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Maria Diekmann’s life took a sharp turn more than a decade ago when she began juggling vulture conservation with her daily farming life. In the intervening years she has learnt the delicate art of multitasking the life-changing, agonising and determined road of running a conservation trust that is aimed at thrusting the limelight on the ‘forgotten five and one’ animals that are facing extinction but have not yet attracted the fervent attention their survival requires.
(This article was originally published in 2013 in the Spring edition of Travel News Namibia).
Text Jana-Mari Smith
Maria Diekmann, the founder and manager of REST – the Rare & Endangered Species Trust in Namibia – has not had much sleep in 2013. Her daily life changed irrevocably when she was suddenly thrust into playing the role of mother to an orphaned infant.
Since the beginning of the year, she has spent countless hours following the little one around the house and into the bush outside. Day and night, Maria has been taking notes, providing shelter and care, and generally dedicating huge chunks of her time to this scaly little individual. At only a few months old, the baby has learned how to open the drawers of Maria’s bedside table, and to use the opened drawers as a stepladder to get onto Maria’s bed.
Except this is not a human baby she is devoting her every waking moment too for the past six months, but a baby pangolin.
It began in October 2012, when Maria accepted the task of caring for a pangolin that had been saved from the black market. As she took on that task, Maria unwittingly began a strange and unique journey.
Pangolins are notoriously cautious around people. But from the outset, Roxy (as the adult pangolin was named) went against the grain of what is thought to be typical pangolin behaviour. “Pangolins do not do well in captivity. They are of the rarest animals in captivity because they undergo tremendous stress when around people,” says Maria.
Nevertheless, Roxy immediately seemed to crave closeness to Maria. “She didn’t show extreme stress around me and was very curious about her surroundings. We hoped we could hold her for a few days until we could buy a tracking device to put on her before releasing her.” Alas, as the saying goes, “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men often go awry.”
To maximise her data collection on the pangolin, Maria moved into the vulture-viewing hide [which had been set aside as a den for Roxy] after her arrival and that same day “she walked up to me and started licking my face and crawling all over me. I was surprised and overwhelmed.”
It wasn’t long before the probable reason for her atypical behaviour became abundantly clear
A SURPRISE ARRIVAL
Four days after her arrival, Roxy gave birth. At first Maria thought that what she was seeing was a snake coiled up around Roxy’s stomach. But she realised soon enough that Roxy had given birth and that the baby was still attached to its mother by its umbilical cord. Mesmerised, Maria watched Roxy chew off the cord and curl around her offspring. “Needless to say, I was spellbound.”
An animal lover, but also a scientist at heart, Maria immediately recognised that this was an unparalleled opportunity for close analysis and study of these mammals and would give a boost to the existing knowledge of their behaviour. This would become a critical tool in the conservation of pangolins and many other species.
Maria dug in. For the next two months, she slept on a mattress in the hide almost every night, closely monitoring the mother and infant duo. A feeding and foraging schedule took shape and for the next three months, Maria and her colleagues’ lives revolved around these strict routines.
Then, sadly and unexpectedly, Roxy failed to return from a foraging trip. It is thought that she came into heat and followed her instinct to find a mate.
Baby Pang was moved into Maria’s house and quickly bonded with her. Sheltered from predators and saved from starvation – the pangolin had not learned to forage on its own yet – Maria took on the task of both mother and teacher. Navigating their way around in this brand-new world about which so little is known has proved a steep, tough, but also incredibly rewarding learning curve for Maria and the REST staff.
With the support from those in the know, she learnt to supplement Baby Pang’s daily diet with plain yoghurt and special animal milk formulas. For about four hours a day, Maria or a staff member accompany Baby Pang on his natural foraging trips into the wild. Naps are taken in one of his favourite shelters – either Maria’s lap or on a chair or fluffy carpet in her bedroom.
Her time is consumed by taking care of this rare and endangered species, but Maria sees the bright side. She has been given the rare opportunity to take an intense look at the behaviour of this to-date highly under-studied species, and her work is illuminating the world of the pangolin.
“It is incredibly time-consuming but well worth the effort. It might well be one of the most important research projects we have ever done,” she acknowledges. This is only the third baby Cape pangolin that is being raised in captivity and Maria is making sure that his ‘every move’ is noted down for research purposes.
“I monitor his foraging behaviour, record what he eats, collect his scat, and weigh and measure him daily. It never ends. He often sleeps during the day, so I can do my other work during this time. I have learned to live with less sleep myself.” She adds that Baby Pang has made her realise “that these are incredibly intelligent and problem-solving animals” as demonstrated by the drawer-staircase trick.
Maria hopes that by regular monitoring of Baby Pang’s heart rates, natural diet, distances travelled and so forth, she can contribute to the much-needed research on this captivating creature.
For now, REST is looking for a sponsor, who will be given the singular privilege of naming the young pangolin. “He desperately needs a name!”
There is no REST for those at this rehabilitation centre, however, and despite the hours gobbled up by the pangolin, the work continues unabated.
“It has been quite an adventure. And to top it all, the daily work continues. We regularly take animals in that need a great deal of care. Babies have to be raised and prepared for release into the wild. Others are not releasable. They are healthy and calm enough with people, so we can keep them at our centre.”
THE FORGOTTEN FIVE PLUS ONE
Maria’s journey as a conservationist began when she became concerned about the fate of the critically endangered Cape vulture. This vulture is Namibia’s most critically endangered raptor. In 2000, there were only 12 Cape vultures left in the Namibian wild. Today there are less than 30, and Maria’s work continues to be of vital importance to the survival of this critically endangered species. “These birds are found only in Southern Africa, so we Africans will either save them or watch them become extinct.
This endeavour is peppered with challenges. “We need to stabilise the existing population and reintroduce new ones before our historical birds die.”
Through her work she has discovered that several other endangered Namibian species have not been receiving the attention they needed to ensure their survival. She has dubbed them aptly the “Forgotten Five”. They are the Namibian populations of the spotted rubber frog, the dwarf python, the Damara dik-dik, the African wild dog and, of course, the pangolin.
Why is she focussing on these five species and the vultures? “Because these are the forgotten animals that do not generally elicit the attention [of donors and conservation efforts] they deserve,” she explains. “Someone needed to focus on them, as they are not only amazing but are also essential to our environment.
In addition to their fostering and rehabilitation projects, REST maintains a vulture restaurant close to the centre. In the past few months, REST has had to treat an eagle that had suffered a serious concussion. Moreover, the centre currently looks after three Cape vultures, a lappet-faced vulture, two species of owls, a bateleur, a tawny eagle and a black-shouldered kite.
And it doesn’t end here. The centre is also taking care of a nest of abandoned African pigmy dormice whose mother had been taken by predators. In the past year, the centre has rehabilitated and released 12 bats.
Maria and her staff remain unfazed by the hard work and at times heartbreaking endeavours. Sleepless nights and a host of challenges aside, she says, “We just don’t give up!”
Her message to everyone is to “Love the previously unloved,” and as she continues to juggle a full plate, there is always room for more.
“Call me any time, day or night for advice or assistance.”
CHALLENGES AND A CALL FOR HELP
The work of conservationists such as Maria and the enterprise of her centre are often admired, but truth is their work is highly dependent on financial contributions.
REST is focussing on attracting more visitors to the centre, where an impressive vulture hide has been erected against the cliffs, simulating as natural an environment as possible.
Maria notes that it’s important to earn a sustainable income. In line with this, facilities at the centre are being upgraded to a level that will provide spectacular experiences to visitors.
Nevertheless, the survival of the residents at the REST centre depends primarily on donor funding – big or small – and as always, every little bit helps.
To schedule a visit to or learn more about the exciting conservation and education work that takes place at the Rare and Endangered Species Trust (REST) centre, send an e-mail to REST@iway.na or call 081 367 9425.
Contact the website to find out how you can donate your money and services.
Directions to REST
Take the B1 south from Otjiwarongo for 47 kilometres. Turn right on the Okonjima dirt road. There are official road signs at the B1 turn-off indicating the REST vulture project. Drive for 9 kilometres on the dirt road and our REST signage is on the left. We are currently open from Monday to Friday from 10:00 to 16:00 and on Saturdays from 10:00 to 13:00. Visits on Sundays are by appointment only.