The power of collective experience

Wendy Panaino

I recently had a most wonderful experience visiting the UK to attend a workshop at The David Attenborough Building, Cambridge, to develop ecological monitoring methods for pangolins. Having never attended a workshop before, I was not too sure what to expect, but from the agenda sent out by Dan Challender, Chair of the IUCN SSC Pangolin Specialist Group, I knew it was going to be challenging. Scanning through the list of participants, I recognized only a few names, none of whom I had ever met. I was excited to meet and engage with several of the conservation champions I had read so much about.

pangolin workshop group photo

IUCN Pangolin workshop group photo in front of the David Attenborough Building, Cambridge.

The morning of day 1 comprised of meeting the group of about 40 participants. I was blown away by the diversity of people from all around the world, and from so many different organizations, but all having the same goal – conservation of pangolins. Presentation sessions followed, where nine experts had the opportunity to discuss the various techniques used to detect and monitor one or more of the eight extant pangolin species. I had the privilege of discussing my own research in the context of the use of telemetry to track and monitor Temminck’s ground pangolins (Smutsia temminckii) in South Africa. I was surprised to learn about the struggles that participants go through on a daily basis to conduct their research on the other seven pangolin species. Perhaps I had known that detecting pangolins was difficult, but the most surprising of all was how easy my overall experience had been relative to those trying to achieve similar goals.

Wendy presenting

Presenting my research on ground Pangolin in South Africa. Photo credit: Elisa Panjang

I could not help but feel guilty that my time tracking pangolins and the information I had been gathering over the past few years had come with relative ease, when there were so many people sitting in that room dealing with the problem of just finding one pangolin to work with. I felt relieved when an anonymous participant came to me after the talks and said that “it was nice to have a happy, optimistic story to add to the workshop”. In all that we are trying to achieve, and through all the struggles that these conservation heroes face, it certainly felt good to be able to add some optimism to create a more positive outlook to our conservation goals.

Day 2 involved discussing key questions that we, as conservation scientists, should be asking to achieve our goals. In Africa and Asia, tons of pangolins are being taken out of the wild and illegally traded each year. We cannot assess whether that trade is sustainable or not if we do not know how many pangolins are in our wild populations (See my blog on pangolin conservation). Day 2 and 3 then allowed us to discuss and devise various methods that could be used for each pangolin species to answer that big question – how many pangolins are in the wild? We asked which techniques can be used to monitor individuals and populations at a regional scale so that we may ultimately begin to understand the species as a whole. Each participant had the opportunity to add their input and talk about their experiences with a particular pangolin species or a particular method. We soon realized that it was not a single method or technique that was going to answer our questions, but rather a combination of methods, whether they were social, ecological or technological methods. It was at this time that information started to flow – information that people possessed that may not necessarily have been written down anywhere.

Workshop brainstorming in action

Brainstorming in action.

Suddenly, connections started forming in my mind. I was able to link my own knowledge and experiences with the global experts in the room. I soon learned how similar, yet very different each individual pangolin species is, whether it was a behavioural or physical attribute under discussion. I still get chills when I think about the energy I felt in that room when our simple individual experiences became massively exaggerated as a group. In just three short days, we had put our minds together to produce a very powerful and significant output dealing with the most effective ways to answer our questions. I walked out of The David Attenborough building on the third day having just witnessed a beautiful phenomenon – the power of collective experience. And I got to be part of that. What an experience!

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