What Is This Young Nigerian Scientist’s Passion? Pangolins!

Long-tailed pangolin (Phataginus tetradactyla), Mangamba, Littoral Province, Cameroon. Image: Getty

Charles Emogor’s childhood passion for nature, forged while growing up in rural Nigeria, will soon take him back to his home country to study his favorite animal: the pangolin.

According to Emogor, there is an urgency to understand and protect this quirky animal: It is the world’s most trafficked mammal, with more than one million individuals are believed to have been taken from the wild between 2004 and 2014.

While the species that Emogor is most passionate about is the White-bellied Pangolin, which is found across tropical Sub-Saharan Africa, 8 species exist in the world, with four each in Asia and Africa. The White-bellied Pangolin was recently reclassified from vulnerable to endangered.

“A few years ago, when I was doing other field work in Nigeria, I was in the forest for two years, “ he said, “but in that work, I only ever saw them in the local bush meat market.

Now, he’s studying a doctorate in zoological studies at Cambridge that is going to take him back to Nigeria.

“I'm going to be doing the first ever pangolin research in the Cross River Rainforest in Nigeria,” he said.

According to Emogor, pangolins fill an important ecological niche.

“They maintain a balance of insects, particularly ants and termites, “ he said, “but they usually aren’t prey animals because they are pretty hard to prey on once they roll up.”

Part of the reason why this defense mechanism works is that Pangolins have something no other living mammal has: large scales made of keratin, the same protein that makes up fingernails and toenails in humans.

“It’s not big or fierce like a lion or a cheetah, but there’s something the public an plug into,” he said.

But these creatures are notoriously hard to study – and becoming more so as they are threatened by local bushmeat demand and international trafficking.

According to Emogor, the international trade in scales and meat is even a bigger threat.

“Most of the demand comes from China, Vietnam, Germany and the US – for China, the demand comes from their scales for use in traditional medicine.”

Emogor says the demand out of Vietnam is quite different – a hallmark of prosperity.

“In Vietnam, it is a luxury wild meat, it is eaten as an exotic luxury.”

Emogor is joining a growing number of scientists across the African continent who are using a combination of old-fashioned on-the-ground field work and the latest technology to study the biodiversity in tropical zones.

For example, a project focusing on low-costs, high-quality sensors underwent field trials in December.

The team from FieldKit, including Shah Selbe – founder, engineer and conservation technologist at Conservify – will be putting up a long range wide-area network (LoRaWAN) around the Congo Basin Institute Bouamir research camp in the Dja Reserve in Cameroon and deploying a new generation of weather stations.

In Senegal, Lucy Keith-Diagne did her PhD work collecting and analyzing genetic samples, which made her the first person to define four distinct genetic populations of the species of African Manatee.

Even with the dire straits pangolins find themselves in across Africa, there is hope to be found.

“Cameroon has a great conservation group and in South Africa, there are some good Pangolin researchers,” he said.

Emogor says that more and more funding is available and they even have their own day: World Pangolin Day on the third Saturday of every February.