By Remmy Kopeka and Salima Mvula
Nestled in the verdant landscapes of Northern Zambia, Mungwi town serves as a vibrant hub for both cultural heritage and diverse wildlife species. The town is located 30 kilometers east of Kasama, the provincial capital of Northern Province. Among the many fascinating wildlife creatures that call this region home, is the ground pangolin.
This ant-eating mammal helps maintain the delicate balance of Mungwi’s ecosystems by protecting forests from termite destruction. The town’s ecosystem consists of a tropical wet climate also known as a rainforest. It lies within the agroecological region and receives more than 1000mm of rain per annum. The forest is also characterised by dry evergreen Cryptosepalum forests, locally known as the Mavunda, which are endemic to north-western Zambia.
Pangolins are the world’s only scaly mammals, unique because of their distinctive appearance, covered in tough, overlapping scales made of keratin, like those of fingernails. These nocturnal creatures primarily feed on ants and termites using their long, sticky tongues.
According to a report released by Wildlife Crime Prevention (WCP) Zambia Pangolins are the most trafficked mammal in the world and Zambia’s pangolin population of Temmnicks Ground and White-bellied Tree Pangolins is no exception to this onslaught.
Pangolins as Victims of Illegal Wildlife Trade
Regrettably, pangolins are in high demand primarily for their scales, which are erroneously believed to possess medicinal properties in traditional Asian medicine. This need puts them at risk, prompting conservation efforts to protect these vulnerable species. In response to the escalating crisis, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) has implemented a ban on the commercial trade of pangolins.
Particularly, in Mungwi town, the ground pangolin, faces an unprecedented crisis as poaching and illegal trade continue to increase, causing the once-thriving pangolin population in the town to dwindle at an alarming rate, leaving conservationists and environmental advocates grappling with an urgent call to action.
Community-Based Conservation Initiatives
For several years, the Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DNPW) in the Northern Area Management Unit has been actively involved in the arrest and apprehension of suspects engaged in the illegal trade of pangolins. DNPW Senior Intelligence Investigation Officer Mr Muma explained that through the DNPW Principal Ranger Team, sensitisation efforts have been carried out amongst community members within Mungwi district, to educate them on the Pangolin species and the dangers attached to engaging in its illegal trade.
He noted that due to persistent efforts, this year has brought a hopeful shift in the narrative. The collective consciousness of the local communities has resulted in a positive transformation, where community members are now voluntarily surrendering pangolins to the local leaders and local authorities.
“We have received some reports from concerned community members and have managed to retrieve some pangolins through the headmen and councilors coming on board to drive this awareness program,” Mr Muma said.
He explained that once a report has been received through their office, the principal ranger team is engaged to retrieve the pangolin, with the assistance of resources from WCP Zambia.
“Once the pangolin is retrieved, an assessment is carried out to determine whether it is fit to be released back into its natural habitat. If it is five kg and above, we release it, unless it requires some medical attention. If it is below the stipulated weight, we hand it over to the WCP rehabilitation centre to be treated,” he added.
Since 2016, WCP Zambia has supported the seizure of over 763 pangolins from the illegal wildlife trade through its collaboration with DNPW. As the pangolins are more valuable to the end consumer alive than dead, many are rescued alive by wildlife authorities. However, their time in the hands of criminals often leaves them malnourished, injured, and weak. The WCP pangolin rehabilitation centre provides treatment and care to these sensitive animals for the best chance of a successful release back into the wild.
While challenges persist in the battle against illegal wildlife trade, the positive shift in community behaviour signifies a beacon of hope. It highlights the potential for transformative change when communities and authorities unite in their commitment to protect endangered wildlife. The proactive involvement of the Mungwi community in safeguarding pangolins stands as a testament to the growing awareness and collective determination to preserve the rich biodiversity of the region. It indicates that with concerted efforts, every individual can contribute to the protection of our planet’s precious wildlife heritage.