By Rebecca Bloomfield
In April, Lilongwe Wildlife Centre was alerted to a female pangolin at Kumuzu International Airport. The pangolin was transported to the Centre to undergo a health check before we released her back into the wild where she belongs. But we couldn’t help but wonder where she had come from; how did she get to the airport in the first place? To find answers to our questions, we spoke to Wildlife Officer Paul Munthali, the man who rescued her.
Paul has been a Wildlife Officer at Kumuzu Airport for around a year, but has worked for the Department of National Parks and Wildlife for 25 years and shows a keen dedication to protecting Malawi’s wildlife. When he tells us that he was the one to find the pangolin, there’s an expression of delight on his face. It’s not surprising that he’s pleased to have been the one to rescue the animal – pangolin populations have been decreasing worldwide due to a demand for their keratin scales and a false assumption that eating their meat will result in good health. To aid one of these creatures and prevent it from coming to harm is an impressive feat.
Cycling to work one morning, Paul noticed a large group of people had gathered at the roadside. Armed with bricks and petrol, they seemed to be causing a commotion and were crowded around what looked like an animal. Quick to investigate, Paul drew closer and saw that the animal surrounded by the group was a pangolin. Despite being native to Malawi, pangolins are elusive and incredibly difficult to see in the wild. It was likely that the people looking at it had never seen one – and in fact, this was the first time that Paul himself had seen a pangolin.
Unfortunately, this lack of public exposure to pangolins does not work in the animal’s favour. Many myths and stories surround pangolins in Malawi, with some people believing them to be magical and others so unaware of what they are that the scaly-bodied animals seem alien or fictitious. This misunderstanding and ignorance was enough to cause fear and concern, resulting in people trying to burn the animal with petrol and throw bricks at it in an attempt to ward off the ‘magic’ that it might curse them with.
Paul, however, despite never having seen a pangolin, identified the animal and knew that it was a protected species (DNPW laws). He swiftly phoned his supervisor, Ibrahim Mkandawire, who came to assist. Protecting the pangolin from onlookers, Paul put the animal in his laptop case and cycled back to his house to find a cardboard box to transport it in. The pangolin was moved into the box, but those who assumed it to be a threat attempted to stop Paul, Ibrahim, and the pangolin, from going anywhere. The trio managed to get away, but the bicycle Paul had been cycling on was destroyed in the process.
Paul and Ibrahim managed to transport the pangolin to the airport where they hid it away in one of the conference rooms and called Lilongwe Wildlife Trust so that the animal could be taken to the Centre and checked over by our vet. We are extremely grateful to Paul and Ibrahim, and indeed the entire Wildlife Team at Kamuzu International Airport, for their continued efforts in helping to save Malawi’s wildlife. Discovering the story behind the pangolin’s rescue has given us an insight into further conservation education requirements. We believe that greater exposure to photographs of pangolins and education materials on their protected status will help to prevent similar situations such as this from happening again, and we aim to implement these ideas in the near future.