Stevie – The Teacher
by Alexis Kriel – Co-Chair – African Pangolin Working Group
On the 21st of June, a young pangolin named Stevie, weighing 2.6kg, was confiscated in a sting operation orchestrated by the South African Police Services, the Stock Theft and Endangered Species Unit and the African Pangolin Working Group. He was hand-reared by Dr Kelsey Skinner of the Johannesburg Wildlife Veterinary Hospital and eventually released at Manyoni Private Game Reserve, where he is tracked via telemetry provided by The Boucher Legacy. Every set of rescue operations presents its own set of difficulties and successes. Stevie’s rescue is a tale of perseverance and commitment, and it also serves as a true testament to what can be achieved through collaboration. Below is a chronicle of Stevie’s story by Alexis Kriel of the African Pangolin Working Group.
As with all our pangolin rescue missions, the team working against the clock to save Stevie hoped that the situation would be favourable and that Stevie would be safely delivered into their arms. Pangolin Stevie emerged from the hands of his captors with a cabbage leaf on his head, which was particularly worrying as Pangolins don’t eat cabbage leaves – they are myrmecophagous (which means they eat ants). As a result of the unsuitable diet, Stevie was starving and dehydrated – he wouldn’t have been able to eat ants at that point; he was still a suckling pup that needed his mother to survive.
He was named after the Investigating Officer who retrieved him out of a box from the trade and delivered him into the world of warriors and soldiers – the men and women who are on the frontline of the war against poaching and the illegal wildlife trade that is currently worth approximately $23 billion a year. It is one of the most lucrative illegal businesses, often run by sophisticated, international, well-organised criminal networks seeking to exploit the high rewards and the low risks of the trade and the fact that wildlife crime is not considered a priority crime. What lies in the hearts and minds of the people involved in these crimes? Pangolins are a ToPS (Threatened or Protected Species) and the maximum sentence for being in possession of a pangolin – or its derivatives – is ten years or R10 million. When we account for the amounts being asked in the illegal sale of pangolin in South Africa, there is undoubtedly knowledge of the values of these animals on the illegal international market. We see the attributes of organised crime as more and more a feature of this trade in South Africa, and whoever is involved in it is a criminal and must understand that crime doesn’t pay. However, there are socio-economic factors that play a role in animal poaching. Where there is poverty, alternate livelihoods need to be created so that there are options for the desperate people driven to crime when they have no other alternative. The effects of crime extend outwards – like a stone thrown into the water, it creates concentric circles around it. Animal crime has been linked to other crimes and whoever takes a step into the labyrinth of lawlessness takes a divergent tangent into hard-heartedness that will undoubtedly have consequences. There isn’t any one of Stevie’s rescuers that didn’t have an emotional response to his situation. He was a vulnerable baby that was the victim of a poaching incident – separated from his mother, when he would still have been suckling, and stolen from the possibility of wildlife. Where would he have ended up if he hadn’t been rescued? We believe that most pangolins die in the trade, not just from starvation and dehydration but also from animal abuse due to how they have been handled or the wounding they come by in their efforts to escape.
Stevie was transported to the Johannesburg Wildlife Veterinary Hospital’s offsite pangolin ward into the hands of Dr Kelsey Skinner, who is a pangolin specialist vet, but had never dealt with such a young pup. She describes the experience of hand-raising Stevie as “indescribable” and “unimaginable”. When she recalls their first encounter, Dr Kelsey says: “I did the admissions protocol, but inside I was screaming and so terrified when I saw how small he was. I knew he would require a different level of care and that it was a very delicate make-or-break situation.” After just a few hours, with Dr Kelsey holding him and trying to feed him, in a way that he’d never been handled before, with milk from a bottle that was utterly foreign to him, this tiny, scared, and brave creature took tentative steps into a strange world and became a survivor. She tells me that “the fact that this pangolin has done so well speaks of his character”; even after what he’d gone through – he was trusting and confident…a stubborn little creature who eventually accepted her help. “I imagine it was what it would feel like with your child – and we went through it together – an emotional journey from terror and fear to relief and confidence, and then to being in complete awe.”
Stevie has been life-changing for all who were part of this chapter – a pangolin that touched many people’s lives. Gareth Thomas is a filmmaker, photographer, and businessman. In his spare time, he “walks” pangolins. He is also an alternate thinker that inspires me when he shares his thoughts. When Stevie was ready to go onto his next phase of rehabilitation – which was to be introduced and supported in a natural landscape where he could hone his skills – he was allocated to Gareth, who is known for having “a way with pangolins”. Stevie taught Gareth, and Gareth taught me. Because I’m hanging on his every word, I’ll include what he says about Stevie verbatim and hope that you, too, can catch a moment with two precious souls and imagine a world where animals and humans share this planet with conscious appreciation.
Gareth Thomas: “Sorry, I can’t really talk much about the mundane activities; it’s just not what we shared….”
“The privilege of being trusted to be a carer for Stevie was nothing I could have imagined. You see, I thought I was caring for Stevie, but it was Stevie who cared for me. Sure, I picked him up every day, took him walking, helped him find food and forage, played with him and gave him as much stimulation as possible, but this pangolin activated a nurturing side to me that I didn’t even know existed. Watching Stevie, as a young pangolin pup, explore the world around him allowed me to explore the world with him in a way I hadn’t before, intimately and innocently. Everything with Stevie became a new experience, new smells, new sounds and, new sights, even new tastes. Stevie taught me how to forgive and forget, to be present and open and playful; he was so so playful! There were moments I felt the loss that Stevie had suffered, having had his mother stolen from him, but as time passed and he let go… so did I. No amount of resentment for Stevie’s poachers would ever serve his well-being or reunite him with his mother. What Stevie needed was love, compassion and companionship in the present, not hate and regret for the past. He showed me that.”
“Forming such a close and trusted bond with this magical being allowed me to recognise a personality and charm within him, an individuality which we would normally not be privileged to witness in wild animals, especially in such a shy and rarely encountered species like a pangolin. Stevie slowly became more Stevie than a pangolin for me. I began recognising him, his awareness, his consciousness and being, more than his physical body. He listened to me, and I listened to him; he recognised me at the same level I recognised him, maybe even more. “Stevie taught me and allowed me to experience an awareness within our natural world, the very same awareness which, when I let go of my own identity, was and is within all of us. Stevie taught me that while we may be separate in body, we are singular in being, that the awareness I recognised in Stevie was the same awareness with which Stevie recognised me. He allowed me to experience what all the great sages, gurus and mystics have described as the ultimate reality – Oneness.
“Stevie taught me that personality, charm, character and awareness can be found within everything from a grain of sand to the entire cosmos. The inability to identify these characteristics is not a reflection of their absence but rather the presence of a limitation within us. Stevie, like all great teachers, removed my limitations and allowed me to see the world around me for what it is; a mind-bending tapestry of the interconnectedness of which each and every cell in the universe is a part of, not a single cell separate from another, each and every one integral to the experience of each of the others. I do miss this mystical little teacher; I think about him all the time, running around out there in the wild, living his best life. He was always so happy to answer all of my questions. He once explained to me how it isn’t pangolins that need saving; it’s us! We’re the ones that have become disconnected; it’s the heart and soul of humanity that needs saving.”
It made sense that Dr Kelsey and Gareth would drive Stevie to his final destination, which was a soft-release process at Manyoni Private Game Reserve. Stevie adapted very quickly in his soft release process. He needed almost no help at all with learning how to find food and was a very easy pangolin to re-wild. Towards the end of his supported introduction to a wild territory, Stevie was introduced to the burrow chosen for him. He spent the rest of the time excavating the burrow, creating a place for himself that was to his liking. On release, he slept in the burrow at night and has not left the area since. From 2.6 kg and a box of cabbage leaves, Stevie now weighs 8.76 kg. He is quickly becoming a strong, wild pangolin. It is exactly a year since he was confiscated from the illegal trade. It is a success story attributed to South African law enforcement personnel, the vets, rehabilitation specialists, pangolin shepherds, field managers and private game reserves that have dedicated many months to his well-being. The African Pangolin Working Group would not be able to continue to research the success of its slow-release protocol without telemetry provided by the Boucher Legacy, where stories like Stevie’s, inform the best care for every pangolin that is confiscated for the illegal trade.