Locating giant ground pangolins using camera traps on burrows

by ZSL on

Despite pangolins being one of the world’s most trafficked mammals, there is very little known about their ecology. This is largely due to their cryptic behaviour: they are nocturnal, living mainly in underground burrows, and leave very little sign of their presence in the environment. To develop appropriate conservation plans and initiatives, we need to have a basic understanding of their biological needs and how to rapidly locate them to enable researchers to study them further.

ZSL team setting up camera-trap near potential pangolin site

The giant ground pangolin (Smutsia gigantea) is the largest of the pangolin species, growing up to 1.8m long. Despite its large size, it is incredibly difficult to locate in the forest habitats of Cameroon. Published in January 2018, a study carried out by ZSL in collaboration with the Congo Basin Institute (CBI) and Cameroon’s Ministry of Forests and Wildlife (MINFOF), represents the first steps into identifying potential locations to find giant ground pangolin in a relatively short time span.

The study took place in south central Cameroon in the 526,000 ha Dja Biosphere Reserve. The reserve is among the largest protected areas in Cameroon. Local Baka guides helped to find nine potential sites that they thought giant ground pangolin would use as a burrow and a camera-trap was placed at each of these locations. After only two days, we recorded the first images and video of a pangolin entering a hole under a tree root. It visited the tree a further seven times during the 25 day study. The pangolin showed scent marking behaviour and was also seen entering the burrow shortly before and after other wildlife such as giant pouched rat (Cricetomys emini) and African brush-tailed porcupine (Atherurus africanus). This could mean the species are tolerant of one another or the burrows are large enough to accommodate multiple animals in different chambers.

Giant ground pangolin at entrance to burrow

This small research project demonstrates that appropriate use of camera-traps could allow researchers to find where giant pangolins are present in the environment and begin to gather details as to what may constitute a giant ground pangolin burrow in a quantifiable manner. The images and footage gathered during this survey can assist in bringing attention to this rarely seen, but charismatic species.

Despite the growing plight of these poorly understood animals, recognition for the importance of their protection and conservation is growing. Importantly, the Government of Cameroon supported the uplisting of pangolins to Appendix I of CITES in January 2017, prohibiting all commercial international trade of pangolins. Appendix I species are automatically listed as Class A in Cameroon, which means that they are fully protected under Cameroonian law. However, due to increasing demand for pangolin meat and scales and a lack of law enforcement capacity, prolific illegal hunting still threatens the Congo Basin’s pangolins.

Education and increased awareness of the threats to the species is vital. Saturday 17th February 2018 is the seventh World Pangolin Day and everyone can get involved by sharing pictures and stories using #WorldPangolinDay, as well as hosting a World Pangolin Day event.

Find out more about ZSL's pangolin conservation 

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