Marshall, Margibi County - A French couple runs a wildlife sanctuary in Kpan’s Town on the Marshall highway in Margibi County that is rescuing endangered species, including pangolins.
Rudolph and Lisa Antoune established Libassa Wildlife Sanctuary in May 2016, and nearly two years on, they have rescued 88 animals (27 species), among them 13 pangolins.
Locally called “ants bears”, pangolins are the most illegally trafficked mammals in the world, with an estimated 300 taken from the wild every day worldwide.
This prompted the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) to ban the hunting and trading of pangolins in 2016.
Demands mainly from China and the United States are the key factors in the illegal pangolin market, conservationists say. Their scales are believed to have medicinal powers and their skins processed into fine leather.
Conservationists say 50 tons of pangolin scales left Africa in 2017 alone.
It is illegal to hunt pangolins in Liberia. Violators must pay a fine between US$250 and US$5,000 or face four or six months in prison.
‘Just wanted to help’
The Antounes have been in Liberia since the 1950s. Rudolph’s father Elias Antoune came to Liberia in 1955 with a Renault car dealership.
Rudolf took over the management of “Renault Garage” from his father in 2000 and established a resort on the coastline of Marshall in 2012—Libassa Ecolodge.
It was Lisa who encouraged Rudolph to establish the wildlife sanctuary when she joined him here in 2009. They first started an animal orphanage.
People, mainly expats, started bringing in animals every now and then and quickly the couple knew an animal orphanage was not enough.
“We did not have the medication, no expertise on animals,” recalled Lisa in an exclusive interview with FrontPage Africa.
“We just wanted to help. It was heartbreaking to see animals on the streets sold for bush meat and we couldn’t do anything about it.”
“As for me, I was born here and raised here,” explained Rudolph.
“I was used to seeing people selling animals in the streets. Lisa kept telling me ‘We have to do something’,” he added.
“I, too, am a Liberian now,” Lisa said. “I spent the same time in Liberia that President George Weah spent in France,” she quipped.
The Antounes run the wildlife sanctuary in collaboration with the Forestry Development Authority (FDA) and the Society for the Conservation of Nature of Liberia (SCNL).
SCNL provides logistical and veterinary support, and the FDA provides a ranger, who does the confiscation of animals, provides training for wildlife caregivers and provides subsidy.
‘Roll into a ball’
There are eight species of pangolins in the world—four in Asia and four in Africa.
Liberia has three of the four species of pangolins found in Africa, and was named in a 2017 report by the wildlife trade monitoring network trafficC as an origin country in the global illegal trafficking of pangolins.
A few weeks ago, a British conservationist, Luke Brannon, who is a volunteer manager at the wildlife sanctuary, had to sit and watch nine pangolins being sold in Sinkor.
He had informed the FDA but there was no ranger there at the time. The lone police officer he had managed to get was outnumbered by seven, ill-tempered bush meat peddlers.
“Liberia is hugely important,” Brannon said. “In Liberia we have three kinds of pangolins: the white-belly tree pangolin, the black-belly tree pangolin and we also have the ground pangolin, which is very rarely seen.
“Pangolins are very easy to catch. Their only defense is to roll into a ball.”
Rudolph conceded that their effort was nothing compared to the scale at which pangolins are being hunted.
“I think we have taken it to the end of the process—receive, rehabilitate and then release,” he said.
“The problem is we are doing it at a small scale and the problem is much bigger. We are sacrificing but the need of the country is much bigger.”
Cost is running high, too, Rudolph said.
They have spent about US$100,000 in nearly two years of the establishment. Donations collected from guests who tour the facility cannot even do for the animals’ food, Rudolph added, and they have not received subsidy from the FDA as stipulated in the MOU.
All four caregivers at the wildlife sanctuary are paid by the couple and they also provide the lodging and meals of the volunteer manager.
Liberia created a new forestry law in 2006 as part of an overhaul of the sector but it was only in 2017 that it passed the National Wildlife Conservation and Protected Area Management Law of Liberia.
No one has been arrested for hunting or trading pangolins or any animals in Liberia even one year on.
Rudolph said they were planning an awareness campaign that will include erecting billboards in population centers in and around Monrovia.
The Manager of the Wildlife at the FDA Edward Gbeintor said funding was a major challenge even for make awareness on the protection of wildlife.
He said communities did not know that it is illegal to hunted pangolins and other wildlife eaten as bush meat on the daily basis.
“Our country has been going through a lot of problems with money, and FDA is no exception,” Gbeintor told FrontPageAfrica.
“Imagine our country of 170 years old and everybody here eats bush meat, he said, adding that “You can’t just tell the people ‘Don’t do this’. You have to give them the reason why they should not do what you don’t want them to do.”
Report by James Harding Giahyue