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.