Unfurling the story behind the endangered pangolin

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The rangers of the dog squad search a motorcycle taxi for pangolin scales or hunting ammunition in Dzanga-Sangha National Park, Bayanga, Central African Republic. (AFP)
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A man holds a pangolin at a wild animal rescue center in Cuc Phuong, outside Hanoi, Vietnam. (Reuters)
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Updated 31 March 2020

Unfurling the story behind the endangered pangolin

  • The pangolin is considered the most-trafficked animal on the planet — the victim of mass poaching for bushmeat and sales of its scales, especially to China
  • Researcher Maja Gudehus: You can’t keep them more than a few days. They don’t eat, die from stress, gastritis, and other problems we don’t know yet

DZANGA-SANGHA NATIONAL PARK, Central African Republic: The prehistoric shape is hard to make out as it moves slowly through the gloomy forest, so trackers listen for the rustle of scales against the leaves to pick up its trail.
Their target is the long-tailed pangolin — a little mammal also called the scaly anteater, which will be lucky to survive to the end of this century.
The harmless creature has no defense against predators apart from its small size and a camouflage of brown scales covering its body.
Today, the world’s pangolin species are listed as either vulnerable or critically endangered.
The pangolin is considered the most-trafficked animal on the planet — the victim of mass poaching for bushmeat and sales of its scales, especially to China.
According to a study published in 2017 by the Conservation Letters journal, between 400,000 and 2.7 million of the animals are hunted each year in central African forests.
Their plight has leapt to worldwide prominence as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
The microbe is believed to have leapt the species barrier in markets in China, where pangolins and other wild animals are killed for their meat.
After testing more than 1,000 samples from wild animals, scientists at the South China Agricultural University found the genome sequences of viruses found on pangolins to be 99 percent identical to those on coronavirus patients.
Anecdotal evidence from Gabon suggests that the bushmeat trade in pangolins has plummeted since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic — but wildlife experts say it is too early to say whether this decline will last, and what impact this will have on the creatures’ survival.
The Dzanga-Sangha National Park, in the far southwest of the CAR, is the last sanctuary for animal life in a poor country ravaged by civil war. Its dense forest offers one of the world’s few refuges for a species facing extinction.
In this haven, pangolin trackers have no interest in the creature’ meat or taking the scales that sell at phenomenal prices in Chinese traditional medicine for their supposed therapeutic qualities — claims that are scientifically unproven and strongly contested.
Researcher Maja Gudehus is leading a team in Dzanga-Sangha to study pangolins in their natural habitat, the better to understand their ways and to protect them.
The project is unique in Africa. While their meat is prized, little is known about pangolins scientifically. Gudehus wants to unlock knowledge about their longevity, territory, food, life habits and reproductive cycle.
“Virtually no data exists about the long-tailed pangolin and not much more about the other African species,” the Swiss scientist explained while watching her protege clamber in the branches overhead.
The animal is particularly easy to capture. When it senses danger, it curls up into a ball, which humans have but to pick up. But in captivity, it is one of the most difficult creatures to study.
“You can’t keep them more than a few days. They don’t eat, die from stress, gastritis, and other problems we don’t know yet,” Gudehus said.
The only solution is to monitor a few clearly identified specimens, with the help of Pygmies in the region. The knowledge of the Baka people, fine guides to the forest, is essential in tracking the fragile and fearful animals.
Of three creatures recently under observation, one has vanished and another was the victim of a hitherto unknown parasite.
“Normally one can tell when an animal is not well. But pangolins can die in half an hour without giving you time to notice,” said Gudehus.
Gudehus uses whatever she can to provide necessary treatment. Her laboratory is also her home, a tiny shack besieged by vegetation, where scientific literature and boxes of medical supplies are packed in between her microscope and a camp bed.
“We used to see many pangolins,” said Didon, one of the most respected Baka trackers in the region. “Today, they’ve become rare.”
While all four African species of pangolin are present in the CAR and officially protected, the law is very hard to enforce. Two-thirds of the country are still in the hands of armed groups following a succession of conflicts.
“Unlike elephants, pangolins are very difficult to track, and it’s rare to be able to arrest poachers in the act,” said Luis Arranz, the national park representative of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).
“We have to rely on seizures on the road and on our informers.”
In the park’s offices, Arranz opened a metal door to give an idea of the scale of trafficking. Crates on shelves are overflowing with scales that had been destined for the Chinese market. The collection is valued at several hundred thousand euros (dollars).
“Here, many people do that,” said a local hunter, asking not to be named. “A pot of pangolin scales sells for about 30,000 CFA francs (46 euros / $50). If there was work here, people wouldn’t hunt.”


Afghanistan says long-awaited Intra-Afghan talks expected in two weeks 

Updated 01 June 2020

Afghanistan says long-awaited Intra-Afghan talks expected in two weeks 

KABUL: Afghan government and Taliban delegates are expected to begin online talks in mid-June in a bid to end a decades-old conflict in the country, officials told Arab News on Sunday.

While past meetings have been held in person, the latest round of negotiations will take place online because of the threat of coronavirus in the war-ravaged country.

“We see no challenges, the atmosphere and preparations are all set for the talks,” Feraidoon Khawzoon, a spokesman for Abdullah Abdullah, newly appointed chief of the High Council for National Reconciliation, told Arab News.

Negotiations could begin in “the next 10 or 15 days,” he said.

“The announcement of a cease-fire, a reduction in violence and the exchange of prisoners were all requirements for the start of the talks, and we have had progress on them recently,” Khawzoon said.

On Wednesday the Afghan government released a list of 20 delegates due to hold peace talks with the Taliban.

The team will be led by Mohammad Masoom Stanekzai, a former spy chief who has held indirect negotiations with the militants in the past outside Afghanistan, he added.

In the lead-up to the talks, President Ashraf Ghani’s government will release 3,000 more Taliban prisoners, an official close to the Afghan leader told Arab News on condition of anonymity.

More than 2,000 Taliban inmates have already been freed as part of a historic peace deal in February.

In return, the Taliban released hundreds of government troops and, in a surprise move, announced a three-day cease-fire last week for Eid Al-Fitr.

The peace moves follow a buildup in fighting between the two sides despite the pandemic. Taliban attacks killed at least 146 people and injured 430 during Ramadan. 

Fears had been growing that the peace deal signed on Feb. 29 between the Taliban and the US would collapse.

The joint cease-fire followed talks in Qatar last week between the Taliban and Zalmay Khalilzad, US special representative for Afghanistan.

Khalilzad later traveled to Kabul for meetings with Afghan political leaders over a reduction in violence and an exchange of prisoners. 

“We welcome the Taliban’s decision to observe a cease-fire during Eid, as well as the Afghan government reciprocating and announcing its own,” Khalilzad said last Sunday.

Increasing Taliban attacks on government troops, and political infighting between Ghani and Abdullah over who would assume office as president, have delayed the talks.

After Washington failed to reconcile Ghani and Abdullah, both leaders agreed two weeks ago to share power, with Ghani leading the country for another five years and Abdullah appointed as chief of the peace talks.

Khalilzad described the cease-fire agreement as a “momentous opportunity that should not be missed,” and pressed both sides to agree on a new date to start negotiations.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also urged the two sides to start peace talks, with the release of prisoners as a first step. 

Pompeo said that he expected the Taliban “to adhere to their commitment not to allow released prisoners to return to the battlefield.”

Ghani said the release of Taliban inmates would be “expedited” and that his government’s negotiating team was ready to begin talks “as soon as possible.”

Zabihullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Taliban, could not be reached for comment on the Taliban’s stance.

In the past, the group has insisted it will take part in talks with Kabul only after all 5,000 Taliban prisoners are freed.

Experts hope the latest developments are a step in the right direction.

“The Taliban do not seem to have any reservations about the structure of the government team, so the hope is high that the talks will take place by June 15,” Wahidullah Ghazikhail, an analyst, told Arab News.

“Some of Taliban’s field commanders seem to be divided on the talks, hoping to capture power again after the departure of US forces (by next spring), while the political leaders are pushing for a political settlement,” he said.