving a precious gift: her son, Katiti. This gift has grown up and is now an invaluable source of data, for efforts to better understand pangolins, and to rehabilitate and return pangolins that fall victim to poaching, into the wild. Katiti is also a lucky charm.

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Roxy was destined to return to the wild, but not
before leaving a
precious gift

Maria explained that after Roxy’s departure, Katiti’s condition deteriorated on his diet of ants and milk. After much experimentation and advice from Lisa Haywood of Tikki Haywood Trust, the only other person known to have hand-reared a baby pangolin, Katiti’s health and diet started to improve and after a few months he was weaned off substitutes and foraging naturally.
   He now sets his own daily routine and forages in the wild for about five hours a day, returning to the safety of REST for a well deserved rest. He even interacts with the wild pangolins he comes across while foraging. A GPS unit has been attached to the scales on his back and his every move is monitored, for extra security, and for the collection of valuable data. The plan is to return Katiti to the wild eventually, and work is in progress on a more sophisticated monitoring unit that will send back even more vital information.

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Top: Roxy’s infant son, Katiti, not long after he was born.
©Scott & Judy Hurd
Middle: In typical pangolin fashion, Katiti rides on his mothers back for the first few months.
©Maria Diekmann
Bottom: Katiti finding his feet.
©Maria Diekmann

Just as valuable is Katiti’s role as ‘comforter’ to recently rescued pangolins. This increases their chances of successful rehabilitation and release. Experience has taught Maria that immediately returning a confiscated pangolin back into the wild, without rehabilitation, often results in the death of the animal, as they have to negotiate past established pangolin territories and evade predators – a tough ask if they are injured, stressed or malnourished.

Katiti has taken
on the role of ‘comforter’ to rescued pangolins

Two such pangolins were ‘Merel’ (2yrs) and ‘Keanu’ (9mths), found together in an old metal drum where they were held for three days awaiting a buyer. They were cold, malnourished and Keanu had a broken leg. Merel was successfully released, but Keanu died of complications picked up during the three days in the cold without food or water. Pangolins are particularly susceptible to pneumonia due to their lack of fur.
   Another completely rehabilitated pangolin that Katiti helped nurse back to health was named ‘Coll’. Like Katiti, he was fitted with a GPS device and released on a neighbouring farm. His monitored wanderings provided valuable data for a good while before he died of natural causes – predation either by hyena or honey badger.

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Katiti makes an early morning foray into dewy grass.
©Christian Boix

Apart from being a comfort to other pangolins, one of Katiti’s most important roles is educating people, and tugging the odd heart-string. Local Herero people have been thrilled to have their photo taken with Katiti. Importantly, some of those people are Herero chiefs who have returned to their communities telling them that their picture with the pangolin is bringing luck to the community, because a picture lasts longer than just the taste of meat. They are now motivating their communities to leave the pangolins where they belong, in the wild.africa-geographic-logo

REST continues to handle a steady stream of injured and confiscated pangolins that require extensive rehabilitation before they can be released. Each successful rehabilitation results in lessons learned and growing expertise and data about these wonderful little creatures. And you can help:

REST is desperately in need of funding and would appreciate your support. You can find out more about making donations by clicking here.

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  • 4everwild

    As a young girl I was very blessed to see a pangolin in the wild. They are fascinating little creatures, and I am so happy that there are people out there able to do positive things for them.The photographs are amazing, and I really admire the work that Maria and her helpers do. Thank you.

  • LANamib

    This is a wonderful article with some terrific pictures of Katiti and other pangolins. Thank you spreading the news about the plight of these amazing creatures.

  • ChrisL

    I remember that encounter very well, being one of the group. Mark had asked what we would like to see/encounter, and my reply was the 3P’s, pangolin. polecat, porcupine. The dogs did the work. There was the pangolin! The lesson here that you must be ready to be diverted to the clues given by nature, even if set upon a a more popular venture. Later the dogs put a kudu at bay, and that was another hear-stopping event.

    • Simon Espley

      Good heavens Chris – small world!

  • Deb

    So little is known about pangolins that they can’t be kept or bred in zoos. Work like this–learning their habits, territories, vulnerabilities, strengths–is vital, if any of the species are to be saved.

  • Deborah Green

    Thank goodness for people like maria x

  • raghunaut

    Wow! I am so happy that so many people get to know of your work Maria. I am proud of you. You are really an inspiration! God bless you with long, healthy and happy life and you set an example for us to follow.

  • m Lee-Gattenby

    Just to say a huge thank you frpm the UK – we are working hard here to raise awareness of the plight of the Pangolin and hope that we can contribute to your work in the future

  • Tony D

    What a fascinating story about a little known African animal ! Thanks so much for sharing – hoping to see one, one day ?

  • alamnyak thaddeus

    i love a store of a pangolin as well as a nice picture and clear one.
    good intepritations and pictures will help nomal people to understand the importance of conserve wildlife and their environment.

  • Greg Hirst

    Enjoyed this article…thank you!

  • Chris Glisson

    Awesome article from my native land.
    Huge responsibility in protecting pangolin.
    CITES should be focusing on this plight.

  • Carrie Chang

    Hello everyone, there is a great group in Vietnam who is helping with this amazing cause. Vietnam is home to some of the very last wild pangolins, where poaching is most rampant and help most needed.

    Please help them by visiting http://www.savevietnamswildlife.org/ to learn more about these amazing creatures and ways you can help save them.

    God save the creaturs of this earth.

    • carlo Alinsod Flores

      I wasn’t aware there are PANGOLINS in Southeast Asia is Vietnam the only Country has pangolins ? What kind of poaching are the poachers doing I mean are there foreign buyers for these creatures ?

  • manley kiefer

    Bless those who are kind to animals, humans included.

  • michael chait

    Absolutely amazing, thank you so much.

  • Micahawk

    Maria, thank you so much for your remarkable work with pangolins, putting your heartfelt story out into the light, and giving pangolins a voice to convey their uniqueness as a wildlife species, gentle nature, personality, emotional side. It’s crucial to their survival that they become recognized as such. Be well.