We meet the team behind the wonderful new documentary highlighting the plight of the world’s most trafficked animal.
watch it. It’s 45 minutes, really well made, and an important story.n the hope of making their film available to the widest possible audience, the producers of Eye of the Pangolin have released the documentary in full on YouTube. We urge you to
The film follows two South African filmmakers – Bruce Young and Johan Vermeulen – who travel across Africa to find the elusive pangolin. Along the way they meet the people who are trying to save the creature, which is now on the edge of extinction.
In this abridged Q&A we were able to get some background on the making of Eye of the Pangolin from Young and Vermeulen.
How did the Eye of the Pangolin project come about?
JV: Being a wildlife filmmaker, there are certain animals that you always dream of doing a film about. Pangolins were one of them. Then came the sudden demand in Africa for pangolin scales and I knew this was the time to do something.
Prof Ray Jansen (head of the African Pangolin Working Group) was one of my teachers at school, so I have been following his work closely. I set up a meeting with him back in March 2017. At that time that they just started a research project in Ghana on White-bellied Pangolins. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to start this journey.
Without hesitation, Bruce was in on this idea, bringing his skills and knowledge of the film industry into the project. A few months later we were on a plane to Ghana.
BY: Initial support from Biggestleaf, a Cape Town travel and online marketing company, helped us get to Ghana for our first shoot. They believed in our dream and this was huge. With that footage we put together our first promo that showed people what was possible with our film.
The next key moment was forming a partnership with Pangolin.Africa, a new non-profit organisation dedicated to pangolin conservation. They helped us reach our funders – the large and the small – without whom we would not have a film today.
How long did you shoot for, and where?
JV: One of our aims was to be the very first documentary to capture all four African pangolin species in one film. To achieve this, we covered a few locations in South Africa to follow the story of the Temmincks Ground Pangolin, we went to Ghana in search of the White-bellied Pangolin, Central African Republic for the Black-bellied Pangolin and to Gabon in search of the Giant Ground Pangolin, the most elusive of all of them.
BY: Our first shoot took place in Ghana in September 2017 and we finished our last in Gabon in February 2019. The film was released on 17 May, Endangered Species Day.
What was the hardest part of filming?
BY: The logistics of getting to some of the more remote areas to film the four pangolin species was not easy. And that was just the beginning – there was never any guarantee that we’d be able to find them once we were there. Three of the species are mostly nocturnal and two of them live mostly in the tree tops of some of the most dense forests on the continent. And when I say ‘dense’, I mean machete-hacking, claustrophobia-inducing dense! It was also a film that was shot on a very tight budget, so time on location meant we were always under pressure to get the footage we needed.
JV: The hardest part was the uncertainty of what to expect whenever we ventured into the central African forests. Conditions were often quite rough, and that definitely made filming more challenging. For me, the search for the Giant Ground Pangolin in Gabon was the most difficult – we walked for hours at night in the dense forests, and would even have a scare or two bumping into forest elephants in the pitch black darkness – it did however get the adrenaline flowing.
And the best part?
BY: Being able to get close to these remarkable animals. They are unquestionably some of the most charismatic creatures in the wild today. It was a real privilege to spend time with the people on the ground who are working so tirelessly to help save them – the researchers, vets and veterinary nurses, pangolin monitors and people actively involved in campaigns to rescue them from the illegal wildlife trade and return them to the wild. Very special people – every single one.
JV: It was a heart-warming experience that is difficult to put into words. All I know is I that I have been extremely blessed to have been able to go through this experience.
Did you ever feel in danger?
BY: Our film was always going to focus on the beauty of pangolins, rather than the dark underworld of the illegal wildlife trade. A number of films have already done that. And the bush meat operators in Africa who we were able to film felt no threat at all from us. They’ve been in business for hundreds of years and although it is now technically illegal to hunt pangolins, there is little to no real enforcement in the areas that we filmed in. So we did not ever feel in danger. It’s the pangolins who are in constant and very real imminent danger.
Any heart-breaking moments?
BY: There were many times when it was hard to witness the treatment of such sweet, harmless animals by people who only see them as a commodity. But the hardest moment for me personally was hearing that a pangolin who we’d spent a day or two with during its rehabilitation and then been able to film during his release had frozen to death within two days of returning to the wild. There was so much hope in the release and so when it was dashed, I was made very aware of how precarious the situation around their future really is.
JV: The toughest thing to film was the bush-meat trade in Ghana. On our very first day we already encountered pangolins on fires along the road. It was very difficult to see a beautiful creature like the White-bellied Pangolin, one that we are so close to losing forever, in circumstances like that.
And funny moments?
JV: We had a few good laughs, especially during our time in the Kalahari where we could just appreciate the pangolins in their natural environment, going about their business with no real threat – that really lifted the mood on this particular shoot. One funny moment was Bruce talking to an Afrikaans person and creating his own Afrikaans name for a pangolin!
BY: One day we watched a little Black-bellied Pangolin climbing freely high above our heads as he moved from tree to tree. It was exhilarating to see a healthy, strong little animal in his natural environment. Suddenly the vine which he was climbing snapped and he dropped straight down for a couple of metres before being rescued by some branches. I know it was total projection, but the pangolin definitely looked to me as if it was slightly embarrassed. Such perfect tree-climbers should not be seen to slip – ever! – and I could swear that he knew this.
Name one thing you learned about pangolins during the shoot
JV: I learned so many new things about pangolins – even the researchers are still discovering new things every day about this little-known creature. One thing is that they are actually quite fussy eaters. You would think they would eat any type of ant or termite, but they all prefer a specific type of ant. With the Temmincks Ground Pangolins for example, within the same species, they don’t always like the same kind of ant.
What do you want viewers to take away from this film?
BY: If people who watch our film become as enchanted by these little creatures as we have been, maybe they will begin to look around them at other creatures in the wild and reassess their relationship with that part of our world that is so incredibly threatened. If they begin to question what it will mean to live in a world with fewer and fewer wild places for wild creatures, then they will have begun to see with their hearts. It’s important that people look around at their own wild world and find something to care for there. Get involved in citizen science. Open their eyes and hearts and help our planet find some balance again. It’s the only one we have.
JV: Raising awareness, as cliched as this phrase might seem, is what we want to achieve. There are still so many people that have never even heard of a pangolin before. If we can change that, if we can inform them about the threats they are facing, then I think we have done what we have set out to achieve. Pangolins need all the exposure they can get, and the people working to save them just as much.
To learn more about pangolins, visit https://www.pangolin.africa
Production of Eye of the Pangolin was made possible by the generous support of WildAid, The Marchig Animal Welfare Trust/Foundation Marchig, Tanglewood Foundation, Biggestleaf Travel and Pangolin Photo Safaris.