Say “No!” to the quill trade

Many years ago, the writer and wilderness advocate Laurens van der Post wrote poignantly that “We have to become once again not only the voice and the reason of this wounded earth of ours, but also its healer and defender…” and through these words, encapsulated an urgent environmental issue of our time.

For if we do not speak out for all those animals that are defenceless and vulnerable, for all those wild lands that still bear witness to a primal echo of creation, what will happen one day, when there is just nothing left? What will life be like, without the glimpse of a heron fishing patiently for frogs in the wetlands, or hearing a baboon barking high up amongst the rocks, or listening to the snuffling of a porcupine as it goes about its nocturnal foraging? What will fill the emptiness of their passing?

All these thoughts are always foremost on my mind, and when I first set out to learn more about the porcupine quill trade, I had a predominant sense that this would be an exacting journey that would require of me to harden myself against the dark side of human nature, so that I could work with resolve for the greater good of the species.

From the onset of my research, I learnt that the porcupine is a fascinating yet controversial animal and that its own inherent nature was bringing it into direct conflict with man, invariably with fatal consequences for the animal. One cannot understand the scale of the quill trade without first delving into the complex relationship that exists between man and animal, as it is in this context that the killing of porcupines originated and now flourishes.

The Cape porcupine occurs widely across the southern African subregion and, as a generalist, is found in a diversity of habitats where it is able to thrive even in marginalized environments. In recent years, with the tremendous increase in urban and agricultural development, they have been drawn frequently into areas inhabited by man, where permanent food and water provide them with an effortless means to survival. As with animals before them, like jackals and bat-eared foxes, porcupines have become a maligned species that are considered vermin by farmers and killed because of the negative impact they have on their farms. The scale of the problem is significant and it is going to take continued lateral and progressive thinking on behalf of the conservation authorities, to find non-lethal solutions that will stem the tide of killing that has dominated farmer/wildlife conflict for so many years.

When we stop and think for a moment about the steady decline in free-ranging wildlife outside of nature reserves and protected areas, when we reflect on the number of species that have been forced to the very edge of extinction because of our voracious appetite for land and natural resources, it begins to read like a sad and desperate story that seems echoed across the whole of Africa, wherever the human footprint is found.

And the narrative of the striking, sociable Cape porcupine is slowly succumbing to this trend, as its resplendent armament of quills gains popularity as a commercial, profit-making commodity around the world.

Thick, thin, black, brown, tri-coloured, pointed, tapered, hollowed, fibrous, chevron-patterned – the porcupine quill is a quintessential African memento that evokes a tangible reminder of the bush and our experience of the wilds. It is always exciting to come across a quill on the mountains, knowing that the animal past recently during its nocturnal wanderings. Not many people are aware though that in the wilds, porcupines shed their quills only occasionally and even in high-density porcupine territories, one seldom finds more than a small handful of quills, on a good day.

Yet, across South Africa, in farm stalls, upmarket interior design stores, curio shops and as ornate displays in B&B’s and game lodges, porcupine quills are to be found in the thousands, with quill products ranging from trendy lampshades that utilise up to 140 quills per shade, to coasters, picture frames, pens and ornaments.

To any person who has an awareness of the state of our natural environment, it is inconceivable that these quills are being obtained through natural harvesting in the wilds. After visiting many retail outlets that stocked quill products, I was repeatedly assured with much sincerity that their quills were ‘gathered naturally’, yet the sheer volume of quills on sale convinced me that this could not be true, and so my research into the dubious workings of the quill trade began.

I soon learnt that porcupines are hunted routinely across South Africa and in certain rural communities the echo of baying dogs at night is a regular sound, as the farm labourers head out into the dark, to hunt them. As the species is generally slow moving and often range far from their burrows at night, they are easily hunted down and a quick blow to the head with a blunt object results in a swift death. The labourers then skin the porcupine, removing the quills and eating the meat, which is a valuable source of protein. The hunting of porcupines has been in practice for countless years and is openly encouraged by farmers, who are intolerant of the animals’ impacts on their farms.

This includes foremost their wasteful eating habit of biting into a vegetable and then discarding it – a family of porcupines can work their way comfortably through a sizeable patch in one evening’s foraging. They also have hardy incisors that are well used to biting through fibrous plant matter and they frequently gnaw through farm fencing or into underground water pipes, to the dismay and expense of the farmer. Their deep burrows also pose obstacles to farm vehicles and in most instances, even when a dominant family is eradicated, the burrows are soon inhabited again by young females looking to start their own families.

Without doubt, these behaviours are hugely challenging to farmers and when the porcupine was listed recently as a protected species in the draft Biodiversity Bill, it was not long before they were downgraded again, after fierce objections from farmers across the country. Most farmers will not tolerate having to apply for permits to kill them.

My reason for explaining these problems in detail is simply that it is on the farms and in the rural villages across South Africa that the quill trade originated, and from the humble sale of a few quills in isolated farm stalls, today, as the demand for quills increases both nationally and for international export, huge volumes of quills are available commercially – ranging from 20 000 to even far greater numbers.

Farm labourers still go out at night with their dogs, but these days they are not looking to eliminate the odd problem-animal or find a cheap means to substituting protein in their diet – now they are being paid directly by quill dealers to hunt down adults, and specifically juveniles and baby porcupines, to fulfil the growing demand for clean and un-scuffed quills. Once the quills have been washed with disinfectant and sorted into bundles, they are collected by the dealers who travel out to the farms from town. In many instances, some bread, jam and wine are the only rewards for an evening’s hunt.
One of the inconsistencies within the porcupine debate is the widely held belief that as rodents they must breed prolifically and can therefore sustain these hunting pressures. However, this is not so, as there is no evidence of a female having more than one litter per year, with on average two young, within free-ranging populations.

As I began to absorb the scale of the problem, and after having spoken to countless people who felt intrinsically that the quill trade must be having a negative impact on the holistic integrity of the species, I couldn’t help thinking that we will lose something deep within ourselves, if we stand back and let the situation perpetuate, and do nothing about it. This apathy could lead over time to possible localised extinctions of this charismatic species and should this happen, we too will experience their loss – for not only do porcupines occupy an important niche in the wilds by increasing bulb diversity through their diggings, but as wild animals, they have an integral right to live unhindered in the natural environment and as custodians to what is left of this natural world, it is our responsibility to safeguard them into the future.

So much of our wildlife has been exploited over the years and today we are left with only isolated, remnant pockets of once-thriving natural populations. There is no doubt that as wildlife and wilderness areas are diminished and destroyed, the quality of life on planet earth is becoming increasingly emptier, for whether we are open to the concept or not, we need wild animals and wide open spaces for our sanity, our growth and our spiritual revival.

As with almost all trade in wild animal parts, including the sale of elephant hair, ivory, bone and rhino horn products, the reality is, we do not actually need these commodities.

We do not need porcupine quills. They do not fulfil any indispensable function within our lives, other than being attractive, decorative items. We can easily say no to purchasing them and so put an end to this insidious, cruel and unsustainable practice. The choice is ours.

Whenever I think about the impact mankind is having on wildlife around Africa, I reflect on Chief Seattle’s profound words that ‘if all the beasts were gone, man would die from a great loneliness of spirit…” for in my own life experience, I am beginning to understand the deeper significance of his message.