This wildlife sanctuary cares for the pangolin, the most trafficked mammal in the world

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

“Since I started working with Libassa Wildlife Sanctuary, I feel like animals are a part of me,” Dee Jr. tells CNN. “So when I see someone hurt an animal, I feel like they’re hurting me personally.”

Dee Jr. joined the sanctuary when it opened five years ago, and at the time says he has looked after more than 70 pangolins, most of which were brought here by the Liberian Forest Development Authority after confiscated, handed over or orphaned as a result of the bushmeat trade.

Many people also live in forested areas. In Liberia, there is a long history of eating bushmeat, from primates to civet (a cat-like mammal), and pangolins are considered a delicacy. Dee Jr. grew up eating animal – something he is ashamed of today. “As a child who lives with your parents, you have no choice, because you cannot provide any food for yourself,” he explains. “So even if you don’t want to eat bushmeat, you just have to do it.”

international trade

But in recent years, another threat to domestic pangolins has emerged. Some people are killing the animal to meet demand from China and Vietnam, where its scales are used in traditional medicine, says Susan Webber, director of the Libasa Wildlife Sanctuary.

Between 2014 and 2018, the number of seized pangolin shipments globally increased tenfold, according to a 2020 report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Most of the seizures were in Asia, and most of the animals were sourced from Africa. Uganda and Togo were the largest sources of pangolins, with the report indicating that there have recently been major seizures in Ivory Coast, including Liberia as the source country. Prior to 2009, most pangolin scales were sourced from Asia, and the report indicated that the growth in African imports could be due to the decline in the Asian population.
While the World Wide Fund for Nature estimates that more than one million pangolins have been hunted globally in the past decade, Webber says it’s hard to get accurate statistics. “No one has any idea what the numbers are in Liberia, so every pangolin is really a disaster,” she adds.

Their scaly armor protects them from almost all predators – except for one. “Pangolins have no natural enemies, except humans. If they get frightened, they roll into a ball, and no other animal can budge through the scale. But[this]also makes it easy for humans to pick it up and do what we want to do with it,” says Dee Jr.

Commercial trade of these animals has been banned internationally and in 2016 the Liberian government passed a law making it a crime to hunt, buy, sell, capture, transport or eat protected species – including pangolins. But enforcement of this law remains a challenge. Wiper explains that many people simply do not know it exists and argue that education and awareness play an important role in the future of conservation in Liberia.
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However, she is still hopeful that things will change. She says the Liberian Forest Development Authority is playing an increasingly active role in confiscating protected species captured from the wild.

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

For Dee Jr., there are few bigger rewards than this. “Getting it back into the wild you’re really proud of,” he says. “You feel like you’re going forward because you’re saving really small animals.”

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