Christopher Zimunya, a 72-year-old leader of the indigenous VaJindwi people in eastern Zimbabwe, beamed as he spoke about pangolins. Sitting on the veranda of his small, thriving convenience shop at 22 Miles Business Centre, Zimunya told Mongabay that pangolins are revered in this part of the country, an area known as Zimunya communal land.
"Pangolins are sacred here and we guard them jealously," he said with a smile."These animals are really beautiful and finding one brings a lot of good luck to the person who finds it and it's a taboo to kill it."
Asian stocks of the scaly mammals are fast dwindling for the illegal international trade. Traffickers are now targeting African pangolins for new supply, raising fears in Zimbabwe that they could wipe out the country's last pangolins. However, traditional leaders, with the support of the Zimbabwean government, are taking a strong role in protecting the country's remaining pangolins. They are reminding their communities of age-old myths and beliefs about pangolins, as well as imposing heavy fines on those who harm them, to instill a sense of collective responsibility among the people.
Scaly and Endangered
Pangolins are sought after in China and Vietnam, where the meat is considered a delicacy and the scales are used in traditional medicines for various ailments (although there is no evidence of their efficacy). In 2014, the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources warned that more than a million pangolins had been taken from the wild in the preceding 10 years, putting the animals at risk of extinction. All eight species are effectively banned from international trade under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora, but the trade persists illegally nevertheless. Of the four Asian species, two are now listed as critically endangered and two as endangered. The four African species are listed as vulnerable.
Zimbabwe has one the strictest laws against pangolin poaching in Africa. The animals are specially protected under the country's Parks and Wildlife Act, and illegally possessing or dealing in them attracts a prison sentence of up to 12 years, according to Zimbabwe's Parks and Wildlife Management Authority. In 2015, authorities arrested 84 pangolin poachers in Zimbabwe and sentenced 47 to nine years in prison, the mandatory minimum sentence, according to the Tikki Hywood Foundation. The next year the number of poachers arrested shot up to 114; 52 received nine-year sentences.
Trevor Saruwaka, the legislator for Zimbabwe's Mutasa South constituency, which includes a chiefdom near Zimunya called Mutasa communal land, told Mongabay that many people were unaware of the gravity of pangolin poaching and the severe sentence it carried.
"Many are shocked when they appear in court and [are] sentenced to nine years," Saruwaka said. "The information about the seriousness of the crime is not reaching many people in rural areas and there is [a] need to use government structures everywhere to educate people about [the] seriousness of pangolin poaching."
Pangolins in Traditional Belief
In Zimunya communal land and elsewhere, local chiefs are using traditional beliefs about pangolins to try to fill that educational gap and deter poaching.
Sandwiched between Mozambique to the east and Zimbabwe's Marange communal area in the west, Zimunya communal land is occupied primarily by the VaJindwi. Along the eastern part of this chiefdom in Manicaland province is a treacherous mountain range that forms part of the country's Eastern Highlands.
People here subsist mainly on small-scale crop and livestock farming, selling their surplus produce in the city of Mutare. Poverty is entrenched and worsening as climate change makes farming increasingly unpredictable and difficult.
Many people here still adhere to traditional VaJindwi beliefs and practices. They conduct rainmaking ceremonies at the onset of the wet season. Many believe that mystical lions and birds protect the area from evil spirits. They safeguard certain tree species where protective deities are thought to reside, imposing big fines on anyone found cutting them down.
Pangolins fit into that belief system, both in Zimunya and elsewhere in Zimbabwe. The animals, known in the local Jindwi dialect as harakabvuka, are extremely rare, shy, and mostly nocturnal. Many people in this region have never seen a pangolin, heightening the mythical quality of this reclusive animal. In fact, they use the word harakabvuka to refer to something very rare.
"If a person finds a pangolin walking by, it means a lot of good luck. And the number of steps the pangolin takes before it disappears means the number of good years that person is going to live," Zimunya said. Conversely, harming a pangolin is thought to bring bad luck. "Here we don't fathom or imagine a person killing a pangolin, worse still selling it. It's a taboo," he said.
Years back, Zimunya said, when a person found a pangolin, he or she was required to hand it over to the chief, who would then release it back into the forest. "Our forefathers protected these animals; no wonder we still have them today and we must do likewise," he said.
Under customary law, he said, if a person is caught killing or selling a pangolin, the chief would fine the poacher a cow and a sheep—a heavy fine by rural standards—and turn him or her over to the national police.
"To us a pangolin is more than just an animal; it is part of our culture. We teach our children to value the pangolin and never to kill or sell it," Zimunya said. "We still have many pangolins living in all these mountains surrounding us but they are rarely seen and we pray they should be left where they are."
Chiefs Try to Stem the Poaching
Zimunya said the system was so far withstanding the rising pressure to poach pangolins: people young and old alike are actively involved in pangolin conservation and report any acts of poaching to the police or traditional leaders, he said, adding that there had been no local arrests so far.
Other residents echoed Zimunya's observations.
"If you poach a pangolin here in Zimunya and try to sell it you will definitely be caught because the animal can't be sold according to our culture. It brings bad luck to anyone who tries to make money from it," Elijah Ngwarati, a 43-year-old farmer, told Mongabay with a chuckle.
At a local business center, 38-year-old Leonard Madanhire weighed in, saying it would be difficult for traffickers to recruit locals to poach pangolins because of the respect people have for the animals. Some of the poachers, mostly from China, were offering up to $10,000 for a pangolin, dead or alive, he'd heard. "Yes, it's a lot of money, but many people are not falling for the money," he said.
Albert Mutasa, a village elder in his seventies who was drinking beer with friends at the business center, said it was important for the elders to teach their children traditional ways to protect wildlife in the area."We need to teach our children to protect our wild animals and plants. It is our duty as elders to teach the younger generation," he said.
Christopher Zimunya said the VaJindwi of Zimunya communal land weren't the only indigenous group using traditional reverence for the pangolin to combat poaching. Chiefs in nearby Marange communal land and Mutasa communal land, as well as many others in Zimbabwe are doing the same, he said.
The chiefs' role in pangolin protection has drawn some attention from the broader conservation community.
"We are working with the authorities; the chiefs, the police, the judiciary, and [rural district] council officials, and they are very proactive in pangolin conservation," said Hywood of the Tikki Hywood Foundation, which works to raise public awareness and train police and court officials about the pangolin trafficking problem, in addition to rehabilitating trafficked wildlife. "The traction on pangolin conservation in Zimbabwe is very positive," she said.
Tinashe Farawo, a spokesman for the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority, told Mongabay that the authority valued the chiefs' role in curtailing pangolin poaching in the country.
"We are working closely with traditional leaders as the custodian of our wildlife to stop poaching and it is helping a lot," Farawo said. "Chiefs are helping in our educational awareness [campaigns] and people are responding very well."
But there's a limit to what the chiefs can do in the face of extreme incentives to poach. Early this year, four men under Chief Mutasa in Mutasa communal land were arrested in the capital, Harare, for trying to sell two pangolins. The case is still pending before the courts.
It remains to be seen whether people on Zimunya communal land can withstand the lure of big money from international pangolin poachers as worsening poverty pushes many people in the area to the edge.
This story originally appeared at the website of global conservation news service Mongabay.com. Get updates on their stories delivered to your inbox, or follow @Mongabay on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.