Pangolins must be protected from extinction


Omar (right) showing frozen pangolin meat that was seized in the recent operation, together with Augustine (second left) and their team.

PANGOLINS covered in tough, overlapping scales are unique, because they look like dinosaurs, lumbering and ancient. Sadly, pangolins, the most frequently seized mammal in Asia’s illegal wildlife trade, are currently facing extinction.

Hundreds of unique species, including pangolins, have gone extinct in the last few centuries because of humans. From poaching to destroying their habitats, humans are responsible for eliminating hundreds of unique and amazing animals around the world.

According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), there are more than 1 million scientifically identified animal species on earth, but we lose between 100 and 1,000 of them to extinction every year.

Do we really want pangolins to be extinct like dinosaurs?

Sunda pangolin. — Photos copyright Danau Girang Field Centre

Or, together we protect them to ensure future generations will have a fair chance to know more about this incredible species?

Three years ago, this little-known mammal gained the highest levels of protection under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) with the decision to bring in a ban on international trade. There are eight species of pangolin, and all are threatened with extinction.

The Sunda pangolin, the only species found in Sabah, is listed as Critically Endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List.

Following the red list in international level, the State Government announced last year that the Sunda pangolin, the only pangolin species found here, has been upgraded to a ‘Totally Protected’ species in Sabah.

Although the new law means it is forbidden to hunt, consume, possess, or sell pangolins or their parts, it was just recently that a syndicate believed to be involved in smuggling endangered species for the past seven years was crippled.

Estimated RM8.4 million worth of pangolin and other wildlife meat in Sepanggar and Tamparuli were seized, recorded the country’s biggest-ever haul of pangolin products, according to conservationists and police.

Strong collaboration between the Royal Malaysia Police and Sabah Wildlife Department indeed played an important role in busting the syndicate, where investigation believed the animals and its meat was for local market.

Elisa Panjang

Sabah’s own pangolin expert, Elisa Panjang, who is also the Pangolin conservation officer for Danau Girang Field Centre, said about five decades ago the indigenous people in Sabah were hunting pangolins for the meat, but today it is driven by lucrative profits in the black market.

“With the latest bust in a factory in a well-known government’s industrial park, it definitely throws a spotlight on Sabah’s role in sourcing and trafficking pangolin.

“There is no further information whether it is from our jungle, or Sabah as a transit point in the global trafficking from Africa to Asia? I am looking forward to know more about this,” said Elisa, the only Malaysian member in the IUCN Species Survival Commission (SSC) Pangolin Specialist Group.

It is an open secret that Chinese tourists go for pangolin meat which is served illegally in some restaurants known to illegal tour operators. It is difficult for the relevant authorities to catch the errant restaurant owners as the latter are usually tipped off about would-be raids on their premises.

Admitting there is still a number of indigenous people especially in non-Muslim population areas eating pangolin meat, Elisa said awareness programmes and educational activities were among initiatives that can be done to reach the local communities (including potential poachers, traders and consumers).

“I am currently on my fourth year in pursuing my doctorate on pangolin ecology and behaviour studies with Cardiff University, so most of my time is in the jungle to collect information about pangolin and rescuing them with Danau Girang Field Centre team.

“However, I am also actively involved in various activities mostly sharing the importance of protecting pangolins,” she said.

The Borneo Post recently interviewed award-winning conservationist Elisa, after delivering a talk on ‘Pangolin, species that need saving’ hosted by Discovery Centre at Shangri-La’s Rasa Ria Resort and Spa in conjunction with World Pangolin Day.

“In my research, I am using multi-disciplinary approach to collect ecological information on the Sunda pangolin to ensure I have enough data for other researchers to continue this work, because we have very little knowledge about pangolins.

“My methods include sign spotting, spotlighting, camera trapping, satellite telemetry and community survey,” she said.

“Sunda pangolins can live on trees, underwater, bushes, and even dig and live in holes in the ground. They are so friendly and not afraid of human appearance. They are also very slow, which is an advantage for poachers to catch them,” she said.

Elisa tags a rescued pangolin before releasing it to the wild.

Elisa said it is unknown how long pangolins live because captivity is traumatic for pangolins resulting in stress, depression and early death. However, the oldest recorded pangolin in captivity died at 19 years old.

“Like other pangolin species, female Sunda pangolins usually give birth to one pup at a time, so this is showing that reproduction of pangolin is slow, compared to the other animals.

“Previously, the people in kampung eating pangolins for the meat, while some believe the meat has medicinal value. Meanwhile, pangolin’s scales were crafted into long belt to protect their back.

“Today, most of them already know that there is no medicinal value in pangolin meat, and they are poaching only for the money,” she added.

Asked why so many people still think pangolin scales can be used as medicine, Elisa said most of information on pangolin are available on publication, and it had not reached the population, especially where pangolins are on high demand in countries like China and Vietnam.

“It was scientifically proven that pangolin scales are made of keratin, the same stuff that makes fingernails and claws, and they have no more medicinal value than any other fingernails.

Elisa sets up a camera trap.

“So, if you can’t eat your fingernails, what is your reason for eating pangolin scales?” she said.

Realising that pangolin awareness programmes are important in schools and universities, she is currently attached to various organisations to spread as much information as possible to the public.

Elisa is hoping her works will contribute to the preservation of the Sunda pangolin, as well as providing important scientific information to better plan the species management and conservation, not only in Sabah but also in other countries.

Fortunately, Elisa is not going to fight this battle alone.

The Sabah government, last week, announced that it was working with a philanthropist towards the setting up of a sanctuary and research centre for the endangered pangolin in Sabah.

Minister of Tourism, Culture and Environment, Datuk Christina Liew said this was part of the State Government’s continuous effort to protect the wildlife in Sabah.

“The setting up of the Sabah Pangolin Sanctuary and Research Institute (SAPSARI) is in progress. Our discussions have been on the location of the facility, funding and how it will be managed.

“But before finalising it, we will have to go through the legal procedures, terms and conditions of the MoU as well as the Attorney General’s office. Then I have to present it to the state cabinet for the government to decide,” said Christina who is also a Sabah Deputy Chief Minister.

“It will be a process that will take some time. I hope to be able to do it as soon as possible. We have started the draft of the MoU,” she added.

Speaking to reporters at the World Pangolin Day, Christina disclosed that SAPSARI is the initiative of a Malaysian-born philanthropist Peter Chan. Peter and Elisa will be working on the proposal paper.

“We are thankful to Peter and the Wildlife as well as Forestry Department who are working together to ensure that this will be a continuous project for us to protect the pangolin just like what we are doing for the other protected animals like the Orangutan and Sun bear to name a few,” she stressed.

In light of the recent haul of live animals and parts worth over RM8 million, Christina said that Sabahans must be aware of the severity of pangolin poaching and illegal wildlife trade.

Christina and Peter (second from right) with government officials during the state-level World Pangolin Day celebration.

“At this juncture, I would strongly recommend a 3E formula for combating indiscriminate hunting and senseless killing of pangolin in Sabah. The first ‘E’ would be empowerment of stakeholders in protecting these mammals.

“The second ‘E’ would be enforcement of the law against perpetrators of this despicable crime and the third ‘E’ would be Education of the public to raise consciousness of the importance of conserving the pangolin,” she pointed out.

She also urged the relevant authorities to raid eateries serving pangolin meat to tourists and added that the government welcomed tip-off from the civic conscious public on such matter.

Meanwhile, Peter said that people need to learn about the critically endangered pangolins, therefore the setting up of SAPSARI which would take care of pangolins as well as research on the endangered animal.

On the recent case, Sabah Wildlife Department director Augustine Tuuga said that investigations were still ongoing as there is a lot more to be done.

“There is a lot of documentation to be collected, among others and will take some time to complete. Even sample collection for DNA identification is not completed yet,” he said when asked for an update on the case.

Obviously, endangered animals need protection and it cannot be done by the authorities and scientists alone.

“We, the human from all walks need to work together to ensure we have something to tell our next generation. Simple thing that we can do is to learn about endangered species in our own area. We can teach our friends and family about the wonderful wildlife, birds, fish and plants that live near us.”