How to save scaly mammals

by ZSL on

Alarmingly, two-thirds of EDGE mammals are currently receiving little or no conservation attention. Many weird and wonderful animals are in danger of quietly slipping towards extinction, including pangolins – the world’s only scaly mammals. 

Withoon Sodsai, an EDGE Fellow in Thailand, tells us how he came to be part of the Fellowship and how he’s working to protect the Sunda pangolin. 

Sunda pangolin by Dan Challender
The Sunda pangolin is one of eight species, all of which are threatened with extinction

I’ve always been interested in the environment and previously worked as an officer in a National Park in Thailand. My role was office-based and my main responsibility was dealing with reports and documents. But I really wanted to spend more time in the field, carrying out research and taking direct action to conserve wildlife. 

I realised that I wanted to work for an international NGO in Thailand, so I went to India to study English. When I returned, I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to work with ZSL Thailand as a part of their tiger conservation project. 

When I first joined the EDGE Fellowship Programme in 2016, I admit that I still struggled with my confidence because of my language skills. But my main reason for applying was because I wanted a big challenge as an early-career conservationist. I knew how important the work of ZSL’s EDGE of Existence Programme was, and I wanted to be involved in conserving unique species on the verge of extinction – like the pangolin

Pangolins are a group of unusual mammals with protective keratin scales, powerful claws for ripping open ant and termite nests, and long and sticky tongues for scooping out the insects. There are eight species, four in Asia and four in Africa, and all are listed as threatened with extinction. But we know very little about their ecology, and they’re being overlooked by existing conservation initiatives. 

Through the EDGE Fellowship, I’ve been working to improve the conservation status of the Sunda pangolin (Manis javanica) – a Critically Endangered Asian species. It’s heavily hunted for its meat, which is considered a delicacy, as well as for its skin and scales which are used in traditional Chinese medicine. 

For the first part of the project, my team and I started with observing a confiscated pangolin at Mahidol University’s Veterinary Center for Livestock and Wildlife in Thailand, and took measurements of the different tracks it left behind so that we would be able to identify them during field surveys. We then started to train park rangers on how to identify evidence of pangolins and teach them about different survey methodologies, and key study sites were identified based on their knowledge.  

The first survey was conducted in July 2016. Here, 40 camera traps were deployed in the study site and located where fresh evidence of pangolins was found or where it was highly likely that a pangolin was present. We were delighted when one of the camera traps produced images of a pangolin! It gave us a lot of hope that pangolins are still present in the area and that the methodology used is working.

I’ve learnt so much about best practices during the EDGE Fellowship Programme, and it has really helped me to plan for my conservation project. I’ve had also great support from the EDGE team, and an adviser has always been there to help me solve any problems. 

The Fellowship has provided me with a wealth of conservation skills, connections and experience. The most rewarding part for me though has been interacting with new friends who are like-minded, and enthusiastic about working for conservation.

Find out more about ZSL’s work protecting pangolins 

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