This is a story about a storyteller telling a story about a strange little mammal very few people are ever likely to see, an animal on the edge of extinction. It is the story of the epic journey of two filmmakers into some of the wildest places remaining in Africa today in search of the four species of African pangolin still hanging on to survival by a thread.
It is the story of Director and Producer, Bruce Young, who, together with Director of Photography, Johan Vermeulen, produced a documentary in 2019 called Eye of the Pangolin.
Before Covid-19 most people had probably never heard of the pangolin, but now, with its suspected involvement in the transmission of the Coronavirus to humans in a grisly wet market in Wuhan, it has become a hot topic. In fulfillment of the notion that it’s an ill wind that blows no one any good, the glare of the global spotlight might just be the pangolin’s saving grace.
The most trafficked mammal in the world, far more so than the elephant for its ivory, the rhino for its horns or lions and tigers for their bones, its scales are used in Chinese medicine and its flesh is considered a delicacy in the East. Illegal traders will pay almost anything for these secretive, mostly nocturnal animals and this incentive could be the difference between starvation and life for rural tribesmen in the countries where they are to be found.
Bruce and Johan had worked together on the award-winning documentary, A Kalahari Tail a couple of years earlier and when Johan asked if he would like to be involved in making a documentary about the African pangolin, Bruce knew almost nothing about the animal. Nevertheless, he was sufficiently intrigued to accept the invitation. And, he says, the journey has changed his life.
“All I can say is that I am just incredibly grateful to have had this opportunity. A whole new world opened up for me. I am a storyteller and through the telling of this powerful story, I am hoping it might change people’s perspectives in a meaningful way, change their relationship with wild spaces and wild creatures.”
Growing up in KwaZulu Natal on the edge of a nature reserve, with a desire as a little boy to look after the wild animals, his life seemed to take a 3600 turn in the opposite direction when he became an actor, first in this country and then in the US where he achieved success in a number of feature films and TV series, eventually moving on to script writing and directing. After 11 years in the States, he returned to South Africa and continued working in the Film and TV arena. More recently, his life seems to have turned full circle to focus once again on wildlife concerns.
“We get to understand ourselves and our world through stories, and my single objective with my work in film is to find the most compelling narrative in any material and use it to engage viewers in a way that leaves them enlightened and moved. I ask ‘why’ a lot,” says Bruce.
In Blood Lions, a documentary which preceded The Eye of the Pangolin, he lifts the veil on the dark, but legal, practice of canned lion hunting in South Africa, with its ethical questions about the exploitation of wild creatures. And ‘why’ is also the question he will be asking in Scales, the sequel to Eye of the Pangolin, which he is currently making.
“I want to know why the pangolin is so important to Chinese medicine that they will drive the animal to extinction in pursuit of its scales. This investigation is not intended to be judgemental, but simply to understand. To find some answers, we will be following the trail to both China and Vietnam.”
Environmentalists tell us that in the past 10 years, approximately one million pangolins have been illegally trafficked from the wild in various parts of Africa and that in order to harvest one ton of scales, 1 900 pangolins have to be killed. Known as the World’s Great Gardeners, the vital role these animals play within the complex web of nature is to keep the numbers of ants and termites in check. The great tragedy is that although they have walked the earth for approximately 80 million years, they may become extinct in our lifetime.
Bruce is convinced that Eye of the Pangolin wanted to be made. The extreme adventure they embarked upon started in the Kruger Park and the freezing Kalahari, and their next destination was Ghana, followed by the Central African Republic and the steaming rain forests of Gabon. With the help of magnificent people on the ground, they were able to film Temminck’s Ground Pangolin in Southern Africa, the White-bellied Tree Pangolin in Ghana and the tiny, agile Black-bellied Tree Pangolin in the CAR, just across the river from Cameroon, one of the trafficking hotspots of Africa.
Despite the best efforts of the local game guards, Gabon’s Giant Ground Pangolin was the only one to elude them. However, hacking their way through the dense jungle in the black of night, they did almost walk smack bang into one of the secretive forest elephants of Gabon, known for their aggressive behaviour. To their great relief, it was obviously in a mellow mood that night and allowed them to make a hasty retreat.
“One of the things that stands out for me in the making of this film,” comments Bruce, “is the incredible commitment of the scientists, trackers and game guards who study and watch over these creatures. There is a very real connection between them and the animals, which is wonderful to see. And for my part, looking into the eye of a pangolin was an indescribable privilege. If the eyes are indeed the windows of the soul, I could see a sentient being there, capable of emotions and perception.
“I’m hoping people who see the documentary will be sufficiently moved to begin to ask themselves about their relationship with the natural world, to question how they interact with the animals and plants around them. I am convinced that the unlimited intelligence of nature is trying to send us a message: the clock is running down; there is an urgent need to reset the delicate balance between humans and nature. Maybe saving the pangolin represents an intentional first step towards restoring that balance. That’s why I want people to watch the film, share it; knowledge is a powerful instrument for change.”
Thanks to Whale Coast Conservation for setting up a zoom conversation with Bruce Young. Eye of the Pangolin, which should be prescribed viewing for everyone, can be watched free of charge on YouTube.