The 4Cs In Action: Understanding Pangolins In The Kalahari

At The Long Run, we help members to embed sustainability into business operations via the 4C framework. The 4Cs were coined a decade ago when Jochen Zeitz, founder of Segera lodge in Kenya, was looking for a blueprint to protect ecosystems in perpetuity. Together with a global spread of likeminded lodges, they realised that a balance of Conservation, Community, Culture and Commerce is needed to ensure that protecting landscapes and wildlife has a genuinely positive impact on surrounding people and places, and is financially sustainable.


Today, the 4Cs is a guiding concept and continuous journey for all Long Run members. It’s also the framework behind the rigorous Global Ecosphere Retreat standard (recognised by the Global Sustainable Tourism Council). The framework is reviewed, externally assessed, and adapted regularly to ensure that it represents the highest standards in sustainability.


In this new blog series, we celebrate The 4Cs In Action around the world. For World Pangolin Day, we head over to Fellow Member Tswalu to find out more about their ground-breaking pangolin research project.

The Kalahari Endangered Ecosystem Project, or KEEP, at Tswalu. Photos by Wendy Panaino

The word Tswalu means ‘a new beginning’ reflecting Tswalu Kalahari’s vision to restore and conserve its natural environment, and to empower and celebrate its community. The large-scale conservation project protects the region’s unique biodiversity, and safe-guards a number of rare and endangered species. Tswalu has created a model of conservation supported by ecotourism, so that it can be sustained indefinitely; its holistic approach corrects past mistakes, laying the groundwork for long-term ecological and economic viability. Tswalu is now poised to enter a new decade of progress, aspiring to even higher levels of sustainability.


Part of Tswalu’s conservation commitment is the Kalahari Endangered Ecosystem Project (KEEP); a multidisciplinary study, supported by the Tswalu Foundation, that takes into account that key Kalahari species interact with each other in complex food webs.


KEEP is groundbreaking not only because it aims to measure the impact of climate change on a complete ecosystem but because of the collaborative nature of the project. Historically, most climate change projects have taken place in the northern hemisphere. The Tswalu Foundation’s support of a multi-disciplinary project like KEEP shines a spotlight on the potential impact of climate change in the southern hemisphere in an environment that is already hot and dry, the Kalahari.


Whereas most climate change research is usually focused on one or two species, KEEP brings together experts in their fields from all over the world, all working together, integrating their findings, and sharing data and resources, for example camera traps. Part of the project’s strength is that it draws on data sets from research projects that have been running on the reserve for many years. Long-term vegetation monitoring and collection of weather data is also integral to the success of this project. Species, such as aardvark, pangolin, bat-eared fox, and Cape cobra, may respond differently to the direct and indirect effects of climate change. For example, reduced rainfall on the reserve results in less grass, which results in reduced abundance of harvester termites, which has a knock-on effect for aardvarks.


Through KEEP, climate change research has been elevated beyond studying a single species in isolation to an ambitiously scaled endeavour measuring how multiple species respond, adapt and interact in response to changing environmental conditions.


Here, we chat to Wendy Paniano who recently completed her PhD on pangolin at Tswalu and leads KEEP: 

Why are pangolins so critically endangered?


Pangolins all over the world are threatened by so many things right now, including the illegal wildlife trade, electrocution by electrified fences, habitat loss, and road mortalities. In addition to these threats, my research showed that climate change may be a silent but deadly threat to pangolins in the Kalahari; a threat not often even considered. Their slow life histories means that populations may not be able to regenerate fast enough to compete with the accumulating threats that they face. 


Why are pangolins important for the wider Tswalu ecosystem?


The truth is that we don’t really know how important pangolins are in any ecosystem because they have been so understudied in the past. What we do know is that each pangolin consumes millions of ants and termites each year, and together with the other insect-eating species in the Kalahari such as aardvarks and bat-eared foxes, surely together they play some part in controlling invertebrate populations, and contributing to soil turnover and nutrient cycling as some examples.


They also assist with modifying and maintaining burrows that several other species depend on in the ecosystem. Furthermore, when pangolins become active during the daylight hours during winter, they can often be seen being followed around by insect-eating birds such as ant-eating chats. These birds hover around pangolins, awaiting a free meal once the pangolins have moved on from their dug-up insect prize. Although it is unknown how much these birds depend on this ‘free’ meal during winter when resources are scarce, it likely saves them some valuable energy that they would otherwise use for hunting their own prey. Pangolins may thus facilitate some bird species during an energetically stressful period.

How is Tswalu helping to protect pangolins?


While pangolins are known to be threatened by the illegal wildlife trade, electrocution by electric fences, habitat loss, and road mortalities, very little attention has been focused on how climate change will affect their welfare. To better conserve pangolins, we first have to understand their behaviour and threats. How do pangolins cope in the already hot and dry Kalahari environment? Will they cope with even hotter and drier conditions that are occurring with climate change in parts of Africa? And can the answers to these questions be applied to several other ecologically similar species around the world? Only by going into this level of detail can we best protect the world’s most endangered species. 


By travelling to Tswalu you directly contribute to this research, via the 4C model. To find out more have a read of Wendy’s post on the Secret Life of Pangolins here

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