To doubt the genius of nature is to never have seen the beauty of a pangolin in the flesh.
Also known as a scaly anteater, this prehistoric animal is both doe-eyed and toothless, with a small head and an extremely sticky tongue that can extend the full length of its body. Oft likened to an ‘artichoke on legs’ thanks to an armor of large, overlapping plate-like scales that cover its entire body, Pangolins cut a humble figure with their Charlie Chaplin gait and a tendency to clasp their incredibly strong front claws together like a worried old man.
But perhaps their most endearing characteristic – and one that has contributed to their near extinction – is their ability to roll up into a spiky ball when under threat. Sadly, this defense mechanism allows poachers to simply pick up the frightened animal and sell it on for its keratin scales, falsely believed to cure everything from sexually transmitted diseases to cancer, stroke, asthma, enhanced lactation for breast feeding women and even deafness. The demand for pangolin scales, their meat and even unborn fetuses, is such that it is now officially the most trafficked animal in the world. In September this year world leaders in conservation voted unanimously to ban the pangolin trade and all eight species of pangolins, found in both Africa and Asia, have been escalated to ‘threatened status’ in terms of extinction.
There is some good news though in the form of an incredible, one-on-one care program initiated by The Tikki Hywood Trust in Zimbabwe. Here a group of dedicated male minders are each assigned a rescued pangolin to care for and rehabilitate. ‘These men do everything with these animals,’ says Lisa Hywood of The Tikki Hywood Trust. ‘From walking, feeding and carrying those that are too weak, to protecting them as they would their own children. It’s labour-intensive work but once an animal reaches a certain weight, it’s released back into the wild.”
The Trust’s devotion to rehabilitating rescued pangolins and their commitment to stopping their illegal trade through legislation was eloquently captured by photographer Adrian Steirn in a series of moving reportage and portraits entitled, Pangolin Man. ‘I was very fortunate to have access to this incredible process,’ says Adrian. ‘To witness firsthand the uniquely interdependent relationship that exists between the carers and the pangolins is something I will never forget.’ Adrian’s portraits are hugely powerful and aim to impact on people who may have never even heard of pangolins before – and there are many – and to create awareness, curiosity and a vested interest in the future of not just these majestic animals, but all species on our planet.
It’s ironic that while Pangolins have been around for 80 million years, it’s taken the comparatively scant 8 million years that humans have been on earth to decimate the population to the brink of extinction. For a mammal so unique that it has its own mammal order (Pholodita), the work of organizations such as The Tikki Hywood Trust is critical. But when combined with the involvement of passionate creatives such as Adrian Steirn, whose art has the ability to transcend cultural, geographical and social divides, it may just have the power to ignite the collective consciousness of a world gone awry.
Visit www.tikkihywoodtrust.org if you would like to make a donation to Tikki Hywood Trust, or if you would like to purchase a Pangolin Man limited edition print. The Tikki Hywood Trust has also worked with silversmith Patrick Mavros to create an incredible collection of jewelry inspired by the Pangolin. You can view this on the website too.