The pangolin protectors

In the vast wilderness of Namibia’s Nyae Nyae Conservancy and Community Forest, remarkable individuals are guardians of a mysterious and elusive creature

Three pangolin rangers look at maps on a GPS app while tracking a new pangolin
A pangolin in the grass in a reddish light at nightime

In the vast wilderness of Namibia’s Nyae Nyae Conservancy and Community Forest, many remarkable individuals are guardians of a mysterious and elusive creature—the pangolin

The San people play a vital role in protecting pangolins in the conservancy. With their Indigenous knowledge and tracking skills, and the cultural values they place on pangolins, combined with modern technology, the San help track, monitor, and collect data on pangolins to give us a better understanding of this elusive and threatened species. The information will help inform conservation management plans and reduce the trade of pangolins, while also providing direct benefits to the San including jobs, training, community education, and increased tourism.

Meet the team of pangolin rangers:

N/aici Isak: The custodian of traditions

Isak /ai/ae wears a blue shirt and hat and smiles at the camera

N/aici Isak \ai\ae

N/aici Isak \ai\ae, aged 53, is from the rugged Aha Hills village in Nyae Nyae. Isak's love for nature goes beyond words. For years, Isak safeguarded water points and boreholes from wildlife, thus minimizing human-wildlife conflict. He is a living testament to ancestral wisdom. His forebearers have been his greatest teachers, imparting invaluable knowledge of hunting and the use of wild plants. The land, says Isak, provides him with abundant gifts such as food, water, income, and peace of mind.

Isak joined the Pangolin Conservation Research Foundation in 2022. As a dedicated tracker, his responsibilities include monitoring and protecting pangolins. This pangolin initiative has brought transformative changes in the community, creating employment opportunities for local rangers who use their Indigenous knowledge to conserve wildlife. Isak’s smile radiates when he talks about his work. "I feel happy because I get some income, and I can support my family," he says.

Beyond income, pangolin conservation resonates deeply with Isak. "Pangolins are important because they are part of our environment; we have to save these animals," he says passionately. There are many myths and beliefs surrounding the pangolin, but contrary to local beliefs, Isak hasn’t heard them whistle before. Instead, he's watched them walk gracefully on their hind legs.

"I like to walk around in nature," he remarks; a simple statement that belies his connection to nature and countless journeys across the region. On average, Isak walks about 6.2 miles a day tracking pangolin. He walks without a GPS, and when asked how he knows it’s 6.2 miles, he says that he is guided by instinct and ancestral teachings. He recalls an old saying that when your legs grow weary, you have traveled 6.2 miles.

Beyond tracking, Isak’s mission is to instill a deep love for nature and wildlife conservation in young hearts. "Young people should conserve nature and learn how to live with animals," he emphasizes. He's determined to ensure that his ancestral knowledge is passed down through generations, bridging the gap between tradition and modern living.

Kaegece Sao: The fortuitous guardian

Kaegece Sao wears a black jacket and a pink hat with a pangolin on it and looks at the camera

Kaegece Sao

The journey of Kaegece Sao, a 32-year-old pangolin tracker from Aha Hills, paints a vivid picture of resilience and adaptability. In Kaegece’s pre-ranger days, he served as a home-base care facilitator for HIV-AIDS patients, a security guard, a petrol attendant, and even a Ju/'Hoansi literacy promoter in his community.

In August 2022, Kaegece joined the Pangolin Conservation Research Foundation. His choice as a tracker was no accident; his ability to provide accurate information on pangolin locations set him apart. Kaegece acknowledges the change within the community since the arrival of the foundation, which introduced employment opportunities, provided clothing donations, and even attracted tourists to the area. As one of the first pangolin rangers in the area, he takes pride in shaping the future for both people and wildlife. Kaegece envisions a future where at least two people will be employed as pangolin rangers from each of the 28 villages in Nyae Nyae Conservancy. For Kaegece it's about more than just jobs. It's about conserving nature that takes care of us and preserving ancestral wisdom.

His face lights up when he talks about the beliefs surrounding pangolins. "When you come across a pangolin, you are considered lucky," he says. Emphasizing the importance of harmony among rangers as they track for pangolins he adds, “If you are in bad spirits, it won’t be easy for you to find the pangolin, but if you are in good spirits, it’s easy for you to find one.”

Cwi Cwi: The youthful trailblazer

Cwi Cwi wears a blue shirt and a bucket hat and smiles at the camera

Cwi Cwi

Cwi Cwi is a vibrant 23-year-old, brimming with youthful energy. His journey into the world of tracking is a fusion of traditions. "My tracking skills were different from the others who grew up here because I was raised in Kavango and they hunt and track differently," he says. Learning from his peers in Nyae Nyae, he now embodies the San way of tracking.

For Cwi the wilderness represents freedom and wonder, "When I am out in nature, I feel free to see the wildlife, which is amazing and attractive. Unlike the busy and noisy city, here, nature tells you about its secrets in quietness.”

Cwi joined the team of pangolin rangers in 2021, and as the youngest of the team, Cwi absorbs knowledge like a sponge, learning the art of tracking and how to use telemetry. He's not just a tracker; he also raises awareness about these remarkable creatures and ensures that future generations have the privilege of witnessing the magnificence of the pangolin.

In the wilderness, where darkness meets stillness, Cwi has learned that fear has no place. "I used to be scared at first but now I'm not scared,” he says, recounting nights spent tracking. Living in harmony with wildlife is a lesson he holds dear. "It feels good having the animals around us, as long as we do not bother them because if you bother them, they will bother you," he observes wisely.

Cwi' is driven by passion and purpose. "The reason I'm caring for the pangolin is because I want the future generation to see this beautiful and shy animal," he says.

In Nyae Nyae, the pangolins stay hidden, but in the heart of these guardians, the hope for their survival burns brightly. The wilderness echoes with their footsteps and a legacy of unwavering dedication to nature.

Learn more about WWF's work on pangolins.

Learn more about WWF's work in Namibia.