Early last month, customs officials in Singapore came across a suspicious shipment of "frozen beef" on route to Nigeria from Vietnam. A closer inspection revealed 230 bags stuffed with almost 13 tonnes of pangolin scales bound for the black market. It's a story that's becoming all too common as demand for pangolin scales and meat continues to soar. 

In an effort to highlight the plight of the world's most trafficked mammals, wildlife filmmakers Bruce Young (Blood Lions) and Johan Vermeulen (A Kalahari Tail) spent almost two years travelling through Africa on a quest to capture footage of the continent's four pangolin species for a new documentary. "If people know about them and how special they are, they might begin to care enough to help conserve them and put an end to the illegal trade in their scales and meat. To do this we needed to tell their story," Young and Vermeulen explained in an interview.

Eye of the Pangolin will be premiered at a special screening in South Africa on Endangered Species Day (May 17) before being released globally on Youtube on May 18 (we've embedded the full version of the film below). "As we are not tied to a distributor we’re able to make it freely available as an open source film, allowing us to reach the greatest possible number of viewers in the shortest possible time," explains Toby Jermyn, director of Pangolin.Africa, a non-profit organisation and major production partner for the film.

Pangolins are shy, mostly nocturnal creatures that feed on termites and ants. Their bodies are covered in hard, overlapping scales that provide protection from predators (even lions struggle to break through the tough armour). But it's this almost-impenetrable exterior that has thrust these unassuming creatures into the international spotlight. Pangolin scales are used in traditional medicine in Vietnam and China where they are believed to cure a host of illnesses from asthma to cancer. Much like rhino horn, pangolin scales are mostly comprised of keratin – the same substance found in human fingernails. The medicinal qualities of pangolin products are unsupported by science.

While the film only focuses on the four species of pangolins found in Africa, all eight species are under threat from increased poaching. An international ban on the sale of pangolins imposed by CITES does little to restrict trade and scales are easily accessible while pangolin meat is eaten as a delicacy in some areas. 

The producers of Eye of the Pangolin are hoping that their film will create widespread awareness about the threats facing the species. "We are excited about the incredible potential the film has to tell people about pangolins and the urgent need to work together to save them," says Jermyn. "We are confident that embracing modern and freely available distribution channels is the most effective approach to help us quickly gain ground in the fight to save a species."

Top header image: David Brossard