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 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.

Four things I learnt from travel to the Philippines

I am fortunate that I’ve had the opportunity to visit some of the top tourist spots in the Philippines: I’ve climbed Taal volcano, gazed in wonder at the Chocolate Hills, floated on the green Loboc River, rafted down the rapids of Pagsanjan River, swum from a sand bar into a warm turquoise sea and looked in awe on Mount Mayon. I discovered a country of real beauty, of dreamy beaches and dramatic mountains. But my time spent in the Philippines is much more than memories filed away in dusty photo albums. I may be thousands of miles away but the Philippines is part of my here and now. It shaped who I am today. So I’ve tried to distill it down to why it had such an impact, this is what I came up with:

The Chocolate Hills, Bohol

  1. Smile

Whilst visiting the Philippines for the first time, I was often asked “What will you take back from the Philippines?” It sounds a bit silly but my answer was always “the smiles”. As part of an exchange visit organised by Rotary Clubs in Laguna and Bicol, we visited lots of schools and community-based projects. Everywhere we went, we were greeted with beautiful smiles.

The smiles are still with me, though sometimes, I do have to remind myself to smile more.

Filipino kids smiling and laughing

  1. Biodiversity is truly diverse

The wildlife in the Philippines astounds me. I’ve been lucky enough to see wide-eyed tarsiers and swim with wide-mouthed whale sharks, but there is so much more. Although most of it I will never see, it is fascinating to discover that there are unique species of mice found on single mountain tops and to see how bleeding-heart doves have have evolved to have different plumage on different islands.

It’s also simple things that really made me stop and think: the funky centipedes, colourful beetles and the ridiculous number butterflies – I was amazed to see twenty-two different species of butterfly on one short walk!

I have worked in wildlife conservation all my working life, I know what biodiversity means but only in the Philippines did I truly witness it.

Philippine tarsier

  1. The power of community spirit

Children danced for us when we visited this school on the shores of Laguna de Bay; the next time I saw an image of the school was six months later; adults were wading through water that was up to their chests.

Typhoon Ondoy (Ketsana) had stuck with all its might. The moment when I heard about it on the radio, in a BBC news broadcast, is permanently etched into my mind. But it was what happened immediately after the typhoon was inspiring. My Facebook news feed and email inbox filled with updates from Filipinos I’d met. They took immediate action to help those affected, delivering food, clothing, whatever was needed in their communities.

All communities come together and support each other in times of need; it is the human spirit. But in the Philippines, there’s even a word for it bayanihan. 

(Read more about it on this blog: The Bayanihan Spirit).

School children dancing

  1. To embrace the inspiration

Spending time in the Philippines changed my perspective and sparked my imagination.

After visiting the Philippines I started drawing again (which I hadn’t done for years) and began to write stories. I didn’t set out to be an author; that some of my stories became published picture books in the Philippines is remarkable. Maybe they will help raise awareness of some of the wildlife in the Philippines, before it is too late.

Measured in miles I am a long way from these islands that continue to inspire me, sometimes it feels a little crazy, but I have decided just to carry on. To embrace the inspiration and see where the stories and pictures take me.

And I hope, in a small way, it gives something back to the children that greeted us with their smiles.

School children with picture books donated by the Rotary Club of West Bay, Laguna


Diwa in the community

Distribution of Diwa the Dugong picture books and dugong posters in Busuanga

With the help of her friends from Community Centred Conservation (C3), Diwa the Dugong has been busy raising awareness of dugongs from Busuanga and Ortigas City.

Distribution of Diwa the Dugong picture books and dugong posters in BusuangaC3 Philippines team conducted awareness campaign on dugong conservation in Calawit National High school and Barangay Bogtong. The team distributed Dugong-Seagrass posters and Diwa the Dugong books for teachers and community members.

Distribution of Diwa the Dugong picture books and dugong posters in Busuanga


Diwa the Dugong books were also sold during the First National Biodiversity Congress held in May at Ortigas City, Mandaluyong.

Diwa the Dugong at the First National Biodiversity Congress

Copies of the picture book Diwa the Dugong are available from Bookmark the Filipino Bookstore and Pumplepie Books & Happiness.

Panay: paradise in north-west England?


Somewhat colder than the original Panay in the Philippines; this is the Panay at Chester Zoo in the north-west of the England.

I had wanted to visit since I heard about their ‘Islands’ exhibit inspired by islands South-East Asia including Panay. Finally, I had the chance to explore.


Visiting the zoo is like exploring; it feels like there is an element of luck in whether you will see the animals or not. Luckily I spotted what I had come to see and lots more. Top of my list was the Visayan warty pig – one of the rarest pigs on the planet and my very own picture book heroine Mayumi.

dscf8865This was my first face-to-face encounter with a Visayan warty pig: she looked happy chewing on leaves and was totally oblivious of me and everyone else (which is exactly how it should be).


It’s not just the human visitors that get to explore, the animals appeared to have space to explore too.

There are just a few hundred Visayan warty pigs thought to be surviving in the wild; living in fragments of forest on the islands of Panay and Negros. Without intervention it is likely that they would disappear entirely. The conservation work of zoos like Chester Zoo, and the support they give to conservation initiatives in the Philippines, is vitally important.

dscf8878Visayan warty pig – now found only on the islands of Panay and Negros, this critically endangered wildlife pig is perhaps the rarest pigs in the world. Some estimate at there being just 200 individuals left living in the wild

dscf8898Philippine or Visayan spotted deer – endemic to the islands of the central Philippines but now thought to be found only on Panay and Negros

dscf8929Mindanao bleeding heart-dove one of the bleeding-heart doves that are endemic to the Philippines

I also saw but didn’t  photograph: Philippine mouse-deer, Visayan tarictic hornbills, Mindanao hornbill, Palawan peacock pheasant and Northern Luzon cloud rat. The cloud rat proved to be the hardest to see. Being nocturnal, it’s enclosure is darkened and the animals still aren’t very active during the day. I stood watching for ages until I was rewarded with a brief glimpse before it retreated back into its nesting box.

The Philippine species weren’t all in the islands area of the zoo, I had to seek them out and I know I missed some. But there is some much to see. My other highlights were young orangutans playing on a rope swing and rolling down a hill (it looked like loads of fun), the painted dogs, aardvarks fast asleep and dreaming, an aye-aye and the amazing fruit bat cave.

Oh and I should have mentioned I saw one of the Visayan warty pigs have a poo too! It made me happy because pig poo is a very important part of Mayumi’s story.