Facebook advertised: “We need volunteers to look after our baby black bellied pangolin – Sangha Lodge, Central African Republic.” ALEXIS KRIEL replied: “I’ll come.”
This is typical of me – I also lived in an Indian temple for 10 years. I do all this without thinking. If I had known it was the hot season up there, that the rainforest is a brutal place, and that I would fall hopelessly in love with pangolins, I may have reconsidered.
Rod Cassidy, the owner of Sangha Lodge, wrote to me: “This means sleeping in the same bed as a baby pangolin every night, to ensure it does not get cold….”
I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. I am trained in wildlife rehabilitation. Besides the work with pangolins, I wanted to force myself to disengage with the city to get more tied up with nature.
Sangha Lodge is in a clearing of the equatorial rain forest, near the small town of Bayanga – three days travel from Yaoundé (in the Cameroon), on a journey I can only liken to being on a “suicide mission” with a maniacal driver. The temperature is 40 degrees on a cool day, malaria is rife – people die of anything from typhoid to leprosy. There is no hospital; no doctor to call – if your illness is serious (and you have insurance) you get flown out. In the meantime you self medicate.
Africa is primal – you look right into the eyes of the savage face of nature. It is more wildly beautiful than anything I’ve ever seen. Standing on a tipping point, as you consider your own mortality, you think of running scared, but you jump –you lose your fear and you know that nothing will ever be impossible again.
In the Central African Republic, where life began, is the miraculous eco-system of the equatorial rain forest. There are flocks of African grey parrots and great blue turaco’s. Ba’aka pygmies still live in the deep forest, beneath the solid canopy of trees, where you can’t see the sky.
The Ba’aka would lead us on ant foraging expeditions into the forest and their deep knowledge of nature was evident. They are related to the San Bushmen – the last of the remaining real indigenous tribes on earth. When you forage in the rain forest, you see how it provides for all the animals that live there. It is a crisis, that the rainforests, which support 50% of all plant and animal species on the planet, are being destroyed at a rate of 20 000 square miles a year.
Sangha Lodge are an eco lodge on the banks of the Sangha River, in close proximity to Dzanga Sangha Reserve where one can walk with silverback gorillas. They also take in orphaned or injured animals for rehabilitation and release back into the wild.
Pangolins are endangered – their scales are prized for curing cancer – this has never been proved – scales are made from keratin.
Their meat is considered a delicacy and they have the sad distinction of being the most poached animal on the planet.
The delicate black-bellied pangolin that I looked after weighed 500g. They live in the middle canopy of the rainforest and eat ants. There can be up to 200 different species of ants found on any one tree in a rain forest. And it also gives you a sense of the super nature in these parts.
When I left, I flew out by chartered flight, over thousands of miles of rain forest – the occasional dirt roads that you see from above are the dirty vein of the logging industry.
My time with a pangolin in the rain forest has left me with a residual feeling of miraculousness. The last pure places are still in reach. Go there and you’ll never be the same again.