The forest is so humid I can taste the moisture in the air. Barely any light penetrates the rainforest canopy in this part of the Central African Republic.
Weaving through a tangle of trees, we’re following Etienne Ndobola, a Ba’Aka tracker working with the Sangha Pangolin Project. After a few minutes, we find two other trackers under a tree. Silently, they point upwards – and there is little Ndima, a black-bellied
pangolin , shuffling along leafy branches on the hunt for ants, which he’ll zap with a long, sticky tongue. Talon-like claws grip the bark and a long, scaled tail wraps around the tree for balance.
The pangolin project is run from the Sangha Lodge, eight simple wooden chalets tucked into the trees on the jungle-clad banks of the Sangha River, in Djomo, in the far southwest of the Central African Republic. It has recently partnered with the Congo Conservation Company, which operates three high-end camps in the Republic of the Congo’s Odzala-Kokoua National Park, where the western lowland gorillas are a highlight.
The resulting itinerary affords visitors an intimate, immersive experience in the vitally important Congo Basin. Guests fly from Odzala to the riverside village of Kabo and then embark on a six-hour boat trip up the wide Sangha River towards the lodge, across the border, pass¬ing fishermen on wooden dugout canoes and children waving from the banks.
On our first morning as guests at the Sangha Lodge we go in search, not of pangolins, but of elephants. After an hour’s drive, we continue on foot, wading through streams and trekking along narrow, muddy paths cut through the forest, until we arrive at Dzanga Bai (a “bai” is a marshy forest clearing) in Dzanga-Sangha National Park, widely considered to be the best place in Africa in which to see forest elephants. Up to 150 gather here every day, sometimes accompanied by rare bongo antelopes and forest buffaloes.
As quietly as we can, we creep up the stairs to a wooden viewing platform that overlooks the tree-lined clearing, already full of elephants. For five hours we observe them slurping up nutrient-rich water and rolling in yellow clay. Playful calves charge after the ducks that arrive with the rain, their over¬sized ears flapping and trunks flailing.
South Africans Rod and Tamar Cassidy opened Sangha Lodge in 2009, when Rod – one of the continent’s top birding guides, easily distinguished by his long, bushy white beard – bought it as a base from which to run tours. In the 10 years since, the lodge has become something of a rehab¬ilita¬tion centre for wildlife.
Popular residents include Woody the wood owl and Minu the genet, but pangolins take pride of place. Most of those rescued are brought in by the Ba’Aka, the Pygmy people who live in this part of the Congo Basin, usually after being found injured or in distress in or around their villages.
“In December 2014, Pangy was brought in,” says Tamar, a slight, softly spoken woman. “The Ba’Aka found her on the path.”
Pangy is a black-bellied pangolin, the only diurnal pangolin species.“She used to get up, have her milk and then head off into the forest,” recalls Rod. “Then she’d come back at night and go to sleep under our pillow.”
After 10 months, Pangy stopped returning, but Ba’Aka trackers continued to monitor her progress, following her as she foraged for ants and marking her sleeping place so they could find her the next morning. Two other black-bellied pangolins joined Pangy in the research project – Ndima (“forest” in Ba’Aka) and Koki (the first half of the word for pangolin – she is missing most of her tail).
Tracking them is tough, so two teams work, one week on, one week off. At present, tracking on foot is the only way to study these creatures. Setting up effective camera traps in the trees is difficult and breakdown-prone satellite trackers are too big for black-bellied pangolins, the smallest species, at about 80cm long.
So far, Sangha has rehabilitated and released about 90 pangolins, mostly white-bellied, which are nocturnal and therefore can’t be monitored.
In this remote part of the Central African Republic, poaching for the overseas wildlife trade is not yet widespread, but pangolins are seen as food. They are easy prey; a pangolin’s defence strategy is to roll into a scaly ball (their name comes from the Malay pengguling – “something that rolls up”). This makes it difficult for most predators to eat them but all too convenient for human hands intent on scooping them up and putting them into a sack.
Pangolins are the only mammals covered in keratin scales and it is this armour that has led to them becoming the most trafficked mam¬mal in the world, aside from humans. The scales are used in traditional medi¬cines in China and Vietnam, even though there is no scientific evidence suggesting keratin – the same material human hair, fingernails and rhino horn are made of – has any health benefits. In parts of Africa, the scales are believed to have spiritual powers.
There are eight species of pangolin – four in Asia and four in Sub-Saharan Africa. Africa’s pangolins – ground, giant, white-bellied and black-bellied – are faring a little better than their Asian cousins but the International Union for the Conserva¬tion of Nature Red List categorises them as vulnerable, and numbers are falling.
In 2017, international trade was made illegal, but to little effect: it is estimated that one pangolin is poached from the wild every five minutes.
In April this year, authorities in Singapore seized nearly 13 tonnes of scales in a container en route from Nigeria to Vietnam, a haul valued at US$38 million. It is estimated 17,000 pangolins would have been killed for this shipment and scales from all four African species were identi¬fied. In February, 30 tonnes of frozen pangolins were seized in Sabah, Malaysia’s biggest bust to date, and the previous month, Hong Kong authorities found eight tonnes of scales in a container from Nigeria bound for Vietnam.
Pangolins are a keystone species, critical to the health of an ecosystem because they keep ant and termite numbers in check. In the 2019 documentary Eye of the Pangolin, which features the Sangha Pangolin Project, Dr Cleo Graf of the Southern African Wildlife College says, “We just don’t know, if we took pangolins out of a system, what the knock-on effects would be. But my guess would be … huge.”
Dr Maja Gudehus, who manages the Sangha Pangolin Project, says, “Although pangolins are over 80 million years old, so little is known about them. Information is crucial to support their survival.”
Gudehus is leading research efforts at Sangha, working with the Ba’Aka to record the home range of the black-bellied pango¬lin – the least understood of the African species – studying their behaviour and diet, and taking tissue samples for genetic and disease identi¬fi¬cation. The Ba’Aka have been instrumental in not only monitoring the pangolins and offering to share their vast knowledge of the forest (they have tracked giant pangolins, they say, and are confident they exist around Sangha, though none have been officially recorded), but also in raising awareness about species protection in their communities.
“We have started a campaign in the villages and town, with local radio inter¬views, presentations, films and discussions in churches and schools,” Gudehus says. “But there is still a long way to go.”
By Heather Richardson