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.

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

 

Where were you when…?

I can’t quite believe it’s so long since I first went to the Philippines as part of a Rotary sponsored Group Study Exchange (GSE). Some of the memories seem so fresh including visiting school on the shores of Laguna de Bay where the children danced for us (though dancing wasn’t unusual, there was always dancing). Just a few months later, the school and so much of the surrounding area was devastated by a typhoon. This is what I wrote at the time, back in early October 2009.

Visiting the school in April 2009

Where were you when…? A phrase probably most associated with the assassination of Kennedy and more recently with the terrorist attacks on the twin towers. It may not have had the same international impact but I’ll always remember the exact moment when I heard about the flooding caused by Typhoon Ketsana (Ondoy) in the Philippines. Driving out of Bridlington an English coastal town with the car radio switched on: it was a sunny Sunday afternoon following the annual conference of Rotary District 1270, where I had been speaking with other members of the GSE Team to District 3820 in the Philippines. I couldn’t quite believe what I was hearing. My initial deep shock turned to feelings of helplessness and distress at a situation where I knew people who were involved but could do nothing to help.

Typhoon Ketsana wreaked havoc in Manila and Laguna – a region visited by our GSE team. One month’s worth of rain fell in six hours; at least 288 people were killed; the homes of 3 million people were damaged or destroyed; and an estimated £72m worth of crops were damaged. The scale of it is difficult to grasp, the long term impact perhaps harder. The disaster is so massive that the government and aid agencies have been overwhelmed. Outside Manila, much of the relief effort is being carried out by volunteers and civic organisations including Rotary.

The town of Bay, on the shore of a large lake, has been a major casualty. In March, when we visited a school in Bay it was an idyllic place. The children sang and danced for us, and we looked over the still blue waters of the lake. Now the school, and adjacent neighbourhood, are chest deep in muddy water. The water isn’t expected to recede for weeks, perhaps months. The smiling children who had met us already had so little, now their homes and school are underwater, their school bags washed away.

The same school after the typhoon, in early October 2009

Like many of the Rotary Clubs in the region, the Rotary Clubs of Bay and West Bay responded immediately. Delivering what emergency relief aid they could. Food, water and clothing were a priority. Now they plan to buy hygiene products, medicines and water purification tablets. They are also preparing the families that will be housed using ShelterBoxes. This immediate response by Filipino Rotarians has been repeated throughout the affected area. But their ability to help those in need is, and will continue to be, limited by a lack of funds.

International aid has arrived in the Philippines but is prioritised in the capital, Manila, leaving those in the provinces such as Laguna feeling frustrated. The Philippines is no stranger to disaster: being in the path of typhoons rolling in off the Pacific and with active volcanoes and earthquake risk. District 3820, has a Calamity Fund to help cope with disasters but this fund is now depleted. The Rotary Clubs have little left to help with the reconstruction/rehabilitation of communities.

The response by Filipinos to the unfolding disaster should be an inspiration to us all, as is the Filipino Rotarians dedication to Service above Self.

This was published by Rotary District 1270 and by a few local newspapers in the UK. We managed to raise funds to help with the relief work carried out by the Rotarians that had hosted and looked after us six months earlier.

 

The glittery tree that wasn’t just for Christmas

I came across this piece that I wrote after my first visit to the Philippines as part of a Rotary Group Study Exhange (GSE). It was published in “The Vision” – The official Governor’s Monthly Letter Rotary International District 3820 (Philippines) in August 2009

When you sign up for a GSE, it’s the beginning of a whole new adventure. Exciting and unimaginable experiences lie ahead but, arriving in the Philippines after 36 hours of non-stop travelling and barely four hours sleep, I just wanted to be in bed. Instead, I found myself inside a Filipino prison being presented with a plastic tree covered in red and silver glitter. I’ve never even been in an English prison, and with four weeks of travel ahead and a bag already full, what on earth was I going to do with a glittery tree?

Rachel's tree
My glittery tree made from a plastic bottle by a prison inmate in the Philippines

On closer inspection, the tree turned out to be carved from a plastic drinks bottle. The branches ingeniously formed, I can only guess, by melting and moulding the plastic. Whoever made this tree had some skill. And the red and silver made it look kind of Christmassy; it would make a unique Christmas decoration. Something to bring out once a year, perhaps with sweets in the bowl formed from the base of the bottle. The glittery tree was a gift that I wanted to take back to England, but how could I keep it safe? It was fragile and might not cope with the battering of travel. Step forward the San Pedro Rotarians who kindly looked after it whilst I was in the Philippines. Then, for the journey home? Baggage handlers are not known for their delicate touch! I found the ideal solution: stuffing clean underwear into the canopy of the tree to give it the protection it needed.

Back in England, I was proud of my tree. It had survived and reminded me of the colour and vibrancy of the Philippines. The tree sat for a while on the mantelpiece, until my husband subtly suggested that, perhaps, I should find a suitable box to keep it in. A plastic tree covered in red and silver glitter, I have to admit, didn’t really fit in with the decor of our home. Maybe it was destined to be a tree just for Christmas.

Following a GSE, team members tour their local Rotary clubs giving presentations. I hoped our presentation would give people a taste of our experiences of the Philippines and, more importantly, an appreciation of the dedication to Service Above Self that we witnessed among the Filipino Rotarians. I took my glittery tree to our first presentation.

Picture3

At the end of the presentation, when I tentatively asked everyone to donate £1 to buy flip-flops (slippers) for Filipino children, the tree became the star of the show. As it was passed around, people marvelled at its construction and its origin. As they did so, they all dropped a £1 coin, sometimes more, into the bowl of tree. Now, my glittery tree accompanies me to all our presentations. As well as the trail of glitter I leave behind me, I hope I also leave a little bit of Filipino sparkle in the minds of the Rotarians of District 1270 (Lincolnshire and South Yorkshire, UK).

This note was added at the end:
Rachel has been asking everyone who attends the GSE Teams’ presentations to donate £1 to go towards buying slippers or other needed gifts for Filipino children. Four presentations have been given so far (three to Rotary clubs and one to Rachel’s work colleagues) and £171.00 has been raised for the Rotary Club of West Bay. A further £100.00 has also been pledged by Rachel’s sponsoring club [the Rotary Club of Lindum, Lincoln], making a total of about P20,000. More presentations are planned. Rachel and the rest of the GSE Team hope to raise further funds and support at District 1270’s Discon (District Conference) in late September. – Editor

But at the same time as the District Conference in late September 2009, Typhoon Ketsana (aka Ondoy) was pounding the Philippines.