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Saving the world’s most trafficked animal

By Yao-Hua Law

Can we finally turn the tide on the pangolin’s declining numbers?

Elisa Panjang’s bond with pangolins started when she was 10-years-old and living in a village surrounded by forest on the northern end of Borneo island.

Panjang, a conservation officer at the Danau Girang Conservation Center in Sabah, Malaysia, specialises in the Sunda pangolin (Manis javanica), a critically endangered species found only in Southeast Asia.

One day, as she played outside her house, she spotted a brown, scaly animal moving slowly along the edge of the forest. Panjang was familiar with wild civets and boars from the forest, but this animal was new.

Sunda pangolin. © Angus Chaplin Rogers
Sunda pangolin. © Angus Chaplin Rogers

Panjang ran to tell her mother. That animal, her mother said, was a “tenggiling”—the Malay name for pangolin —that eats ants and has hard scales.

The pangolin’s weird looks fascinated Panjang. “I fell in love with the pangolin. It was my first encounter and it became my favourite animal.”

Ever curious, Panjang studied the Sunda pangolin for her undergraduate final year project, then her Masters, and now her PhD with Cardiff University. But while Panjang is learning more about pangolins, their population is dwindling in the wild.

Eight species of pangolins live across Africa and Asia, and all are in peril. Although international trade of pangolins has been prohibited since January 2017, smuggling continues. In Southeast Asia, Sunda pangolins are poached and smuggled across land and seas into Vietnam and China where their meat and scales are prized for supposed medicinal benefits.

Since 2015, Panjang and other conservationists and wildlife experts in Sabah have been demanding the state offer stronger legal protection for Sunda pangolin. Their tenacity finally paid off on World Pangolin Day 2018 (February 18), when the state government elevated the protection status of Sunda pangolin to Schedule 1 of the Sabah Wildlife Conservation Enactment. While previously it was legal to hunt Sunda pangolin with permits in the state, all hunting is now illegal.

Measuring Sunda pangolin. © Scubazoo.
Measuring Sunda pangolin. © Scubazoo.

Between 2010-2015, authorities in 67 countries confiscated shipments of about 47,000 whole pangolins and - because some seizures measured weight rather than counts - another 120 tonnes of whole pangolin and parts. These numbers were reported in a study published December 2017 by TRAFFIC, an international NGO that monitors wildlife trade. The study also found that smugglers were very mobile, using more than 150 unique routes and adding 27 new ones every year. Most pangolin parts ended up in China. In November 2017, Chinese authorities seized 11.9 tonnes of pangolin scales at a busy southern port. The scales came from an estimated 20,000 pangolins in Africa.

It doesn’t help that pangolins walk slowly, heaving their disproportionately large tails behind them. “If you find one in the forest, you can definitely catch one,” says Panjang. “It’s just hard to see them.” Sunda pangolins are solitary and elusive animals. They tread quietly across the forest floor, their brown scales a perfect camouflage in the forest. They can hide in burrows or up in the trees where they are surprisingly quick. In her seven years of studying Sunda pangolins with camera traps, GPS-tracking and forest guides, Panjang has seen only seven pangolins in the wild.

If pangolins are so hard to find, how do poachers catch them in their thousands? Apparently, hunters have a hard time too, according to what ex-hunters told Panjang. They snare pangolins with nets up to 100m long on the forest floor. They sell the pangolins only after they have collected a substantial number.

Sunda pangolin © Frank Callum Roy
Sunda pangolin © Frank Callum Roy

In Malaysia, locals used to hunt Sunda pangolins to feed their families. Now, locals do not hunt pangolin for food. The alluring demand from Vietnam and China has changed pangolin hunting in Malaysia and the region. Now, “it’s profit for them,” says Panjang.

In 2015, conservationists and wildlife managers in Sabah, including Panjang, faced an uphill battle to elevate the status of Sunda pangolin to that of a totally protected species. The legal amendment required strong scientific evidence that Sunda pangolins were severely threatened. But nobody could say how many wild Sunda pangolins there were in Sabah. Nobody does still. Research on Sunda pangolins has just begun and scientists have no effective means to find and count the elusive animal, says Panjang. Hampered by a lack of solid population data, their proposal was rejected. Panjang’s team redrafted the proposal, but it was rejected again. And again.

“We couldn’t really answer all the scientific data they needed,” says Panjang. “It was disappointing and frustrating.”

Then the team switched strategies and launched campaigns to raise public awareness about the Sunda pangolin’s plight. “We tried to actively tell them that pangolins are very critical in this country.” And in place of pangolin population numbers, the team cited illegal pangolin trade data from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) to illustrate the immense poaching pressure on Sunda pangolins.

Finally, after more than six rejections, their proposal was accepted.

Efforts by conservationists like Panjang changed not just the law, but also the people. Panjang and her team ran workshops and roadshows in schools and villages, and actively engaged radio and journalists. Now, Panjang sometimes get calls at night from people who have found Sunda pangolins outside their houses bitten by dogs. She would then contact the wildlife department to rescue the pangolin.

“I have never received such calls five years ago,” says Panjang “so this is very good.”

Once, an ex-hunter who worked in one of Panjang’s village roadshows found a pangolin in his orchard. He immediately called her and handed over the pangolin.

“I was very surprised because he could have just sold it. He learned something in the roadshow and that was very important for me.” Panjang GPS-tagged the pangolin and released it.

Pangolin awareness talk with preschool kids. © Kinabalu International School
Pangolin awareness talk with preschool kids. © Kinabalu International School

Yet while public education and outreach is important for Sunda pangolin’s long-term survival, Panjang thinks the immediate priorities are to strengthen enforcement and to establish rescue centers in all countries with Sunda pangolins.

Pangolins are notoriously difficult captive animals and most die within six months. Because we are seeing more confiscated pangolins than wild ones, a strong network of rescue centers is top priority, says Panjang. Rescue centers will “need to work very closely and provide a protocol on how to better care for pangolin in captivity.”

According to assessment by the IUCN Pangolin Specialist Group, Sunda pangolins will be extinct in the wild if we don’t stop illegal poaching and trade.

“10 years is a short time,” says Panjang. If rescue centers can work together and continue research on pangolins, she believes “we can at least see some improvement in Sunda pangolin conservation.”

By Yao-Hua Law
Featured image by Getty/hphimagelibrary

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