Some months ago, in the basement of the natural history museum I found myself puzzling over a tray of specimens. The task was to study the animal ‘skin’ to classify and name said animal. Fur of deer – fine; the shed skin of snake – ok; a magnificent (shed) skin of a lizard including the leg. But I was stuck on the last. A single scale, tear drop in shape like a guitarist plectrum. What kind of reptile did this belong to? The educator told me to look at my hands for clues – the grooves on my nails were similar to the groves on the scale. A mammal then. But what mammal has scales? A flip through a reference book and there it was – the Pangolin, the only mammal in the world with scales.
This came to mind yesterday when the news broke of a record seizure of Pangolin meat and scales in Malaysia. These secretive nocturnal creatures also have the misfortune of being one of the world’s most trafficked creatures. But it is not just the poaching that put them among the world’s most endangered animals – it is the wider less obvious cause and effect of habitat loss. Conservationists have eye rolled about the tendency to focus on a single species without the consideration of the wider global context to their demise. And while we reflect on the potential demise of a species in Asia and Africa there are many other species, native to the UK, that are also under threat from human activity.
But perhaps – much like the Pangolin scale – it is neither obviously one thing nor another. There is room for devotion to a particular species as there is room to be motivated by solving the problems of habitat destruction; the ever decreasing global insect population and the alarming decline of a “virtually irreplaceable, non-renewable resource”[i] – the soil – upon which nature and our food systems depend. To try to act effectively means first trying to see the links between it all. And perhaps like Valentine’s Day it’s about that one off declaration of love – a donation to save the Pangolin – and it’s also the opportunity to reflect on how we may demonstrate care on a day by day basis by how we live and what we eat.