The pangolin is a scaly, slow but exceptionally endearing anteater. It mostly stays out of the global endangered species spotlight but once in a while it features in a story about southeast Asia’s rampant illegal wildlife trade, to which it sometimes falls victim. According to the latest findings, an estimated 10,000 pangolins are traded illegally every year.
Unsurprisingly, there’s not a lot of information out there about the pangolin. The secretive mammal – which has a tendency to snap into a tight ball when threatened – is not as well documented as the Sumatran tiger or the orangutan, to name just two of the region’s more prominent endangered species.
Some sleuthing and the occasional ‘Twitter shout-out’ led me to Conservation International’s work in Cambodia’s Cardamom Mountains, one of the last remaining pockets of relatively untouched wilderness in Asia. The pangolin is the perfect creature to highlight the need for conservation, which includes habitat protection and community engagement. As pangolins don’t breed well in captivity, their only chances of survival are in the wild.
In the Cardamom Mountains, featured in Al Jazeera’s environmental show 'Earthrise', the importance of community-based initiatives and sustained engagement couldn’t have been more obvious. Governments and international wildlife bodies have the means to introduce numerous laws and regulations to counter the illegal wildlife trade, but until there is also a local commitment to protect animals by communities living in affected areas, there can be no lasting solutions.
I saw glimmers of hope in a quiet pocket of the forest. It was a mixed crowd: farmers, rangers, even ex-pangolin poachers, all gathered to broker a deal. Villagers fleshed out an annual agreement with conservationists to protect the pangolin and to help guard against poaching in return for agricultural expertise. When I asked the rangers why they would turn to a poacher for help, the answer was a beautiful no-brainer: ‘Because they know the forest like the back of their hand.’
The implementation of community agreements highlights a little-understood element of the conservation equation: ownership. If a person owns something or is given the responsibility of guarding a precious resource, they are unlikely to destroy it or let anyone else mess with it. These community-based negotiations give locals the chance not only to own the cause, but also the solution.
I should throw in here that official, government-sanctioned rangers and conservation groups are still important in these parts of the world. Local people may form the first line of defence against low-grade poaching and even illegal logging. However, the bigger, better-oiled outfits that are plundering the area and taking, as conservationists told me, ‘truckloads’ of timber out of the forest can only be stopped, or contained, by stronger means. And by that I’m talking about forest patrol rangers.
The best way to describe the model I saw taking shape in the Cardamom Mountains is like a series of safety nets. Local communities, government-appointed rangers and conservationists working to solve one problem through a multi-pronged approach. But like all things, it’s about momentum and continued commitment, a challenge that perhaps will always remain.
Watch Nidhi Dutt as she travels to Cambodia’s Cardamom Mountains to join rangers combat poaching, broker community agreements and release a pangolin back into the wild.
‘Earthrise’ is Al Jazeera English's award-winning series exploring solutions to the environmental challenges we face today.