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The first pangolin Lisa Hywood ever saw was handed to her in a smelly sack. It had been rescued from traffickers, and was in a distressed state.

“I saw this most amazing eye looking up at me,” Hywood, a Zimbabwean conservationist, recalls. “It was a real, live pangolin, and I had no idea what the hell I was going to do with it.”

It was the beginning of her decades-long journey to save the pangolin, and raise awareness about the animal that most people have never heard of. This scaly, nocturnal creature is rarely seen, yet its scales, and even its foetuses, are highly coveted in Asia, particularly China, for their supposed healing properties.

Now, her efforts have received a stimulus in the shape of support from Patrick Mavros, a luxury jeweller that has its roots in Zimbabwe.

Earlier this month, the jeweller launched its Pangolin Collection, with 10 percent of all proceeds going towards the Tikki Hywood Trust, the conservation organisation set up by Lisa in memory of her late father.

“Most of our jewellery is very literal,” says Patrick Mavros Jr during the recent launch in Nairobi. “But pangolins are weird-looking animals, so if you design a bangle with its funny head, big claws, beady tongue, not many will like it. I took the more defining characteristic, which is the scales.”

Hywood adds: “The pangolin is being pushed to extinction because of their scales. That Patrick is creating something beautiful out of the very subject that is the cause of its demise seems rather fitting. It is now a part of saving the animal.”

[Photo/Adrian Steirn]

Since the mid-1990s, Hywood has taken 141 pangolins into the Tikki Hywood Trust’s sanctuary in Zimbabwe. The majority are rescued in a distressed state from the illegal trade.

“By the time we get many of these pangolin, they have been kept in captivity from a week to 10 days,” says Hywood. “They put them in these barbaric containers, lined with diesel and oil. They don’t offer them even water. The pangolins are forced to defecate and urinate on themselves, they have terrible wounds on their hands from trying to escape, together with multiple skin burns from being in their own urine.”

Hywood helps them recover, before releasing them back into the wild.

Every pangolin has its own human minder, who teaches the animal to forage for ants and termites, scrabbling in the dirt, and opening up termite mounds, sometimes for several hours a day.

The idea for the pangolin jewellery range came, Mavros recalls, after sitting down with Lisa, where she told him she was being “swamped” with pangolins. “I said, ‘Let’s offer the best collection we’ve ever done,” recalls Mavros.

His father, and founder of the Patrick Mavros brand, created a small pangolin jewellery collection after someone brought him a pangolin. His father took it to Robert Mugabe, the new president of Zimbabwe, as it is the highest honor you can bestow, with only a chief allowed to decide what should become of it.

The gesture awakened a storm of publicity, and a rush to protect this strange, little creature.

The plight of the pangolin is receiving increasing international attention. Last autumn, 182 nations of the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) agreed to a total ban in trade of all species of pangolin.

In Zimbabwe, Hywood has been instrumental in working with the government and the judiciary to treat the trafficking of pangolins as a commercially-motivated crime, carrying with it a mandatory nine-year jail sentence. In 2016 in Zimbabwe, 114 pangolin poachers were arrested with 52 convicted to the minimum term.

But in many countries, including Kenya, which has the ground pangolin, poaching of the animal has historically been treated less severely, those apprehended in practice likely to receive a small fine and a warning.

If the recoveries of pangolin scales are anything to go by, thousands are being killed every year.

Just one kilogramme of pangolin scales (20-30% of the pangolin’s weight) can come from two or three dead animals, and can fetch up to $3,000 on the black market. Last December, Chinese authorities confiscated 3.4 tons of illegally-trafficked pangolin scales imported from Africa, representing between 5,000-7,500 pangolins.

But scant information about the pangolin makes it hard to protect. Very little is known globally about the pangolin, from its territorial habits to reproduction, even to how long do they live.

Moreover, nobody is sure just how many pangolins exist in Africa or Asia, their other main habitat.

“It is a silent war,” says Hywood. “We don’t how many we have, so we don’t know how many we have to save.”

Patrick Mavros Jr. [Photo/Adrian Steirn]

Patrick Mavros Jr. [Photo/Adrian Steirn]

Five interesting facts about the pangolin:

  1. A pangolin’s tongue can be up to 40 cm long. The tongue, which starts deep in the chest, is sometimes longer than its own body. They use their sticky tongues to gather up insects.
  2. Pangolins are the only animals in the world covered in scales. Their scales are made out of keratin, the same material of which our nails and rhino horns are made.
  3. They protect themselves by letting off a foul odour. Threatened pangolins roll up into a ball – handy for fending off lions, less so for deterring humans – and give off a skunk-like smell.
  4. They are very maternal. Females carry baby pangolins on their tails for their first three months of life, and when they roll up into a protective curl, the baby is embraced within.
  5. There are eight different types of pangolin. Four of them – the giant pangolin, the white-bellied pangolin, the ground pangolin, and the long-tailed pangolin – are found in Africa.

If you wish to donate to the Tikki Hywood Trust, visit their website, tikkihywoodtrust.org

Patrick Mavros has a store in Village Market, Nairobi, as well as London, Mauritius and Harare.  www.patrickmavros.com

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