Images copyright Lwiro Primate Rehabilitation Centre
NEWS – War, WhatsApp and White-bellied pangolins
It is hard enough keeping pangolins safe in countries at peace, but even harder when you are stuck in the middle of a conflict zone. This account of a pangolin rescue had been put together from the WhatApp messages between an incredible team of dedicated conservationist from across the African continent who spent four days moving a pangolin pup approximately 300 km through a war zone.
23 January 2023
A white-bellied pangolin with a pup was retrieved from local militia members by rangers in a reserve near Pinga in the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The rangers contacted Alain Mitondo from UGADEC (Union des Associations de Conservation des Goriles pour le Développment Communautaire a l’Est de la République Démocratique du Congo). UGADEC is based in Goma in the DRC, but has been active in the area around Pinga, where they work closely with local communities on great ape sensitization.
The militia reported that the mother and pup had been together for the four days they had been in captivity, but that no one had seen the pup feeding. Concerned, Alain reached out to a WhatApp group formed in 2022, when he originally contacted Alexis Kriel (African Pangolin Working Group co-chair), for help with a pangolin retrieval.
Apart from Alexis and Alain, the group included Dr. Mark Ofua, a white-bellied pangolin expert from St Marks Animal Hospital in Lagos, Nigeria, Dr Luis Flores, Veterinarian, and Itsaso Velez del Burgo, Technical Director, both from Lwiro Primate Rehabilitation Centre in DRC. She now added Nicci Wright, pangolin rehabilitation specialist and co-chair of the APWG, as well as Omer Paluku, assistant to the Executive Secretary for the UGADEC. As the days went by and the situation became more critical, she would include Lisa Hywood from the Tikki Hywood Foundation, one of the first pangolin conservation groups in the world, and active in pangolin ranges throughout Africa..
Based on the video and photos available, Dr. Mark Ofua estimated that the pup was between 3-4 months old and would still be fed by the mother. They also considered the pup to be too active for its reported starvation and the perhaps the mother had been suckling the pup to her detriment as she was already lethargic. All parties advised that the mother and pup be placed together in a dark and quiet place and if possible, weigh the pup before and after they had been together for some time, to get a sense of whether the pup was feeding.
It was also established that the area around Pinga was not an ideal place to release the pangolins, as previous release attempts had resulted in the pangolins being recaptured and eaten. A plan formed to transport the pangolins by road to UGADEC in Goma, then by boat down Lake Kivu to Bakavu and then a taxi ride from Bakuvu to Lwiro Primate Rehabilitation Centre. The transportation of a stressed-out pangolin and pup the 150 km from Pinga to Goma on a good day in ideal conditions would take more than 5 hours, so the team started weighing up methods and costs. The easiest and most economical way would be by motorbike, but it was decided that a 4×4 vehicle would cause less stress to the pangolin, but it would be much more expensive. The African Pangolin Working Group agreed to fund a 4×4 vehicle for the 2 days it was estimated they would need to get from Goma to Pinga and back.
Late in the evening of the first day, the rangers caring for the mother were anxious about her health as she seemed to be getting weaker, despite being taken out to forage for ants. She was still alive the next morning as the team stepped up efforts to get her to a vet in Goma.
24 January 2023
Money is transferred for the hire of a 4×4 vehicle with a driver in Goma. The vehicle sets off with Alain Mitondo from UGADEC and Désiré Kapitula, the Chief Warden of the Kisimba Ikobo Primate Reserve. In the meantime, the medics on the team advised the people on the ground of the best hydration solution to administer to the mother and contingency plans for feeding the pup should she not survive.
By the evening, the team was waiting for news of the pangolins and of the 4×4 team, but no one could be reached.
January 25 2023
Early on the morning, the chief warden contacted Omer with the news that conflict had broken out between M23 rebels* and the DRC army at Kitshanga and they were stuck at Kiloriwe on the road to Pinga. The 4×4 team could not move forward past Kitchanga, nor could they turn back from Goma. Then the sad news came from Pinga – that the mother pangolin had died.
Now the pressure was on to save the pup. Royal Canin puppy or kitten formula was recommended as the best substitute, but is not available in Pinga, so the team had to fall back on a temporary alternative milk recipe provided by Lisa Hywood.
By midday, Team 4×4 had moved back to Sake (28 km from Goma) and had headed north west on another road toward Masisi to try and get to Pinga via a different route. The pup was in the capable hands of Balume, a community ranger known for his bravery, experienced in animal care, and wildlife transfer.
By late afternoon, Balume had managed to make his way with the pup and the body of the mother from Pinga to Mutongo where he met up with the 4×4 team. The mother’s body was transported in a container separate from the pup so that it could be disposed of in a safe way in case of disease and also because the group did not want her skin and scales to be sold in the trade.
The pangolins were finally on their way to Goma, but due to the lateness of the transfer, they spent a night at Masisi and had to resume their journey the next day.
January 26 2023
By midday, the pangolins had reached Goma, but none of the vets were available, so it was decided to get them to the port as soon as possible to catch the fast boat that leaves for Bukavu at 2 pm.
Both the pup and the body of the mother had been placed on the boat, and the necessary paperwork given to the captain.
Four hours later, the boat arrived at Bukavu port where a taxi was waiting to transport them to Lwiro.
By 8:30pm reports were coming in from Dr Luis Flores. The baby was tiny but active and they were preparing to feed it for the first time since arriving.
January 27 2023
Four days after first being alerted to her plight, this young female white-bellied pangolin pup was named by Alain, the first responder and one of the team who got her from Pinga to Goma. Her name is Sujaa, which is Swahili for courageous.
She continues to thrive under the care of the team at Lwiro Primate Rehabilitation Centre, with guidance from the pangolin specialists in the WhatsApp group. This approach has proven to us that collaboration is the key and it takes a village to save species. The IUCN Pangolin Specialist group’s theme for World Pangolin Day 2023 is “working with communities” which makes this effort by some of its members a perfect way to celebrate the day.
*For more information on the M23 rebels and the conflict, here is some further reading. The human cost of this conflict is widely reported, but conservationist on the ground would also highlight the cost to the wildlife and the environment in the region. They are silent victims in these on-going clashes.