Today I had a horrible reminder of a story that I tried to covered back in 1995. I had been in Namibia looking into the trade in pangolin scales. Pangolins are a scaly anteater – in south east Asia they are largely arboreal but in southern Africa there is a different species, the Ground pangolin (Manis temminckii). The scales of the Ground pangolin are in great demand for the Traditional Chinese Medicine and muti trades. And as there are so few left in Asia, attention has been turned on the African species.

The scales of the pangolin are made from a rather amazing and quite magical substance, so it is no wonder that people are keen to get hold of it, because I just cannot imagine where else they could find this stuff … keratin … really – the worry at the global shortage of keratin has people biting their finger nails in fear of what might happen if they could never get a hit of that complex fibrous protein again.

But this short blog is not about the pangolins – fascinating and cute as they are. It was sparked by a video clip that appeared on the Guardian website today. And now a warning – this is a horrible clip.

The film of seal cubs being clubbed to death was shot in 2011 but withheld until now as the campaigners at Earthrace Conservation wanted to see whether the proof of what was happening would be enough to persuade the authorities in Namibia to call a halt to the controversial killing. They also wanted to leave time to allow those brave people who managed to film the cull to move far from harms way.

My personal interest was sparked when, in 1995, I visited the Cape fur seal at Cape Cross. It is a wonderful opportunity to get close to a mass of wildlife – you pay your money and you get to walk along a path right beside the basking seals. Here is a photograph I took on that walk – frustratingly the original is not on this computer so I have had to borrow my image from a library that sells images for me:

Now, I am given to occasionally push my luck and was there well aware of the cull that takes place – early in the morning, before the tourists arrive, teams of men smash the skulls of seal cubs and load them into trucks, washing the bloodstains away to keep the visitors happy. So I snooped, a little. Now, I was there with a very old, manual camera, and most of the photographs I got were not very good. But these two, again very gruesome, capture the horror of what I found – the processing factory – there was a rendering plant for the fat – and the skin was dried and sold.

I was chased out after taking these pictures, camera hidden I played the part of the lost tourist.

The arguments for the cull are as self-serving and ecologically illiterate as our very own government’s desire to kill badgers to assist the dairy industry. The cull of seals will not help the fisheries – that is not how ecology works. And it has been shown clearly that the amount of money made from tourists coming to watch the wildlife spectacle far outweighs that made from seal oil and fur.

Namibia was an amazing country to visit, full of vigour and life, even in the depths of the enormous deserts. But it is shamed by the perpetuation of the seal hunt. I am not sure what is the best way forward, there are campaign groups who are far more experienced than me, but I feel if we were to express our resolve to the Namibia embassies around the world of our intention to boycott the country until they halt the killing, that would be a start.

Sorry for the horrible stories, I will write something much happier soon, I promise.


I wrote this article 14 years ago – and discovering it has made me feel rather old! But also rather proud that I managed to write something of this depth when I was really just starting out as a freelance journalist. And for such a publication – the New Scientist.

But where is the story now? I started to have a rummage and found this on the BBC web that in 2007 moves were afoot to try and re-start the project. And that is where the trail has stopped … I just hope that the damn dam has been stopped too – it was clear when I visited the Himba people ,who live part of the year near the beautiful Epupa waterfalls, that their lives would be destroyed should this development take place.

And where is the reference to hedgehogs? Even Namibia, famed for extensive deserts, has indigenous hedgehogs in the form of Atelerix frontalis … which has formed the basis for the breeding stock of the semi-domesticated hedgehogs that are still being touted as pets.

That was a bit of a shoe-horn of a hedgehog link – but I could not go publishing something without hedgehogs!