At Libassa Wildlife Sanctuary in Liberia, West Africa, Juty Deh Jr is bottle feeding milk to an orphaned baby pangolin. These small, scaly creatures are believed to be the most trafficked mammal in the world.
Pangolins are found across Africa and Asia, but all eight species are at risk of extinction, killed for their meat and for use in traditional medicine. In Liberia, they are commonly known as “ants bears” owing to their very particular diet of ants and termites, and this sanctuary is a haven for them.
“Since I’ve started working with Libassa Wildlife Sanctuary, I feel like animal(s) are part of me,” Deh Jr tells CNN. “So whenever I see someone hurting (an) animal, I feel like they’re personally hurting me.”
Deh Jr joined the sanctuary when it opened five years ago and says in that time he has cared for over 70 pangolins, most of which were brought here by the Liberian Forestry Development Authority after being confiscated, surrendered or orphaned as a result of the bushmeat trade.
Liberia is the most forested country in West Africa – with over two-thirds of its landmass comprising forest. Rich in fauna and flora, these forests form part of the “Guinean Forests of West Africa” biodiversity hotspot, which, according to a 2018 USAID report, contains a quarter of all mammal species found on the continent, including 30 species of primates and three of the world’s eight pangolin species.
Many people also live in forested areas. In Liberia, there is a long history of consuming bushmeat, from primates to civets (a cat-like mammal), and pangolin is considered a delicacy. Deh Jr grew up eating the animal – something he is ashamed of today. “As a kid living with your parents you don’t have any 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.”
An international trade
But in recent years, another threat to local pangolins has emerged. Susan Wiper, director of Libassa Wildlife Sanctuary, says that some people are killing the animal to supply demand from China and Vietnam, where its scales are used in traditional medicine.
Between 2014 and 2018 the number of pangolin shipments seized globally increased tenfold, according to a 2020 report from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. Most seizures were in Asia, with the animals largely originating from Africa. Uganda and Togo were the biggest sources of pangolins, with the report noting that there had recently been large seizures in Ivory Coast, involving Liberia as the source country. Before 2009, most pangolin scales were sourced in Asia, and the report noted that the growth in African imports could be because of a decline in Asian populations.
While the WWF estimates that globally over one million pangolins have been poached in the past decade, Wiper says exact statistics are hard to come by. “Nobody’s got any idea of the numbers in Liberia, so every pangolin that goes is a disaster really,” she adds.
Their scaly armor protects them from almost all predators – except one. “Pangolins don’t have natural enemies, except humans,” says Deh Jr. “If they get a fright, they roll into a ball, and no other animal can budge through the scales. But (that) also make it easy for humans to just pick it up and do whatever we want to do with it.”
The commercial trade of these animals has been banned internationally and in 2016 the Liberian government introduced a law making it illegal to hunt, buy, sell, capture, transport or eat protected species – which includes pangolins. But enforcing this law remains a challenge. Wiper explains that many people simply don’t know it exists and says education and awareness play a critical role in the future of conservation in Liberia.
Nonetheless, she remains hopeful that things are changing. She says the Liberian Forestry Development Authority is playing an increasingly active role in confiscating protected species that have been taken from the wild.
In the past four years Wiper says the sanctuary has taken in almost 600 animals – from pangolins to dwarf crocodiles, monkeys and others. She says the main objective is to rehabilitate and return as much Liberian wildlife to the forest as they can.
For Deh Jr, there are few greater rewards than this. “Putting it back in the wild you actually feel proud,” he says. “You feel you are moving forward because you are really saving little animals.”