It’s the last hour before sunset. We’re at a secret location close to the Kruger National Park. That’s a long way from home for Jade Aldridge, a veterinary nurse who once worked at the Battersea Dogs Home.
This evening, treading quietly by her side is an armed guard, in military fatigues, carrying an assault rifle. Together, they have charge of a precious foundling.
It’s a young pangolin, a sort of scaly anteater, a shy nocturnal creature rarely glimpsed in the wild.
It is the most trafficked animal you have never heard of.
This pangolin was rescued from a rhino poacher – the two trades run in tandem – and its mother’s fate is unknown, perhaps already killed, crated up and smuggled to the Far East.
Jade is learning to care for the little one. It’s tough going. Dedication and devotion required.
Every evening, from five until eleven o’clock, she takes the pangolin out into the South Africa’s wild-lands and stands watch as it feeds, its delicate tongue searching out termites around rotting tree trunks.
‘’It’s magical to witness something like this, but it’s also heart-breaking,’’ says Jade, as the sun dips below the horizon. ‘’There are so many of these animals caught in the poaching trade these days.’’
The pangolin’s natural defences are the reason for its demise. The scales that cover its body are made from the same substance as rhino horn. That’s created a seemingly insatiable demand in China and Vietnam where it is believed to be a cure for, among other more serious ailments, the hangover, while the flesh is an expensive delicacy; a status symbol served to the wealthy.
As Asia’s own populations of pangolins have been destroyed, so the traders have turned to Africa. According to the wildlife advocacy group, Traffic, a million have been poached over the past ten years.
"No one knows how many pangolins there are left in the wild, so no one can tell when the last one has been taken," Nicci Wright, of the African Pangolin Working Group, tells me. ‘’But I think we have perhaps a decade to save it."
That’s just one of many warnings sounding out as governments from around the world gather in London tomorrow for the start of a two day conference on countering the illegal wildlife trade.
Prince William, fresh from a tour of Tanzania and Namibia, will give a key note speech in which he is expected to highlight the links between poaching and organised crime and the damage to local communities around the world.
The message is important; but it’s not the whole story. And to see why the war on poaching is so hard to win, we went to the small town of White River, again on the edge of the Kruger.
Outside its magistrates court a restive crowd has gathered. Inside, six men are accused of poaching; one is said to be a lynch pin of the trade. Two are serving policemen, two more former officers.
But to the crowd they are local heroes; important cogs in an economy that offers little in the way of opportunity.
‘’They are like our family,’’ one on-looker confides. Another says: ‘’It’s about the money. They own shops, they give jobs.’’
South African police pounced on the alleged gang with great public fanfare. There’s video of a police helicopter overhead as officers search their homes; the climax of a long, undercover sting operation.
‘’It’s quite a significant breakthrough,’’ says Colonel Johan Jooste, commander of the elite wildlife division of the serious crimes squad.
‘’We’re getting more into the syndicates that control the trade.’’
The latest figures on rhino poaching in South Africa show a decline in the killing. But many suspect that’s because the animals are getting harder to find.
Meanwhile, Colonel Jooste is fighting sophisticated international gangs, corrupt cops and, as we’ve seen, a local community that is less than supportive.
’Organised crime is uncompromising because of the money and power and to see our colleagues in blue get corrupted is very heart breaking and makes our work very difficult,’’ he says.
‘’Money plays a very important role especially in communities like this. We have poverty here but it’s been supported by the criminal businesses that exist.’’
The rhino and the pangolin – creatures great and small, in desperate peril, their fates intertwined.
‘’We don’t want the pangolin to go the way of the rhino,’’ says Phil Ovens of Rhino Revolution, which works to safeguard both species.
‘’They’ve been on the planet, together, for tens of millions of years. We can’t afford to lose them.’’