Widely sought for its scales and flesh, which are channeled into the illegal trade to buyers in Asia, pangolins are said to be the world’s most trafficked animal. They face an uncertain future despite acomplete ban on trade in any of the eight pangolin species, agreed to in 2017 under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).
Also known as scaly anteaters, pangolins are unique mammals covered in hard scales made of keratin. Predominantly nocturnal and elusive, these secretive mammals remain understudied and poorly understood.
Two things that can turn the tide for these creatures are further study and greater awareness of their plight, so filmmaker Katie Schuler teamed up with pangolin researcher Matthew Shirley of the Tropical Conservation Institute at Florida International Universityto create a new way to observe their behavior: the Pango-Cam. A camera attached temporarily to a pangolin’s back to provide first-of-its-kind footage, Pango-Cam clips are featured in Schuler’s new film being screened at Jackson Wild, a conservation event in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, from Sept. 21-27, where she will also be speaking.
Mongabay spoke with Schuler about her project, pangolin conservation, and the insights gained from seeing a day in the life of the world’s most trafficked animal.
Mongabay: Why have you devoted so much time and talent topangolinconservation?
Katie Schuler: My storytelling often features the underdogs of the animal kingdom; the lesser-known, bizarre creepy crawlies … things that don’t get made into stuffed animals. Probably because these were the critters I played with growing up. But as an adult, they represent a trove of fascination and discovery, and finding ways to make people fall in love with them is a welcome challenge. Pangolins fit within this niche as the most illegally trafficked mammal that few have ever heard of. But I like to think my colleagues and I have helped their PR over the last several years.
How did you become interested in them?
In 2014, I was living in Palawan, Philippines, during a one-year Henry Luce fellowship. At the time, I had known about pangolins and that they were under threat of extinction, but I didn’t realize that the illegal trade was taking place down the street from my house! I was in a meeting with Nino Rey Estoya, who combats illegal wildlife trafficking on the island. As he described how pangolins are caught and smuggled off the island, I saw images in my head — scenes from what would eventually become my first pangolin film. I went home that day, wrote the entire script, pitched it to Nino and we began what would be over a year of production. We began interviewing undercover informants who were posing as active poachers. One of them told us, “I had an experience where I saw the pangolin looking into my eyes as I was slitting his throat, he seemed to be begging me to stop.” His experience was a big inspiration for the film.
You’re part of a session at Jackson Wild called “Technovation: New Tools for Wildlife Storytelling.” Will you discuss Pango-Cam?
Yes, I’m very excited to be sharing video and results of our initial deployment during the session. One of the greatest challenges in creating conservation strategies for pangolins is that we simply don’t know much about them. Science and data collection is vital to the survival of this species and yet there are very few teams studying them around the world. I wanted to use my skill set as a storyteller to feature one of these teams while also developing tools that enriched both the story and the scientific research being conducted.
After years of admiring the incredible work of NatGeo’s Crittercam engineers, I decided to include the idea of attaching a camera to a pangolin in my NGS Storytelling grant in early 2018. An animal-mounted camera not only gives the audience the feeling of navigating the world as a pangolin, but it also doubles as a great way to document animal behavior, some of which, I hoped, researchers had never encountered before. The NGS grant was awarded in mid-August, and that same month, I was lucky to meet pangolin researcher Dr. Matt Shirley at the Pangolin Symposium. It turns out Matt had the same idea. He assured me that it could be done and that his research project on black-bellied pangolins would be the perfect site for deployment.
How does Pango-Cam work?
In partnership with NGS Exploration Technology Lab and Crittercam engineer Kyler Abernathy, Matt and I (along with advice from expert wildlife filmmaker John Benam) took to designing the world’s first Pango-Cam. In order for the camera to mount properly without undue stress on the animal or inhibiting normal day-to-day behavior, it had to be lightweight (under 100 grams [3.5 ounces] for a black-bellied pangolin), and streamlined along the body.
The attachment needed to remain flexible to accommodate one of the pangolin’s best-known behaviors, its ability to roll into a ball. And the camera needed to be oriented so we could see over the top of the animal’s head to get that “first pangolin” (first person) perspective. It also had to be waterproof, should it rain or in case the pangolin decided to swim across the river! I didn’t realize pangolins could swim but Matt and his team have evidence from their tracking data.
One more expensive but necessary modification was to mount a very small VHF radio transmitter directly on the camera in a scenario where the camera became dislodged from the animal. We had to make sure this transmitter had its own unique radio frequency so it did not interfere with the other tagged pangolins in the area.
To solve these challenges, we took a modified spy camera, cemented it in a water-tight housing, and added a “T” of straps to maintain the position on the body. Matt and other researchers have had success attaching radio transmitters to the scales, which are made of keratin just like our fingernails. Similar to when we trim our fingernails, a pangolin won’t feel pain by having something attached to his scales. Finally, we modified it to accommodate a larger battery so that we could program a longer record time: 24-hours of raw animal behavior.
Finally, we’d have a glimpse into “a day-in-the-life-of” a pangolin. I was privileged to follow Dr. Matt Shirley and his Ivorian Ph.D. student, Mathieu Assovi, during their fieldwork in Côte d’Ivoire. With the permission of the village chief, they gained access to a remote swamp forest using inflatable kayaks to navigate the river. They set out to find, tag, and collect data on black-bellied pangolins with the help of a former pangolin hunter turned research assistant and conservationist — Konan Kouassi — who later would end up being one of the main characters in my film.
Konan possessed what I can only describe as a “super-power” for finding pangolins. Not too many months earlier, he was known by locals as the “Master Pangolin Hunter.” If a pangolin was hiding in a nearby tree, he can make out the subtle difference in the sound it made from a bird or a squirrel. If the pangolin was feeding, Konan could smell the formic acid produced by the ants. In Konan’s interview, he boasts that when he went out to catch pangolins, he would come back with 4 or 5 in one day, more than he could eat. But through his work with Matt’s team, he now says that his God-given superpower was meant for a different purpose: conservation.
Are these animals ones from the wildlife trade that are recuperating in rescue centers?
No, the Pango-Cams are on wild, free-ranging pangolins. When I arrived, Matt, Mathieu, and Konan had already tagged several wild pangolins and we intended to locate one of these individuals for a Pango-Cam test run. But we got lucky and Konan found a brand new individual. We carefully transported the pangolin across the river to a spot with better terrain to stand on. Wild black-bellied pangolins are extremely shy and stay curled up in their defensive ball pretty much the entire time you are with them. Once the team collected all the necessary samples and data, taking extra care to limit stress to the animal, Matt and I quickly and gently attached the camera. Now it was time to put our Pango-Cam to the test.
What insights, personal or professional, have you gained from the Pango-Cam so far?
We did all of our footage backups at night using our laptops, sometimes powered by solar batteries and sometimes powered by a gas generator. Picture a hot, steamy closet filled with camp chairs and a bright screen that attracts every kid in the village. We popped in the media card from our very first 30-minute test-run and watched with excitement.
After all our hard work and planning to deploy this creative storytelling tool, we were finally seeing the results — the first-ever footage captured by a pangolin, from the animal’s perspective and documenting natural behavior of a wild black-bellied pangolin.
We really started freaking out and exchanging high-fives in the dark when she began devouring an ant nest. It was amazing to watch her find the nest and to hear the sound of her tongue lapping up the ants. We knew this was only the beginning and put a plan in motion to capture as much Pango-Cam footage as possible.
This footage will help us better understand what pangolins are doing with their day, the resources they use — like the type of ants they eat and the trees they prefer to sleep in — and the threats they face. Wild pangolins are nearly impossible to observe and tools like Pango-Cam may be the only way to glimpse the lives of these secretive creatures.
I was lucky to spend a couple of weeks documenting the vital research being done on the black-bellied pangolin by this team. I’m excited to share the resulting documentary with audiences in the coming months in an effort to inspire more people to value and support science and research of pangolins.
Your new film makes a point that even Nigerian wildlife vets didn’t know their country has pangolins, due to the massive trafficking problem that makes them rare.Mongabay just covered this problem in Nigeria, too, so do you see awareness growing there and beyond, and where/in what do you find hope for the future of pangolins?
The film we have in this year’s festival was shot in Lagos, Nigeria, one of the largest (if not the largest) hub for illegal pangolin trade in Africa. We came to document how the illegal trade operates. Instead, we came away with an entirely different story about the people going to extreme lengths to save this threatened animal.
Most notably the star of our story is Dr. Mark Ofua, a veterinarian who, at risk to his own safety and career, regularly visits bushmeat markets to rescue and rehabilitate pangolins. We witnessed him do this with eight different pangolins in two weeks, including some baby pangolins that were separated from their mothers. The highlight for me and my crew was witnessing Mark releasing these lucky pangolins in a protected forest. “Every pangolin counts!” he says.
Mark often visits schools to teach people about pangolins and he hopes to inspire a new generation of pangolin advocates in Lagos and beyond, one person and one pangolin at a time. To keep myself from operating in a bubble of pangolin love and support, I keep a close watch on newly reported pangolin seizures (which are often measured in tons of scales) and sobering news alerts coming out of Africa and Asia.
That said, the longer I work on pangolins, the luckier I feel to have joined the wave of support and awareness around these species. More stories and documentaries have come out, more research projects are deployed, and more people know what a pangolin is and care about saving them. In spite of news headlines and mind-blowing seizure numbers, this family of support energizes my work and keeps my spirits high.
Your 2016 film Pangolin won multiple awards, and this new one above is also nominated for multiple awards at the Jackson Wild event. What new tools, science, and insights did you employ in this new entry?
With every story I produce, I explore new techniques and ways to better immerse audiences in the story. I look forward to working with my partners on Pango-Cam version 2.0 and I encourage other filmmakers to collaborate with engineers and scientists to create new avenues for audience empathy.
Another aim with this year’s film (and one featuring Matt’s team soon to be completed) is to inspire a new generation of pangolin advocates by highlighting pangolin heroes in Africa. It was important to me to avoid falling into the trap of featuring a white-savior figure, when in fact, the community in Lagos, and more generally African conservation advocates across the continent, are leveraging their networks and inspiring their communities to help save the world’s most illegally trafficked mammal.
People like Mark Ofua, Mathieu Assovi, and Konan Koffi are the embodiment of this and are real inspirations. I sincerely hope that people sit up and take notice of their incredible work.
Katie Schuler will speak at the Jackson Wild Summit that runs in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, from Sept. 21-27. Her film, Nigerians fight to protect the world’s most trafficked mammal, has been nominated for awards at the event. More information and registration for the event is here.
Editor’s note: This interview was conducted via email; Matthew Shirley advised Katie Schuler on how to answer some of Mongabay’s questions concerning his team’s research.
Additional credits: The Pango-Cam project was supported by a storytelling grant from the National Geographic Society. Fabrication & technical support by Kyler Abernathy, Crittercam/NGS Exploration Technology Lab.
This article was first published by Mongabay.com on 16 September 2019.