Until recently, most people didn’t even know they existed, but pangolins are the most heavily poached and trafficked mammals on the planet.
In 2015 a major new conservation initiative was launched to raise awareness of pangolins and address the key threats to their survival.
What is a pangolin?
Also known as scaly-anteaters, pangolins are the world’s only truly scaly mammals. They feed exclusively on ants and termites, which they scoop up with their long, sticky tongues.
When threatened they curl up into a tight ball, scales out. For millions of years this defence worked perfectly for the pangolin. But it doesn’t offer protection against human poachers, who are the main threat to the species today.
More than a million pangolins are estimated to have been snatched from the wild in the last ten years, usually for their scales or meat.
What’s driving the illegal trade?
Consumers in East Asia, particularly China and Vietnam, are willing to pay increasingly high prices for pangolin meat, which is considered a luxury food.
In traditional Chinese medicine, pangolin scales are also believed to treat a wide variety of conditions including psoriasis and poor circulation.
Despite protective legislation, pangolin trafficking is on the increase. Populations of Asian pangolins are estimated to have declined by up to 80 per cent in the past decade. As they become harder to find, traders are increasingly looking to Africa to meet the growing demand.
Pangolins give birth to a single young, once a year. They cannot possibly withstand this level of exploitation for long.
What is being done to conserve pangolins?
In 2014, the IUCN SSC Pangolin Specialist Group assessed all eight species of pangolin as threatened with extinction. They launched a global conservation strategy ‘Scaling up pangolin conservation’ which outlines the steps that need to be taken to clamp down on the illegal trade and secure the future of pangolins.
The conservation strategy highlighted addressing demand for pangolins in the Far East as a major priority. It also recommended identifying and protecting pangolin strongholds in Asia and Africa, stepping up enforcement in range states and developing population monitoring protocols so that we can assess the impact of these interventions on pangolins.
Introducing the Pangolin Conservation Initiative
With support from Fondation Segré and IUCN's SOS - Save Our Species initiative, the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) began a two-year International Pangolin Conservation Initiative in June 2015. Working in Cameroon, Thailand and China, the project will help to protect four species of pangolin – the giant, black-bellied and white-bellied pangolins in Cameroon, and the Sunda pangolin in Thailand.
In Cameroon the focus is on the Dja Biosphere Reserve (DBR), a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which is home to important populations of great apes and forest elephant as well as pangolins. ZSL is supporting Cameroon’s Ministry of Forests and Wildlife (MINFOF) to protect pangolins and other trafficked species using the ‘SMART approach’. SMART (Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool) is an adaptive management tool to strengthen wildlife protection and monitoring.
The project team is training and equipping eco-guards to undertake anti-poaching patrols using SMART, and reinforcing law enforcement capacity through training enforcement and customs officials. At the same time, ZSL is empowering local communities to take action to combat wildlife crime through training anonymous informants, setting up surveillance networks and secure reporting mechanisms.
In Thailand, the ZSL pangolin team is supporting the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation (DNP) to implement SMART in two key sites – Salak Phra Conservation Landscape and Khlong Naka Wildlife Sanctuary.
ZSL are also trialling different survey methods with the aim of developing the first standardised monitoring protocols for the Sunda pangolin. It’s not an easy task, but once developed, the protocols will enable the team to track changes in the pangolin population over time and determine if the conservation interventions are successful.
On-the-ground protection and effective law enforcement are essential to reduce the poaching and trafficking of pangolins. However, unless demand for pangolins and their derivatives is reduced, the threat from trade will never be eliminated.
ZSL is therefore also working in China to undertake research into the nature of the demand for pangolins in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, thought to be one of the primary markets for pangolins.
Through gaining an understanding of the drivers of demand, the team can develop targeted behaviour change strategies to reduce the consumption of pangolins. As project partner WildAid puts it ‘when the buying stops, the killing can too’.
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