Unaware of the price on its head, the hapless pangolin scurried across the jungle floor; most likely it was looking for ants, which the creatures gleefully scoop up with their long, sticky tongues. But Cambodia’s forests can spring nasty surprises on unsuspecting animals and the pangolin’s foraging trip was cut violently short when a poacher’s snare snagged its scaly feet.
“By the time we arrived the poor thing was a mess,” recalls Suwanna Gauntlett, CEO of the Wildlife Alliance, which runs conservation projects all over the world, including Cardamom Tented Camp, an eco-lodge in Cambodia – one of three organisations shortlisted for Tourism for Tomorrow’s Changemakers award, which acknowledges organisations using tourism to tackle the illegal wildlife trade.
The tangled pangolin was freed from the snare and taken to a rehabilitation centre run by the alliance, where it now hobbles around, “as happy as a clam”, with a new partner. “She’s mothering her third litter now and doing just great,” reports Gauntlett. “When the baby pangolins are old enough, we’ll release them into the forest.”
Although the African elephant is often held up as the poster child of the anti-poaching movement, the pangolin is perhaps a more appropriate symbol. Believed to be the most trafficked animal on Earth, this creature has been mercilessly hunted for its scales, which are used in Chinese medicine to treat various ills, despite scientists insisting they have no health benefits.
Those scales, little plates of armour that are supposed to protect pangolins from predators, fetch up to £360 per kilo on the black market, a sizeable sum anywhere, and especially in poor countries like Cambodia. Consequently, numbers of the once-abundant creatures have plummeted in Asia, as poachers attempt to cash in on the illegal wildlife trade, a global industry worth around £15 billion annually.
The sad reality is that you could make a case for any number of species to be chosen to front the anti-poaching campaign: from elephants to sharks, parrots to pangolins, the illegal wildlife trade has thousands of victims. As a result, many species are on the brink.
But against this bleak backdrop there are reasons to be hopeful. The booming global tourist industry and greater public awareness about conservation is fuelling the growing trend for responsible travel.
More than ever, holidaymakers are demanding trips that not only have minimal impact on the environment, but also help to preserve it. And they have a growing number of responsible tour operators, accommodation providers and destinations to choose from, which between them have an important role to play in conservation.
This is something that deserves to be commended, because fighting poaching can be a dangerous game. Cambodian wildlife ranger, Kheng Sokheng Chum, will attest to that. Many years ago, he and some colleagues were shot at by poachers as they slept in hammocks in the jungle.