Saturday, January 23

A lifetime theme of kindness towards disappearing wildlife


The pangolin is an important character in forest guardianship as its appetite for termites naturally controls pests and regulates the ecosystem.

Humans are sentient beings, capable of reflective thinking, emotion, empathy, reasoning – the list goes on and on. Scientists have wondered if animals share the same mental processes that parallel our own consciousness, and indeed animals can feel the same positive and negative emotions we do such as contentment, pain, and fear.

The pangolin is a slow-moving, scaly mammal that feeds on insects. In the presence of a threat, the angered pangolin will hiss and lash its tail, but more commonly it will curl up in a ball in fear. A pangolin’s armour may be an effective deterrent against predators, such as tigers and clouded leopards, with its sharp scales that are impenetrable to animal bites.

However, they were never equipped to deal with a different kind of predator – human beings – as a major flaw in their defence mechanism makes them simple to catch; they can be easily picked up like a ball.

The Sunda pangolin (Manis javanica) can be found in Sabah’s forests and is one of the eight pangolin species in the world – all of which are now threatened with extinction. Since 2014, the Sunda pangolin has been classified as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species due to rampant poaching fuelled by the lucrative black-market wildlife trade that remains primarily active in Asia.

In light of the recent coronavirus outbreak, now named Covid-19, there has been speculation that pangolins may be able to host the deadly virus that has so far infected 18 people in Malaysia. At this stage, researchers found a genetic link in pangolins to the circulating virus, but findings are still inconclusive. It goes to show how little we know about the ill effects of consuming wild meat.

For a long time, pangolins were heavily poached for their parts and are now dubbed the world’s most trafficked animal. Its meat is considered a delicacy predominantly in Vietnamese and Chinese cuisine.

Pangolin scales are made up of keratin, the very protein found in our hair and nails; they have no proven health benefits, yet they play a big part in traditional Chinese medicine proclaimed to cure a range of ailments that modern medicine could well fix.

It is better to err on the side of caution as studies on their negative side effects are very much still in its infancy.

Around this time last year in Sabah, authorities seized in a major haul 30 tonnes of pangolins, of which were 61 live animals. In the warehouse bust, it was found that local illegal hunters are the go-to suppliers for the illicit operation that ran its course under the radar for seven years. TRAFFIC revealed that Sabah has been involved in over 40 tonnes of pangolin smuggling since 2017.

Thousands of pangolins have perished in 2019 alone, and many more in the years before that. In over a decade since 2000, roughly one million pangolins worldwide may have been poached and traded, but if reported seizures represent as little as 10% of actual illegal trade, the total number may well be upwards of 1.5 million pangolins according to the Environmental Investigation Agency. The pangolin is being eaten to extinction – the threat that looms over the creatures is present and real.

Poaching is a risky business both in the eyes of nature and the law – tracking wildlife in their natural habitat means that poachers are exposed to the elements of Mother Nature and the dangers of facing wild animals, while poaching is effectively “illegal hunting”, thus hunting without a permit is punishable by law; and even more severely if it involves a Totally Protected Species like the pangolin.

Not all local communities indulge in bushmeat, pangolins in particular, but many know about the demand for certain wildlife so they would catch and sell them for a quick profit. Many traders have utilised social media platforms to conduct the sales of endangered species, contributing to the global illegal wildlife trade that is valued to stand between RM29bil and RM95.3bil. There has to be a better way of protecting the livelihood of communities without compromising the integrity of not only wildlife species but the environment as a whole.

Wildlife crime is one of the most difficult to prosecute as they usually occur in remote places that take time to detect and investigate as they cross borders and change hands quickly. At present, convicted offenders receive lenient sentences that do not commensurate with the severity of the risks posed by it.

Sarawak has called for a sentencing guideline on wildlife crime to be established, echoing Sabah’s effort to address the pressing issue in the State with its own launched by the Sabah Judiciary in June last year. The guideline takes into account the level of culpability of the offence, level of harm caused by the accused, and the aggravating and mitigating factors presented by the prosecution and the accused/defence.

The pangolin is listed as a totally protected species in Sabah – like the Bornean orangutan, sun bear and Borneo elephant – under the Wildlife Conservation Enactment 1997 and perpetrators will face a maximum fine of RM250,000 and five years imprisonment for illegal possession. Let us be reminded to be kind to animals, as they continuously do their part to keep the environment healthy and beneficial for us in the long run.

The pangolin is an important character in forest guardianship as its appetite for termites naturally controls pests and regulates the ecosystem, while the pangolin’s burrowing for shelter underground aerates the soil and improves its quality for the surrounding vegetation. A pangolin consumes over 70 million insects per year; their demise would lead to a mass of termite mounds that could cause damage to our forests.

World Pangolin Day, a day to raise awareness and be kind to the world’s most heavily trafficked mammal, falls on February 15th this year. We can help stop poaching in its tracks by reporting illegal activities to the Sabah Wildlife Department and spread the message to stop the consumption of pangolin and other bush meats.