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PBS' 'Nature' Season Finale: How Honey Bun and a Conservationist from California Are Fighting to Protect 'The World’s Most Wanted Animal'
May 21, 2018  | By Alex Strachan  | 3 comments

Even by Nature’s standards, the pangolin is one weird critter. At first glance, it looks like one of those Australian creatures cut off by the continental drift of the Paleozoic Era some 180 million years ago when mammals split off into marsupials, and some started laying eggs, while others started carrying around their babies in pouches. Pangolins, sometimes called scaly anteaters because, well, they have scales — the only mammal known to have scales— and they do eat ants, are critically endangered, as Nature’s season finale, The World’s Most Wanted Animal, goes to great pains to point out.

Nature is the gold standard of nature documentaries; the series is, remarkably, in its 36th season. There’s not a lot Nature’s cameras haven’t captured in four decades of natural-history filmmaking; the trick now, as long-time Nature executive-producer Fred Kaufman told TV Worth Watching at a 2016 gathering of TV critics in Beverly Hills, Calif., is to think of new ways to tell familiar stories — or, in increasingly rare cases, finding stories that haven’t been told before.

The World’s Most Wanted Animal fits the bill — no pun intended — in part because, if you were to ask anyone, even a Nature lover, what the world’s most trafficked animal is, you could be forgiven for saying the elephant, because of the voracious appetite in some countries for illegal ivory, or the rhino, coveted for its horn.

Hardly anyone knows what a pangolin even is, let alone that it’s critically endangered or — as the program’s title notes — the world’s most sought-after animal.

Like so many of the world’s remaining wild-roaming animals, pangolins are threatened by deforestation, tricky for any animal that lives in hollow trees and burrows, and poaching. Pangolins are both prized for their meat and for their scales, and because some cultures believe they possess magical powers.

The problem is that so little is known about them that no one knows how to raise them to adulthood, let alone breed them in zoos.

That’s where California-born, Namibia-based conservationist Marie Diekmann comes in. (Personal disclosure: Diekmann is a close friend, from my other life, who I have known for more than 20 years.)

Years ago, Diekmann established a conservation group, the Rare and Endangered Species Trust (REST, www.restnamibia.org) dedicated to preserving the world’s remaining, rapidly dwindling population of Cape griffon vultures, one of planet Earth’s largest free-flying birds. Vultures are endangered because of poison bait, dropped by cattle ranchers in their bid to wipe out jackals, and by elephant poachers, who have learned that vultures circling a recently killed elephant can alert law-enforcement officials and game rangers that poachers are in the area.

Over time, Diekmann’s modest, community-driven conservancy in the heart of Namibia’s remote thorn bush country became ground zero for orphaned animals of all sizes and descriptions.

And that, in turn, inevitably — and worryingly — led her to the plight of the pangolin.

Diekmann became the first known person to successfully raise an orphaned pangolin to adulthood, by devising a baby-food formula based in part on crushed ants. (It seems counterintuitive that an animal called an anteater might eat ants, but there you go: For the longest time the experts thought the best way to raise pangolins in captivity was to feed them a steady diet of what most other animals eat: fruit, vegetables, meat and dairy products. Who knew?)

Namibia, a sprawling, little-known semi-arid country on Africa’s southwestern coast, is on the frontlines of conservation and has been since independence in 1994. It remains, to this day, to be one of the very few nations on planet Earth to have conservation protections written into its national constitution.

Pangolins are now trafficked more than elephants, rhinos, and tigers combined, in part — and no thanks to — their alleged medicinal properties in China, Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand, but that’s not reason alone to watch The World’s Most Wanted Animal.

Most Wanted tells the personal tale of one woman’s efforts to save the species through the day-to-day ups and downs of an orphaned pangolin she named Honey Bun.

It’s that personal touch that brings the story to life and provides a real reason to gather the family around the TV in what was once the way families traditionally watched TV. It’s also a feel-good story in a world notably short on feel-good stories right now, in much the same way Born Free made the crazy argument that lions can be hand-raised, and in so doing changed the way the world looks at lions.

Because, weird as they are, pangolins are strangely endearing. The World’s Most Wanted Animal shows Diekmann and her Namibian colleague Steven Mandja walking Honey Bun for up to five hours a day as she forages for ants (the pangolin, that is, not the conservationist).

Pangolins have long, coiled tongues, almost the length of their body, which they use to flick and snap up ants and other insects; Honey Bun, who was at death’s door when Diekmann first found her, is a proven expert at this technique.

The program follows Diekmann to Vietnam, where she accompanies pangolin conservationist Thai Van Nguyen, director of the NGO Save Vietnam’s Wildlife, based in Vietnam’s oldest national park.

The program also shows Diekmann hosting Hong Kong-based actress-model and online megastar Angelababy, aka Angela Yeung Wing, who has more than 80 million followers on the Chinese social media site Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter. Angelababy is won over by the pangolin baby Honey Bun, and small wonder.

“Pangolins are such a part of my everyday routine now that I barely remember the ‘time’ before pangolins,” Diekmann told TVWW, in an email from Africa.

“REST actually started as a way to help save the most endangered animal in Namibia, the Cape griffon vulture, but from the start, pangolins were a part of our educational outreach. Then the first mama pang gave birth at our centre while waiting for release. Then came numerous wild pangolins and a few tragic losses from mothers that aborted due to stress from poachers. And then, one day, a call came out of the blue to rescue Honey Bun, our latest youngster.”

The World’s Most Wanted Animal had a similarly unexpected beginning.

“This particular film adventure began with me accepting a young film student from Denmark who could barely afford a plane ticket. I let her follow me around & film for a few weeks free-of-charge, for a university project.

“The next thing we knew, someone knew someone who knew someone said BBC was organizing this film, just for pangolins. When Sir David Attenborough came onboard, through his love of pangolins, it was a dream come true, as he is such an icon in the conservation movement.”

Small-scale community-oriented efforts can be just as effective as big-budget megaprojects, Diekmann insists.

“At the moment, REST still works on mostly small donations. Eventually we hope to dig a well (for water) and establish an environmentally friendly information centre that can sustain itself financially through visitors, while still respecting that wild animals should remain wild whenever possible.”

It’s the Born Free model, in other words, and The World’s Most Wanted Animal hints that it might just work.

Nature’s season finale, The World’s Most Wanted Animal, premieres Wednesday on PBS at 8 p.m. ET (check local listings).

(Photos by Alex Strachan)

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I want to do an illustrated children's book on the life and times of honey bun, how can I contact Me Diekmann?
Apr 19, 2019   |  Reply
Judith Lewis
I wept over this. Thank you to the three humans dedicated to helping pangolins.
May 24, 2018   |  Reply
Eugene D. Mossner
Before this evening (May 23), I had never heard of these fascinating creatures before. This was a wonderful program that I tuned into quite by accident, but I certainly didn't regret it. Thanks PBS for telling us what is being done by some very dedicated wild-life people to save these animals.
May 24, 2018   |  Reply
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