Pangolins and pandemics: how I became an author and illustrator

When I embarked on my Group Study Exchange organised by Rotary International, the ticket said The Philippines but in reality that was just the start of the journey. A journey that I didn’t anticipate would involve an imaginary pangolin and a pandemic.

As a wildlife conservationist, travelling from the UK, one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world, to The Philippines, a global biodiversity hotspot, was a wonderful opportunity. In the Philippines, there are unique species of mice restricted to single mountain tops. One of the country’s many islands is home to the world’s smallest wild buffalo, on another island there’s an endemic species of pangolin. I didn’t see much of this wildlife but you don’t have to see it to appreciate it. I could sense its richness in the variety of insect life and their night-time serenades.

My memories of the exchange, back in 2009, are a mix of the sense of the place: the sari-sari stores and videoke, and, as it was a Rotary exchange, those experiences that elude tourists. Visiting crowded prisons and buying gifts made by the prisoners, and visiting schools where the children danced in celebration of our visit. These were schools that couldn’t afford books for their libraries and children that didn’t have books of their own.

Back at home, I began to write stories about animals found only in the Philippines. There wasn’t any intentional plan or ambition but thanks to connections with Filipinos, in 2015 some of my stories became picture books published in the Philippines by Bookmark The Filipino Bookstore.

By fundraising in the UK, I was able to work with Rotary Clubs in the Philippines to distribute the books to schools I had visited. It still seems extraordinary that this happened – that my stories are read by Filipino children. But that was just part of the journey.

One of the characters from my books, a pangolin called Pipisin, took on a life of his own. Pangolins are still relatively unknown, even more so when my picture books were published. A few years later, I set up an Instagram account where I could share sketches of my pangolin character, ideas for pangolin-based craft activities and perhaps raise awareness of their plight.

Pangolins are the world’s most illegally trafficked mammal. They are killed and traded for meat and for their scales which are used in traditional Chinese medicine. The scales, that protect them from predators when they roll into a tight ball, are the very thing that make them desirable to humans and they’re easy for poachers to pick up and carry away.

I enjoyed drawing a little cartoon pangolin, Pipisin Pangolin, on my instagram account. As my numbers of followers grew, I began to make connections with pangolin conservationists and others who loved these quirky and shy animals.

Conservation organisations, teachers and individuals used my crafts and colouring sheets, educating children and adults about pangolins. The global nature of social media meant that this was happening in in countries that are home to pangolins including the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam and Liberia.

Most surprising of all was when my pangolin character became an ambassador for WWF China. The pictures were used on their social media platforms and at events, helping to raise awareness in a country that is a major market for illegally traded pangolin scales. My imaginary pangolin was travelling the world.

Then, the world came to a halt. We all know the devastating impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, but it also pushed pangolins onto the front page when they were implicated as a possible host for the virus. Whatever the cause, it illustrates one of the many issues with the illegal wildlife trade and bringing wild animals into close proximity with people.

My pangolin character and I gained a few more followers on Instagram and received enquiry from Apollo Publishers – a book publishers in New York. The wheels set in motion for the next stage in my journey. With many people only becoming aware of pangolins since their association with Covid-19, they wanted to do a book that was a sweet, humorous visual introduction to them. Their idea was for a hardback book of 128 pages for all ages. It was a massive challenge to write the narrative and draw all the illustrations but what I had learnt from my exchange to the Philippines was to embrace opportunities.

“It’s not my fault: A Pangolin’s Manifesto” was published in September 2021 and a French translation followed in October.

A reviewer on Amazon.com said “Meet your new favourite animal! For fans of animal humor books, this is a heartwarming introduction to the sweet pangolin! Get to know the infamous star of our time. A wonderful gift book too.” That was exactly what we were aiming for. One book can’t change the fate of a species but perhaps it can inform an individual.

I don’t know where the journey will take me next but I’ll always be thankful to everyone that has supported and encouraged me, and to Rotary International and the inspiration of visiting one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots: The Philippines.

A Pangolin’s Manifesto

JANET BINGHAM - Children's Author

Pangolins have a hard time. If they’re not being exploited for food or pseudo-medicines, they’re being blamed for a pandemic…

A Pangolin’s Manifesto – it’s not my Fault’ (author/illustrator Rachel Shaw, Apollo Publishers, 2021) reminds us that curling up into a ball when things get tough isn’t always the best defence – for pangolins or people.

This is both a gentle self-help book on being kind to ourselves and others, especially in difficult times, and also a cute introduction to what is sadly the world’s most trafficked mammal. The slim, 128-page text is interspersed with snippets of pangolin facts helpfully set in a different typeface, and the adorable line illustrations featuring Pipisin Pangolin will appeal to both children and adults.

My favourite spread is page 48-49, where Pipisin is lost in a book:

This charming little book would make a perfect gift for World Pangolin Day on 19

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Adopt a pangolin

Pangolins are facing extinction. As one of the world’s most illegally traded mammals, they need our help.

By symbolically adopting a pangolin, you can make a difference and support those organisations that are rescuing and rehabilitating pangolins. It’s a great gift for a pangolin fan as the recipient receives an adoption pack and, sometimes, a soft toy.

David Shepherd Foundation – adoption includes a print and an optional handmade pangolin toy by Little Ndaba, a women’s community project in Zambia.

Born Free – adoption includes a pangolin soft toy and supports the Sangha Pangolin Project in the Central African Republic.

WWF – adoption includes a pangolin soft toy.

Scales Conservation Fund – adoption helps to provide veterinary treatment to pangolins retrieved from the illegal wildlife trade in the Greater Kruger area in South Africa.

Save Vietnam’s Wildlife – adopt Rolly and the other pangolins in the care of Save Vietnam’s Wildlife. Adoption provides fresh food, veterinary treatment and a place to live for injured pangolins and those waiting to be released back into the wild.

Animal Works International – offer an adoption programme in support of Save Vietnam’s Wildlife.

Wildlife Alliance – sponsor Sunda pangolin Raya and the pangolin conservation work of Wildlife Alliance in Cambodia.

Support pangolin conservation without the symbolic adoption by donating to Save Pangolins or the Pangolin Crisis Fund.

Book cover of It's Not My Fault
Buy my book: a pocket-sized companion for when you feel like a pangolin and want to roll up into a ball.

Books about pangolins

Some animals a superstars; featured in books and on the silver screen. Say ‘lion’ and it’s hard not to think of Simba and Aslan. But say ‘pangolin’ and some people will think that you said ‘penguin’. However, their fortunes may be changing.

Pangolins were plunged into the limelight as a possible host of the coronavirus that caused the COVID-19 pandemic. My book, It’s not my fault: A Pangolin’s Manifesto is a direct result of that connection with the global pandemic. The growing number of picture books for children may also be as a result of this increased fame. Hopefully this will lead to increased awareness of pangolins and the threats they face from the illegal wildlife trade.

Some of the books are available to buy online. If they are available to buy on The Book Depository, they might also be available on your favourite book selling website or your local bookshop may be able to order them for you.

Book cover of It's Not My Fault
It’s not my fault: A Pangolin’s Manifesto by Rachel Shaw (Apollo Publishers 2021). Available on The Book Depository.

Children’s Books

Agent Pangolin: The Mystery of the Shiny Moon – a middle grade novel by AC Bradburn (Clink Street Publishing 2022). Available from The Book Depository.
Pangolina by Jane Goodall and Daishu Ma (Mineditionus 2021). Available on The Book Depository.
The Boy and the Pangolin by Catherine Barr and Laura Borio (Pearson Education, 2020). Available on The Book Depository.
Adventures of a Pangopup by Terri Tatchell and Ivan Sulima (Fielding House Press, 2020). Available on The Book Depository.
A Wish for Pangolin by Carrie Hasler and Christina Wald (Blue Sneaker Press, 2020). Available on The Book Depository.
Where is Marula? by Zane Alcorn and Cathy Meis (CRASH Wildlife, 2020). Available from CRASH Wildlife
Pangolin: Life of a Scaly Anteater by Joséphine Billeter (published in Laos, 2019)
Pangy the Pangolin by Marika Price and Zach Spitulski (Moon Grove Studios, 2019) Currently sold out pangythepangolin.com
Ping Pong Pangolino by Massimo Saudi (2019). Available from Amazon.it
Baby Pangolin – board book by Sandra Ascherfeld (published in Germany by lomolivre, 2018). Available from faltershop
Po Tricks his Foe by Sharmila Deo and Niloufer Wadia (published in India by Kalpavrisksh, 2018)
What on Earth is That? by Susan Savory and Frederic Baele (Penguin Random House South Africa, 2018)
A Pangolin Tale by Jason Derry and Louise Fletcher (Oakenday Press, 2016). Available on The Book Depository.
Pipisin the Pangolin by Rachel Shaw (published in the Philippines by Bookmark the Filipino Bookstore, 2015). Available from Pumplepie Books and Happiness.
Roly Poly Pangolin by Anna Dewdney (Penguin USA, 2010)

And for a more serious read and to increase your knowledge of pangolins:

Pangolins: Science, Society and Conservation edited by Daniel W.S. Challender, Helen Nash and Carly Waterman (Academic Press, 2019). Available on The Book Depository.