Coming Together to Save Pangolins!

A tree pangolin ( Phataginus tricuspis ) exhibiting their semi-arboreal lifestyle! Photo: © Rod Cassidy

A tree pangolin (Phataginus tricuspis) exhibiting their semi-arboreal lifestyle! Photo: © Rod Cassidy

The extent of pangolin trafficking throughout Asia and increasingly Africa is horrifying. However, we aren’t going to dwell any longer on the saddening state of pangolins (If you need a recap of that make sure you check out our last post!). Instead, we’re going to be looking at some of the awesome ways different organisations (and people) are attempting to save this incredible species!

There is a whole range of organisations from all around the world working to save the pangolin. The Zoological Society of London, the IUCN Pangolin Specialist Group, and Pangolin Conservation are just a few of those. These groups are doing excellent things, plenty of which you can read about on their websites. Here, we’re going to single out a few particularly remarkable pioneer strategies.

A Sunda pangolin being released back into the wild thanks to the team at SVW! Photo: SVW

A Sunda pangolin being released back into the wild thanks to the team at SVW! Photo: SVW

To start off, let's look at the work of Save Vietnam’s Wildlife (SVW). This small organisation is doing everything they can, on a crazy small budget, to save the pangolin from extinction (Fletcher, 2015). They focus on rescue, rehabilitation, reintroduction, research, and education, using several different approaches to conservation. Individuals rescued from the wildlife trade are taken in by SVW, rehabilitated, and reintroduced into the wild. In 2015, they reintroduced 75 pangolins over an eight-month period, which is great news! Their Carnivore and Pangolin Conservation Program is growing yearly. Earlier this year, on World Pangolin Day (February 18th), they opened Vietnam’s first Pangolin Education Centre. It is this approach, that of education, which will ultimately have the greatest long-term impact on conservation efforts.

Some children learning about Vietnamese wildlife at the new SVW Education Centre! Photo: SVW 

Some children learning about Vietnamese wildlife at the new SVW Education Centre! Photo: SVW 

More learning! Photo: SVW

More learning! Photo: SVW

Education is widely regarded as one of, if not the most important element in Pangolin conservation. At the opening of SVW’s Pangolin Education Centre, Education Manager Ho Thi Kim Lan spoke about the “urgent need for engaging wildlife education in Vietnam. Education is key!” (SVW). This illustrates the importance these organisations place on educating the public about pangolins. In Vietnam and China especially, the cultural traditions are so ingrained that to change them would take a mammoth effort. Things like the SVW’s Pangolin Education Centre allow them to reach out and teach future generations about the dangers these glorious little animals face, and how important it is to save them. SVW has worked with over 1400 children across 17 schools just this year. In early March they were donated a new bus to help further the reach of their School Wildlife Education program. Unfortunately, with their tiny budget (mainly sourced from international donors) it is an uphill battle to spread the word and educate local people. However, it is organisations like SVW that will make all the difference in the fight to bring pangolin trafficking to the fore in Vietnam.

A gorgeous ground pangolin ( Smutsia temminckii ). Photo: © Darren Pietersen / African Pangolin Working Group

A gorgeous ground pangolin (Smutsia temminckii). Photo: © Darren Pietersen / African Pangolin Working Group

Education of the plight of the pangolin is vital, but strategies that involve on the ground work are also essential! One fantastic example is the work being done in Zimbabwe by the Tikki Hywood Trust. They utilise a three-pronged approach, with an emphasis on “conservation, legislation, and education.” To them, education is just as (if not more) important than the others combined. If people aren’t aware of laws regarding pangolin trafficking, the potential repercussions of trafficking them, or even who to contact should you come across them (or perhaps suspect trafficking), then they can’t do anything to prevent the trade. But this is not the main thing we’re going to be looking at here. The Tikki Hywood Trust has started an amazing program that empowers local people to look after the pangolin.

The ‘Pangolin Men' program selects men from the local community and teaches them about the pangolin. After their training is complete, they are paired with a rescued pangolin under the care of the Tikki Hywood Trust. The local minders go with their pangolin-buddies out into the bush, accompanying them at all times. This ensures that these little cuties are able to forage without being disturbed, and have some form of protection during outings which could end up lasting over three or four hours. The minders also help weigh the pangolins every day, and assist in taking other observations (such as temperature, weather conditions, and even the movement of the pangolins). This connection with the pangolins is helping to make massive progress in what we know about pangolins and their behaviour.

The link between the Pangolin Men and their charges. This photo is one of a number from Adrien Steirn's 'Pangolin Men' project. Photo from the  Tikki Hywood Trust

The link between the Pangolin Men and their charges. This photo is one of a number from Adrien Steirn's 'Pangolin Men' project. Photo from the Tikki Hywood Trust

The pangolin men are dedicating their lives to the rehabilitation of these incredible creatures. Many of them have been transported across country in a sack, starved and dehydrated. The stress they endure can be fatal. To gain their trust takes time and effort, all the while trying to make sure that they are fostered back to full health. “They have developed an intimate relationship while caring for them. Pangolins are like their children. And like any parent, they will protect their family from anything that poses a threat” (Beautiful News). Adrien Steirn joined the ‘Pangolin Men’ collaboration for a period of time to capture the enigmatic, gentle, and even playful, nature of these amazing animals. His photographs capture how proud the men are to work with, and to protect, the pangolin. They capture the love that people can have for wildlife, and why the pangolin has caught the hearts of almost everyone that has anything to do with them.

Enfranchising local communities in the saving of endangered wildlife, such as the pangolin, is key. Sometimes though, it is other animals that provide a speck of hope, both from a practical point of view and a scientific angle. The Belgian organisation APOPO has been training African giant pouched rats in Tanzania to detect landmines and tuberculosis for over 20 years... to great success! They’ve helped clear over 100,000 mines so far,  and tuberculosis detection has increased by 40 percent (they are able to screen 100 mucus samples in 20 minutes, which would take a clinic up to four days). Now, they are training the rats to detect pangolins. They are hoping to put the rats to work at “ports, national park borders, and even highways to sniff out illegal shipments and bust traffickers” (Brulliard, 2017) If the successes that they’ve had in these other areas are anything to go by, this sounds like something with a lot of potential! The hope is that these super-sniffer rats should be ready to be rolled out in two to five years! Check out this video to see them in action during their training! Who would have expected that rats might prove a key piece to the pangolin-saving puzzle!

The echidna could provide a key example in how to save pangolins! Photo: Zoos Victoria

The echidna could provide a key example in how to save pangolins! Photo: Zoos Victoria

Finally, we’ll look at a scientific approach being developed to help pangolins. This particular innovation is coming out of Sydney, Australia! A team based out of Taronga Zoo are developing a method to identify where trafficked animals were first captured (Grimm 2018).  And it’s all thanks to echidnas! The echidna’s quills are made of keratin, the same substance that forms the scales of the pangolin. The keratin of the quills has a chemical record embedded within them. Through a process known as stable isotope analysis, the team at Taronga have been able to identify where the echidnas have been living! In theory, if the keratin of the echidna’s scales can do it, it should be possible with pangolin scales too! This would allow those trying to monitor wildlife trafficking to identify where animals are being captured. This research may also prove massively helpful for none other than Save Vietnam’s Wildlife!

Echidnas frequently have gastrointestinal problems in captivity. This research is helping to develop a better captive diet for them, based on food sources found in their native habitat! A native habitat determined from their quills. Pretty cool. Excitingly, this may also prove a huge boon for SVW. Later this year, animal nutritionist Michelle Shaw from Taronga is heading to Vietnam to work with SVW. If they have the same success with pangolins as they have had with echidnas, they will be able to ascertain where trafficked pangolins are originating while simultaneously saving SVW tens of thousands of dollars a year. Currently, SVW spends about US$40,000 a year on ant eggs to match the appetites of their pangolins. If they can work out a better diet for these voracious anteaters, it will make the work of SVW immeasurably easier, and has the potential to maybe even help pangolins be rehabilitated that little bit faster!

In preparation for releasing pangolins, the team at SVW fit them with a transmitter before observing them moving around and eating ants. They make sure that the animal is as prepared as possible to make it on it's own back out in the wild! Video: SVW

As we discovered in our last post, pangolins are in a dire situation. The level of trafficking of these amazing creatures is incredibly unsustainable. However, as we’ve shown you today, there is still plenty of hope. Though it can be a slow process, things are changing and people are fighting harder than ever to save the pangolin. And guess what? You can be a part of helping save the pangolin too! You can donate to organisations like Pangolin Conservation, Pangolin Specialist Group, or some of the ones we’ve featured here such as Tikki Hywood Trust, or SVW. A little money goes a long way for these organisations.

Otherwise, education is so important. Particularly for such an unknown species! The number of people we’ve talked to during the creation of these posts who have said “oh, I’ve never heard of a pangolin before” has been staggering. But we can change this. Talk to people about pangolins, buy a pangolin t-shirt (perhaps from one of the organisations we’ve mentioned?), follow some of the organisations on social media. Alternatively, share one of our pangolin posts (or what about sharing both of them, eh?). Do something, anything. It doesn’t take much. We can all help to save these wonderful animals.

I know that I’ve fallen in love with pangolins while researching these posts. It’s almost impossible not to. I hope that you’ve fallen in love with them too.

I mean, how could you not?   Philippine pangolin ( Manis culionensis ) Photo: © Roger Dolorosa

I mean, how could you not? 

Philippine pangolin (Manis culionensis) Photo: © Roger Dolorosa