It’s a waiting game this whole night stalking, stake-out to spot a pangolin in ‘real’ time kind of operation. You know pangolin? No? Name doesn’t ring a bell? You’re not alone. Covered in reptilian scales, with the snout of an anteater, the digging claws of a wombat, the climbing prowess of a possum and a long sticky tongue that would rival any amphibian in the animal kingdom, the pangolin is one of the coolest creatures you’ve never heard of. Unfortunately it just so happens to also be the most trafficked mammal in the world, listed as critically endangered on IUCN’s red list.
There are eight species of pangolin around the world. Four are found in Africa and four in Asia. Taronga has made a conservation commitment to protect the Sunda Pangolin for the next ten years and Simon Brown, Unit Supervisor at Backyard to Bush, was fortunate to receive a Zoo Friends and Conservation Fellowship to assist NGO’s in Vietnam put in place workable solutions for confiscated pangolins and other animals rescued from wildlife trade.
“My travels took me to Cuc Phuong National Park, south of Hanoi, to an organisation called Save Vietnams Wildlife. SVW is a not for profit organisation committed to protecting threatened species and securing safe habitats. It focuses on the rescue, rehabilitation and release of carnivores and pangolins and is involved in global conservation breeding programs for threatened carnivores.” Habitat loss is a major threat to many wild species across South East Asia but the imminent danger to declining pangolin numbers is hunting. “Pangolins are listed as the most traded animal in the world,” says Brown. “They are used for meat in restaurants and their scales are sold for jewellery, clothing and mostly for traditional medicine which is frustrating as there is no scientific or pharmaceutical data to support the medicinal claims.”
During his visit Brown was involved in the confiscation collection of a Leopard Cat and two Masked Palm Civets; however the process of confiscation can be a lengthy one. “Obtaining the different signatures from various Government agencies holds up the process of the rescue centre taking possession of the confiscated animals.”
Rescues also mean travelling long distances as there are only two main rescue facilities within Vietnam who have experience in rehabilitation. “Pangolin and other animal species have often been in transit for many days prior to being confiscated and will often have snare trap wounds, dehydration and are suffering from hunger and stress.” Healing snare wounds is but one of many challenges that face SVW when rehabilitating confiscated pangolin. Another challenge is recreating their wild diet in captivity.
“Pangolins are hard to feed,” says Brown. “Collecting enough live food on a daily basis is difficult for SVW staff.” Pangolins have an insatiable appetite for ants and termites and are known as the pest control of the forest. An adult pangolin can eat around 70 million ants and termites in one year so matching this at the rescue centre and in captivity as a whole is a tricky task. “Fortunately some animals readily take an alternative diet made by the rescue centre from ground silk worms and ant eggs.”
Populations of Sunda Pangolins are thought to have been reduced by more than 50% in the last 15 years, although exact numbers are not clear due to the animal’s shy and secretive nocturnal nature. Creating conversation with the locals who frequently head into the forests is an important part of protecting the pangolin in Vietnam. “Surveys are being conducted with local villagers and hunters to gather estimates of the number of pangolin living in the Cuc Phuong and Cat Tien National Parks,” says Brown. “Unfortunately Pangolin sightings have dropped dramatically, although this is no surprise. They are rarely seen in the wild anymore because of the illegal hunting and wildlife trade.” Asked whether or not he witnessed pangolin meat for sale in the local markets or at restaurants, Brown said no, “I was told to acquire pangolin, while not openly advertised, would be easy at many surrounding restaurants. Of 75 restaurants surveyed across Vietnam, 61 sold pangolin.” Alarming and devastating to say the least.
“Throughout my three weeks in Vietnam while working with SVW and having meetings with other NGO groups, I was able to see firsthand the effects of the illegal wildlife trade and the impact of habitat loss,” shares Brown, “Poor wildlife protection policies and weak law enforcement is a frustrating obstacle for these hardworking teams.”
There is a shimmer of light beginning to shine on these pangolins in peril and that comes down to organisations like Taronga supporting the important in-situ work NGO wildlife centres like Save Vietnam’s Wildlife are doing. “Rescue centres like SVW struggle with resourcing their efforts. Something that may seem simple to us is quite difficult for them like having a reliable vehicle for emergency response to confiscations and retrievals of animals. Financial support is important but there are so many other ways that Taronga can provide assistance to SVW like professional training in animal husbandry, research and education strategies and methods.” In early 2014 SVW released five rehabilitated Sunda Pangolins into Cat Tien National Park. The three females and two males were released strategically in the hope that they would mate and increase the population and genetic diversity in the park. “The survival rate was 80% which is a good return for an animal that is difficult to rehabilitate,” says Brown with hope, “Data on the size of their home range, den site selections and activity patterns was successfully collected which is so valuable.”
Not three weeks after Simon Brown returned home to Australia the SVW retrieved 22 confiscated pangolins from a rescue. The road ahead is a challenging one for pangolins but it is not impossible to put a stop to these amazing and unique creatures getting eaten to extinction. If travelling abroad lend your eyes to the wild and report any illegal wildlife trade, exotic pet sales or restaurant food through the Wildlife Witness app. download it today by going to www.wildlifewitness.net
You know pangolin? Yes? Fabulous!
By Hayley S.Kirk – Interpretation team