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Postcards from the field: Pangolin surprise

Researcher Lauren Coad received a surprise on her birthday – and it wasn't a cake
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Africa - Instead of a birthday cake, a hunting community surprised researcher Lauren Coad with pangolin stew.

“They were like, ‘bon anniversaire!’ and there’s a pangolin in a pot.  Pangolin stew with a little candle on the top. It’s probably the weirdest birthday present I’ve ever received.”

Of course, she had to eat it – or seem terribly rude.

A decade ago, during her PhD fieldwork on wildlife hunting in Central Africa, Coad lived for two years in a remote forest village in Gabon.

There was no electricity, no running water, no cellphone reception, no refrigeration – and few livestock, which were kept as a form of savings account, that could be used on a rainy day, rather than a daily source of meat. People relied on bushmeat for almost all their protein.

“When you figure it out, they’re eating roughly the same amount of meat as we do in the West, it’s just that ours comes from farmed animals, and theirs comes from the forest. If you don’t go out into the forest and hunt you’re not going to eat anything.”

It’s probably the weirdest birthday present I’ve ever received

Lauren Coad, researcher
   An unusual birthday surprise: pangolin stew. CIFOR Photo/Lauren Coad

Hunting is still crucial for people’s livelihoods, but other aspects of life have changed dramatically, she says. Now, the village has solar-powered lights, “and I’m Facebook friends with some of the hunters’ sons.”

Pangolins still frequently turn up in the hunters’ catch.

“Where I was living, pangolin stew was a normal food.”

While local communities are reliant on wild meat for their basic livelihood needs – such as food and income – pressure on Central Africa’s pangolins has increased over the past decades, due to the international trade in pangolin scales as a traditional medicine, mainly for consumption in China.

“Consumption of small animals by local communities can be sustainable,” says Coad, “but the increased pressure from this international trade is a big threat to pangolins, and we have already seen big declines in Asian pangolins as a result.”

The data Coad collected in Gabon is just one component of 161 sites in Central Africa she and colleagues from the Center for International Forestry Research and the University of Sussex collated to try to understand hunting pressure on pangolins across the continent.  They found millions are being taken every year, hunting is increasing, and the price in urban markets is increasing.

   Hunters in Gabon, Central Africa. CIFOR Photo/Lauren Coad
   The local village. CIFOR Photo/Lauren Coad

Until recently, few people had heard of the pangolin outside of its homelands in Africa and Asia – but their plight is starting to attract global attention. The scaly creature is a favourite of David Attenborough and Prince William, it was highlighted in a New York Times editorial, and this year Google even made a game about pangolins for Valentines Day.

The pangolin’s newfound fame is well deserved, says Coad.

“It’s this awesome mixture of animals, you look at it and think it’s like part anteater, part fish, part armadillo. It’s this little scaly dude that looks like a dinosaur with a really long tongue. I think they just sort of capture people’s imagination.”

   CIFOR Photo/Lauren Coad
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This research was supported by USAID, UKAID and the European Union under the Bushmeat Research Initiative
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