Hi! I’m Rachael Bale, a senior editor at National Geographic. I’ve been reporting for four years on wildlife crime and exploitation for our Wildlife Watch project, and I also co-lead our wider animal coverage. I’ve spent the last two years working on a story about the trafficking of pangolins, the world’s only known mammal with true scales. Pangolins are the world’s most trafficked mammal, in demand for their scales, for use in traditional medicine, and their meat. Wildlife crime has become increasingly sophisticated and organized, yet it’s not taken nearly as seriously as other organized crimes like drugs and human trafficking. AMA about pangolins and wildlife crime! - Read my Nat Geo pangolins feature, with photos by the amazing Brent Stirton, here: https://on.natgeo.com/2WxmHB4 - Learn how you can help pangolins: https://on.natgeo.com/2WuzZOM - And if you just want more pics of cute pangolins: https://on.natgeo.com/2WfI8av

Proof: https://i.redd.it/vohu91f8r8131.jpg

EDIT: Thanks for all the thoughtful questions! Signing off and heading back to work now.

Comments: 68 • Responses: 14  • Date: 

N8teface39 karma

Why is wildlife crime not taken as seriously as other offenses by local government? What can citizens of countries with lax law enforcement do to advocate for more proactive legislation and harsher penalties? Is that even the most effective way to reduce wildlife crime/trafficking?

nationalgeographic56 karma

Great question. It's not just local government but national and international as well. If the police are dealing with daily murders, for example, wildlife seems a lot less important. But it's critical that government and law enforcement understand that wildlife crime doesn't stand on its own—it's closely linked with corruption, financial crimes, and myriad other things that undermine civil society and rule of law. To that end, educating government officials, law enforcement, and the legal and judicial systems as to the ripple effects of wildlife crime is critical.

Penguingal124 karma

Have you seen any changes in the wildlife trafficking, an increase or decrease, with regards to the younger generation being more aware of the impact, and the nonsense of use in traditional medicine of the pangolin scales and other wildlife body parts (teeth, tusks, etc). Do you as a reporter in the field have had an opportunity to interview young and old natives to get their take on it?

nationalgeographic57 karma

Younger generations in Asia are absolutely more aware of the need for wildlife conservation and they're increasingly rejecting traditional medicine remedies that use endangered species. I actually wrote a story on this exact topic a while ago, and it gave me a lot of hope. https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2017/07/wildlife-watch-china-changing-animal-protection/

landerso1120 karma

What's the coolest (or your favorite!) fact you learned about pangolins while researching and writing this story?

nationalgeographic34 karma

Pangolins are such bizarre little creatures. One of my favorite tidbits I learned about them is that their tongues are anchored down near the base of their rib cage. There's a great graphic in the story that shows it!

nationalgeographic26 karma

I also love that Temminck's ground pangolins walk like little t-rexes. They only walk on their back legs and use their front legs (arms?) for balance instead.

reicha719 karma

What drew you to Pangolins specifically in terms of animal trafficking research?

I am also super psyched that this AMA is happening: Pangolins are my fav animal!

nationalgeographic27 karma

My reporting focus is on the illegal wildlife trade, which I've been covering for about four years. Pangolins are the world's most trafficked non-human mammal, so that alone to me was worth a story. I also like to highlight little-known or overlooked species. At least in the West, the pangolin definitely fits that description.

Chtorrr19 karma

What’s the strangest thing you’ve found in your research?

nationalgeographic28 karma

I don't know if I'd call it strange, but it certainly made me think of things differently. In West Africa, pangolins have long been eaten as bushmeat, at a not terribly unsustainable level. (That all changed when demand for pangolin scales grew and the value of pangolins went up.) I'd gone to Cameroon thinking surely if people had access to chicken, beef, and goat they'd prefer those as a source of protein to bushmeat. But what I found was that bushmeat is often preferred because its guaranteed fresh and unadulterated, unlike much of the meat that's imported to West Africa.

kilroyrlc15 karma

Thank you, that was both very good and horrifying, photos included.

It seems like this could be largely addressed by better enforcement in China and education with respect to traditional medicine. Is it getting better or worse with China's emergent middle class and international presence?

nationalgeographic20 karma

Stronger law enforcement both in supply and demand countries is absolutely important. Environmental police and conservation agencies tend to be severely underfunded and under-resourced. Equally important is reducing demand in places like China. There are a lot of organizations working on demand reduction efforts, but it's still unclear how much of an effect they're having and what the best strategies are.

The answer to the second part of your question is a complex one. On the one hand, increasing wealth in China has led some people to have the power to purchase more status symbols, like ivory carvings and pangolin meat (the meat is a luxury item, whereas the scales are sold for medicine). On the other hand, higher levels of education attainment also mean that there's a growing sense of the importance of conservation and wildlife protection.

As to China's international presence...yes, that's had a major effect on wildlife trade in general. When I was in Cameroon, everyone knew that if you had pangolin scales to sell, you'd take them to one of the local Chinese business owners, who serve as middlemen. Similarly, development projects like building roads through forests opens up vast swaths of land to hunting, in areas that were previously inaccessible to humans.

IDKmaybs11 karma

What can the average person do to try to help these animals?

nationalgeographic14 karma

Honestly, raising awareness is huge. Most people in the West have never heard of pangolins, so there's not nearly as much conservation or research funding going toward them as there could be. Plus, you can't protect what you don't know about. And how could you see a pangolin and not fall in love?

Edit: Also in my main post, there's a link with more ways you can help!

axelstudios11 karma

What's the most dangerous situation you've found yourself in while collecting information to report on?

nationalgeographic13 karma

Busmeat markets in West Africa are not at all welcoming to outsiders. At the markets we tried to visit in Cameroon, people were well aware that a lot of what they were selling was illegal, and there are stories of journalists and researchers being chased off and/or beaten by mobs. Thankfully we were able to get in, see what we needed to see, and get out pretty quickly, but we were definitely prepared for the worst.

Vorenvs10 karma

Thanks for doing this!

How do we stop the trade in pangolins which is driving many species to extinction?

nationalgeographic13 karma

Thanks for the question! There are a lot of elements at play that need to come together to stop wildlife poaching and trafficking. At the very top, there's demand—consumers need to be educated and convinced not to buy these products in the first place. Then there's law enforcement at multiple levels: upon purchase, upon import (at airports and shipping ports), upon export, and in the wild. Law enforcement is more effective when it targets the kingpins—the people high up in the trafficking networks pulling the strings. Going after poachers doesn't do much, the same way going after low-level drug mules doesn't—they're disposable within the larger organization. Also important is prosecution and penalties—wildlife crimes in many countries don't carry penalties that are high enough to deter illegal activities. If people can be prosecuted instead for other crimes, like bribery, money laundering, and tax evasion, they'll face much stiffer sentences.

treeshew8 karma

What are your thought about the captive breeding of pangolins? Do you think wildlife captive breeding/wildlife farming would help against poaching and the species preservation?

nationalgeographic20 karma

Breeding pangolins is a controversial topic! So far, no one's figured out how to do it reliably, though there have been a handful of births in captivity. But even keeping pangolins alive in captivity—let alone breeding them—is a huge challenge that really hasn't been cracked yet. At least not on a large scale. They have *very* particular diets that are hard to replicate in captivity, and they succumb to stress very easily. A handful of zoos in the U.S. are trying to figure it out right now for conservation purposes, and there are facilities in China that are trying to do it for commercial purposes.

However, there's evidence that wildlife farming doesn't do much to stop poaching. Take tigers. There are a number of tiger farms in China, breeding them for their bones, skins, etc. Yet poaching of wild tigers continues, and it may have even increased because the legitimacy of the farms made buying tiger parts more acceptable in general. Same is true with bear bile and bile farms.

starynight9498 karma

How did you decide to focus on the illegal pangolin trade and ensure your reporting would be thorough and all-encompassing to show just how vast of an issue it is when not many people are aware of it?

nationalgeographic10 karma

Because National Geographic magazine had never done a story on pangolins before, it was important to be that it be as thorough as possible. I wanted to write for an audience that had never heard of pangolins as well as those that were well-versed in conservation and wildlife trade. It helped a lot that I've been reporting on wildlife crime and following the issue of pangolin trafficking for several years before I started this magazine story, so I had a pretty good idea of the main things to be included. Once I started interviewing people, I'd always ask, "Who else should I talk to?" I never stopped asking that question, and it's led me to dozens and dozens of people working on all kinds of different things related to pangolins.

Leenzlions6 karma

Thanks for doing this AMA! How did you prepare for this kind of story (especially since it took two years)?

nationalgeographic6 karma

I've been reporting on wildlife crime at National Geographic for about four years now, for our team called Wildlife Watch, which is dedicated to the topic. For the last few years, pangolins have been kind of a superstar within the more insular conservation community but not the broader public. I've done several smaller stories on pangolins over the last few years, and it eventually culminated in this!

moonbeanie3 karma

It's great that you work to save pangolins but your boss Rupert Murdoch is one of the biggest climate change deniers on the planet. How can you work for one of the most destructive humans that ever walked? BTW, I let our subscription to National Geo lapse when it was purchased by Murdoch, I refuse to send a penny his way.

nationalgeographic12 karma

Thanks for the comment, and I understand that this is a not-uncommon sentiment. When National Geographic became a part of 21st Century Fox in late 2015, we didn't really know what to expect in terms of editorial influence from above. In the end, 21CF had no role in influencing or attempting to influence editorial coverage to the best of my knowledge. We actually published a single-topic issue on climate change not long after the sale went through.

Regardless, as of March, Nat Geo became part of Disney, along with many of 21CF's other properties.