Luke Brannon wears a frown. We’re trailing after a little dinosaurian-scaled pangolin scurrying through the palm rainforest when it makes a beeline for a small tree. “I can’t let her get too high or I’ll never get her down,” he says. As it happens, the rescued baby pangolin called Liesje finds a nest on a lower limb and paws at it furiously, burying her Clanger-shaped nose inside to gorge on ants. The retaliating ants swarm all over her samurai-style body armour causing Liesje to rear backwards under repeated bites shared by Luke and me as the ants are aerially scattered. Luke rescues the youngster placing her on to the forest floor where she drags her soft underbelly to scrape away a few remaining assailants. “Pangolins are the most trafficked animal in the world at present,” Luke tells me.
Combatting wildlife trafficking is scarcely top priority for Liberia as it rebuilds both infrastructure and reputation after civil war and an Ebola outbreak (declared over in January 2016). Yet a project of hope for its wildlife is emerging, and I take a yellow bush taxi one-hour south from Monrovia to Libassa Ecolodge to visit an inspiring sanctuary addressing regional concerns about the capture of pangolins for their keratin-coated scales used in spurious Chinese medicine as well as being trafficked for pets and bushmeat. The wildlife sanctuary is a five-hectacre rainforest refuge for rescued animals in the grounds of the lodge: an easy-going resort of thatched cottages arranged above a cascade of swimming pools that tumble like Turkey’s Pamukkale terraces towards a golden beach fringing the Atlantic.
Seeking a fresh challenge after years at the UK’s Whipsnade Zoo, zookeeper Luke shows me around his menagerie of rescued animals. We meet Millie, a confiscated Timneh grey parrot, looking pitiful shorn of feathers after a miserable spell of captivity. Then, rescued Maxwell duikers, as diminutive as lapdogs, sold openly at markets for meat despite the practice being illegal. Luke’s most recent confiscation is Sweep: a sooty mangabey monkey.
“I collected her outside a beach resort near Monrovia where she’d been a pet,” he says. Sweep is malnourished and suffering alopecia although Luke says she probably pulled out her own hair under psychological stress. “She’s too habituated to release but at least she has trees in her enclosure and other mangabeys to keep her company.” Since opening in early 2017, the sanctuary has returned 29 trafficked animals back to the wild.
His current cause célèbres however are white-bellied tree pangolins called Lietje and Muyu. Separated from their mothers, Luke takes them on forest walks to practise the skills of foraging. I’m thrilled to join Lietje as I’d never seen a wild pangolin despite many trips to Africa. We scramble through the forest understory watching this adorable little creature sniff out and snaffle ants with a dexterous tongue. Up trees, she rolls her prehensile tail tightly to grip branches when positioning herself for an ant feeding frenzy.
“They were confiscated at a market and bound for Sierra Leone to be smuggled to China via Europe,” explains Luke. “Last year, 50 tonnes of pangolin scales were estimated to be trafficked from Africa. At this rate pangolins will soon be extinct.” These two will be returned to a local protected reserve to join others that Libassa has already repatriated successfully. Our walk ends as Luke scoops Lietje into a blanket and places her into a carrying case. She soon falls asleep.
“I hope Libassa will raise awareness among Liberians just how vulnerable their wildlife is,” says Luke. “I want us to build a bigger sanctuary eventually and with more tourists we can fund it with donations.”