Zimbabwe’s wildlife landscape is endowed with 350 species of mammals, more than 500 birds and 131 fish species all of which adorn its environment but the increasing number of poaching cases means the wildlife faces and existential threat.
Among the commonly reported major wildlife crimes are the illicit trade in wildlife products, failure to comply with existing wildlife laws and the capturing of the near extinct pangolin which has dubbed it the most trafficked mammal.
The most prevalent species of the pangolin in Zimbabwe is the Temminck’s Ground which is commonly found in Chimanimani, Hwange, and Gonarezhou areas; grassland woody areas with easy access to water.
Many people in Zimbabwe have never seen a pangolin; a rare species which bears the brunt of severe poaching due to the rise of its value on the illegal wildlife trade market.
Pangolins have been highly sought for centuries as their flesh is considered a delicacy, and its scales an integral part of traditional medicine responsible for treatment of cancer, inflammation, and other ailments in most Asian countries.
In some regions of China, pangolin flesh is believed to be nutritious and has properties which improve renal function. Some restaurants in Vietnam actually charge up to $150 per pound for pangolin meat.
The African Wildlife Foundation notes that as overexploitation of Pangolins in Asian range states depleted populations, poachers turned to its counterparts in Africa, wiping out anywhere from 400 000 to 2.7 million of the mammals annually in the 14 African range countries and that the animal is being hunted and ferried across faster than it can breed.
Studies have shown that the world over, pangolin prices are on the rise, fetching upwards of US$600/kg today in comparison to US$14/kg during the 1990s. Scales processed for use in traditional medicine are roasted or dried, fetching almost three times the price in retail shops.
All eights world pangolin species including those found in Zimbabwe are considered threatened with extinction on the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, where they are categorised as Critically Endangered, Endangered or Vulnerable.
It is such worrisome developments that have compelled Zimbabwe-based Tikki Hywood Foundation (THF) to work for greater recognition, awareness and conservation action of lesser known endangered species such as pangolins.
In June 2017 the foundation partnered with the Gonarezhou Conservation Trust and introduced the Ground Pangolin Re-introduction Program aimed at reintroducing to the wild pangolins that would have been rescued from the illegal trade by the general public.
In a December 29, 2022 Facebook post, THF says the introduction of the ground pangolin re-introduction should follow improved ways of conserving the endangered animal.
“As conservationists, it is terrifying to know that there is this medium sized mammal that is on the brink of extinction and we know so little about it. It is especially challenging to rehabilitate this species and re-introduce it to a safe environment, without the basic knowledge of habits and behaviors, distribution and interaction with the same species and others. We needed to find answers, to help the pangolins we were rescuing and to blaze a trail for other conservation efforts to follow,” the post reads.
THF declined to respond to follow-up questions pertaining to the exact numbers they had re-introduced to the wild citing the sensitivities of the issue.
However, the Gonarezhou Conservation Trust (GCT), on their website, suggest that many pangolins have been released into their care by THF.
“Pangolins that meet the criteria for release are brought to Gonarezhou and are placed in the care of trained staff; half from THF and half from GCT. They are introduced to the habitats and environmental conditions of Gonarezhou, and over a period of a few weeks they are taken on daily foraging excursions where the minders make sure that they are able to successfully forage by themselves and navigate their way around the landscape without losing condition. On release they are equipped with VHF and or GPS trackers, and, the pangolin project staff are then able to follow up on their movements and verify that they are maintaining their condition during the first crucial weeks after their release,” the information reads in part.
Under the Parks and Wildlife Act, the illegal owning or selling of a pangolin can result in a nine-year-long minimum mandatory sentence.
“Recently, more pangolin poachers have been found guilty of possession in Zimbabwe than any other African country, and they are currently serving their sentences,’’ said Tinashe Farawo, ZimParks spokesperson.
Zimparks is the country’s wildlife management body which operates game reserves and national parks.