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Protecting Namibia’s rare species

1 min read

Updated 01 July 2020

Picture of Chris McIntyre

By Chris McIntyre

Managing Director

*A version of this article originally appeared in the July 2020 Bush Telegraph newsletter. You can read our recent newsletters and sign-up to receive these in your inbox on our Bush Telegraph newsletter page.

Welcome to our July newsletter, and a huge thank you to everyone who reached out to us or the charities we highlighted in our last Bush Telegraph.

Life has begun to settle down for the Expert Africa team and we’re busy planning safaris for 2021 and beyond, as well as putting the final touches on our long-awaited new website which will launch later this month. There may be a few hiccups on our current site while we transition over, so please bear with us!

Although still uncertain, travel is showing tentative signs of returning with restrictions lifted between a number of European countries and the UK government’s announcement of 59 destinations that won’t require holidaymakers to self-quarantine on return. Except for the Seychelles, there’s no mention of the African nations where we work just yet but considering how well many have dealt with the situation so far, we hope to see that change soon. Airports, camps and lodges are readying themselves to reopen with new precautionary measures such as distancing and temperature checks in place.

Until then, we’ll continue to bring the bush home to you, with stories from our partners on the ground. This month, we have some conservation insights from Namibia, with a closer look at the weird and wonderful brown hyena and a new challenge for pangolins.

Studying the strandwolf

The brown hyena is one of Southern Africa’s stranger inhabitants and the rarest of the four hyena species. This secretive and solitary scavenger, resembling a shaggy German shepherd, is found across the arid areas of the region and are perhaps most famous for their appearances on the beaches of Namibia’s Skeleton Coast, where they have earned the local name of strandwolf, or beach wolf.

Click the video below for a behind-the-scenes glimpse at Okonjima Nature Reserve and the work the AfriCat Foundation are doing to learn more about this unusual and fascinating animal.

A new challenge for pangolins?

The humble pangolin has been making headlines recently – and not for positive reasons. Once a rather obscure mammal, pangolins have gained recognition in the public eye for being the most trafficked animal in the world and were at one time named as a possible intermediary source of coronavirus. While some saw this notoriety as a lifeline for this scaled devourer of ants and termites, the founder of Namibia’s Mundulea Nature Reserve, Bruno Nebe, shares his experience and how to counter a new challenge it may have created.

“Early one morning at the beginning of last month I saw one of the biggest pangolins I’ve ever come across. He was about 10 years old and probably weighed around 12kg. Clearly in the prime of his life, the armoury of his scales looked particularly healthy and strong, burnished by the first light of the sun.

Unfortunately, he was dead. He was lying at the side of the main road, recently hit by a truck or a car as it headed for the Namibian coast. On the one hand, he was just another victim of the highway, on the other, this pangolin was a statistic none of us can afford to ignore. Not only because pangolins are on the verge of extinction in Namibia, but because this may not have been an accident…”

“While headlines linking pangolins to the source of coronavirus may have made them less attractive in Chinese and Vietnamese markets and thus could bring them respite from poachers, the stories may have led to something of a backlash at home. Just as snakes are deliberately run over on Namibia’s roads to eradicate their perceived threat, so rumours that pangolins could be spreading Covid-19 could further diminish their likelihood of survival.

When I stopped by the roadside to make sure that the pangolin was dead, I was on my way to Mundulea. It was my first chance in weeks of lockdown. My wife Kate and I founded the reserve two decades ago to help re-establish its once prime bushland and encourage the return of historically occurring wildlife to 120 square kilometres of montane woodland.

Our work at Mundulea has gone hand in hand with conservation and research efforts, which made us one of the first private reserves to highlight the dire situation of pangolins in Namibia. Over the years we have been part of rescue, rehabilitation, release and monitoring efforts that have involved governmental and non-governmental allies, the Namibian police, anti-poaching units and undercover operations to thwart illicit sales. We’ve helped pioneer the design of tracking devices and taken part in numerous documentaries to publicise the demise of the African ground pangolin, one of eight pangolin species across the world currently facing extinction. In March 2019, after more than a decade’s work with these animals, we recorded the first birth of pangolin pup to a rehabilitated female released on Mundulea (for the record, my own first sight of mother and child ‘doing well’ was in the company of guests from Expert Africa!).”

“As part of our research into these mysterious animals, we hosted a young Master’s student from the University of Pennsylvania who compiled what is still the only detailed record of attitudes and impressions held by local people towards pangolins living in their midst. At the time we were so fascinated by what the study revealed of traditional understandings and folklore, medicinal theories and supernatural powers that we perhaps ignored more troubling data registering distrust and dislike of the “snake-like” pangolin that some interviewees deemed “dangerous” and unsafe.

As I got back in my car, those comments resonated afresh and I marvelled at how it had taken the impact of a global pandemic to make me think more deeply about those local prejudices I had preferred to ignore. We have been so focussed on condemning the more obvious dangers of international traders, inhumane trafficking and scandalous ‘wet markets’, that we may have missed a valuable opportunity to address home-grown fears which, in a corona-type climate of suspicion and blame, might now pose an additional and serious threat to these already persecuted animals.

I have to confess that when I first heard of the possible link between the coronavirus and pangolins, I celebrated. This would surely dampen international enthusiasm for handling and eating the animals, and hopefully diminish the medicinal use of their ground-up scales. I scoffed at talk that as a result of the virus connection, pangolins might be rated alongside rats and bats: things to be shunned and exterminated. But as I drove away from the hit-and-run and wondered about its motivation, I found myself thinking again…”

“In the weeks that followed, I’ve become increasingly grateful for that prescient piece of research, which we were able to fund at Mundulea as part of a general enquiry into wider environmental issues. I have returned to its findings as a way of rethinking the focus of our post-corona conversations about pangolins and the need for more meaningful and affordable interventions at a local level. That study, along with all the other projects at Mundulea aimed at understanding and conserving endangered species and biodiverse habitats, was supported almost exclusively with income generated by the bush camp and walking trails.

2020 was to have been our busiest year to date with several new projects planned but everything screeched to a halt in the middle of March. Tourism in Namibia and South Africa has completely collapsed and with it a huge amount of vital conservation work throughout the region. In our case, there have been no visitors to Mundulea’s bush camp for the past four months, and our first guests are currently scheduled to return only in May 2021. With luck we will find a way to survive the coming months and hope that by the middle of next year Mundulea will have begun to get back on its feet. In the meantime, we trust in the generosity of those who support our aims and value what we do – not only in rehabilitating pangolins, but in our day-to-day work underpinning the recovery and integrity of the Mundulea biosphere.”

If you’ve been inspired and want to find out more, give us a call or enquire now to speak to an expert.

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