Pangolins and the Penan

Yesterday we undertook a long journey to Sukang to meet the last Penan tribe living in Brunei. These people live their lives in tune with the forest, talking what they need when they need it.

When I comes to the impact of hunting of local tribes conservationists hold many different viewpoints. Some stand on the side of enforcement, others on the side of offering alternative livelihoods and some talk of sustainable livelihoods, but, echoing the theme of the previous post, how many people have gone and seen these people? Have you looked at how they live? Have you spent time with them? Have you taken an interest in their opinions? You may say yes, but can you say you’ve managed it without judging or criticizing the fact that they may, occasionally, kill something that we are desperately trying to protect?

This was the aim of yesterday’s trip.


The road to Sukan is bad, we can testify, we got stuck in it. There is no electricity supply to the long house and the wooden floors are falling apart. Any supplies they need must be arranged a month before and done by good old fashioned talking, no mobiles or landlines. They are kind hearted and welcoming, not hesitating to help us when we were in trouble and needing shelter for the night.

However, they hunt. They set traps and use blow pipes to catch and eat monkeys, pangolins, wild boar mouse deer and anything else they catch. We asked them how often they hunt, and they replied, simply whenever they need to. The last time they got a pangolin was a long time ago, and it is very rare that they get them.

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Yet the forest seems healthy, with a long list of species they have seen in there. This is sustainable off-take without any need for outside intervention. People, without greed, taking what is needed, taking enough to satisfy the demand. The difference being, the demand here, is for their own basic need.

So, when the demand is higher, you can guess what happens next. This was echoed by one of the people living the long house who spends some months of the year here and others in Sarawak. He said that no one in Brunei is asking for animals, whereas in Sarawak, there are more people asking for certain animals – and as a hunter who can get them, why would you turn down business? And just to clarify, this is also in an area where a homestay has been set up bringing in money to the village (which, he told us, they are happy with).

This is the same tribe, the same person, acting differently depending on the situation. Is this really what we as conservationist are doing? Are we honestly all being as flexible and adaptable in our ideas and actions?

I am not even going to suggest a solution to this. One trip, to one long house, that’s not enough. However, I certainly don’t think any less of them for hunting wild animals, I eat meat, who am I to judge? I’m certainly not offended by the fact that they have eaten pangolin, but this doesn’t mean I care any less about their plight. In this area, looking at the swathes of forest surrounding the single long house, I feel comforted that they are, for the meantime, guardians of this forest.

People can tell you a lot about pangolins

It is well known that pangolins, especially the more arboreal Sunda pangolins, are notoriously difficult to spot. While we work to develop methods of being better able to find them in the wild, there are people who have been living and working next the forest for generations, who can provide a wealth of information about pangolins they have seen.


Talking with a local about all the pangolins he had seen in the area he lives and works

Across Brunei we have been spending our time talking to local village heads, farmers and long house residents to try and build up a bigger picture about their ecology, if they are being poached and what could possibly be causing them to venture into urban areas.

A general consensus among the people we have spoken to is that in the past pangolins have been generally ignored. They pose no threat to humans, they are not a pest and they are not targeted for local consumption. Many local people do hunt, setting traps for wild boar or deer, a cultural activity that has been going on or generations. However, nowadays, with the true value of pangolin being more widely known, if caught in a trap or seen in the forest, the chances are that they are taken up to the border with Malaysia to meet the high demand that is seen there.

However, even within a country as small as Brunei, variation exists between the viewpoints of those in different areas. Some will not poach pangolin as they know it is not allowed and fear the punishment; others have great relationships with local wildlife clubs and won’t poach them because they are aware of the work that they do; while some view themselves as poor or overlooked and the chance to make extra money is all too tempting. Understanding these attitudes has been hugely useful when thinking about what sites in Brunei are suitable to use for pangolin releases and thinking about strategies to engage different communities.

So what else have we learnt? There are some interesting insights into the ecology of the species. Some say they have seen the pangolin feed on the flying ants attracted by the street lights, others have noted that it is the smaller individuals that are spotted on the roads, and many have made observations about the real need they have for shelter in a cool, dry place when they sleep. One person even watched them break open an ant nest and let the weaver ants crawl over them before the pangolin shook them to the ground where it could then eat them!

These discussions don’t provide strong scientific facts, they won’t immediately stop people poaching them, and they certainly won’t mean that next time we are in the forest we will suddenly have the skills to locate a pangolin, but they are steps forward and the value of this information shouldn’t be disregarded. Finally, and I can’t stress this enough, taking the time to go and talk to these people, build up relationships and listen to what they have to say is a fundament step in achieving on the ground conservation.

What about the pangolins in Brunei?

On Wednesday I started working with 1stopbrunei Wildlife Club after securing some funding to carry on pangolin conservation with them after a week-long workshop in February.

3 days in and we have already begun to work on some of the objectives including mapping the distribution of pangolin across the country using records of sightings, releases and rescues; increase our understanding about the perception of pangolin in Brunei and the threats facing them; identify suitable forest for future releases; and attempt to monitor those that have already been released.

The last objective is by far the hardest, pangolin is notoriously difficult to survey for in the forest. However, drawing on past experience they sometimes return to previously used sleeping sites or release sites. So this is a good place to start. We decided to set up cameras at previous release locations, paying particular attention to the height, direction and length of time the cameras should be left for, maximizing the chance of getting a photograph.

The type of camera used will also greatly impact the success of obtaining a photograph. This funding has allowed us to purchase some better cameras, the success of which can already be seen by this photo of a pangolin leaving to feed 5 hours after it was released into the wild by the group.

Sunda pangolin

We have also been spending time talking to village heads and loggers to see what information we can obtain from them. At present, no one is targeting pangolin directly, and one village head told us that they only knew they had a pangolin when they cut down the tree for other uses and found it at the top!

However, a worryingly common theme seems to be that there is a high demand from Malaysia and through family connections pangolin caught (just opportunistically) are taken up to the border to satisfy the demand for the use of scales in medicine. In fact one logger, showed us some tail scales that he used for back and kidney pain. One area in particular has been highlighted and it may mean that we take a trip up there at some point in the future.

So even though it’s only just started, we are starting to gather useful information to drive forward pangolin conservation in Brunei. It will be exciting to see what we can achieve over the next 5 weeks, including some important training with the group. Already, I have to say a huge thanks to Shavez and Nazi, two club members, who have been incredibly helpful so far and who I look forward to working with for the rest of my time here.

Field Training – Brunei

To follow on from the work on Monday, relevant groups took part in the first part of field training. Pangolins are habitat generalists, however, as with any species there are certain habitat features that they prefer. In order to maximize success we need to be critically evaluating sites to ensure that release is made as easy as possible for them. Today participants spent a bit of time revising what was already known regarding the ecology and behavior of the pangolin and visited two sites to evaluate which one may be more suitable to release a pangolin at. There are no definitive answers, but there are definitely particular questions that need to be considered which participants were encouraged to think about. By doing this they noticed aspects such as differences in soil type; amount of human activity and availability of sleeping sites.

Conservation strategies and awareness campaigns need to undergo continue monitoring, evaluation and refinement in order to be successful in the long term. Ultimately the place we want to see our efforts have the most impact are in the wild – protecting and in some case boosting numbers.

This is not easy. Pangolins are elusive, solitary creatures and are difficult to find.  Traditional methods of camera trapping and night spotting, that tend to work so effectively for other species seem less effective for pangolins. The aim of the workshop was therefore, not to teach participants how to survey for pangolin but get people considering what ecological factors might be important to Sunda pangolin. Is there a higher chance of finding pangolin in one type of forest compared to another? How might morphology and behavior affect where you might place camera traps when searching for pangolin? From what we know about home range size and movement patterns, how far apart should we place cameras and how long should we leave them there for?

However, we also came up with some important strategies and steps that could be implemented immediately. Gathering baseline data is imperative and patterns can be spotted using simple techniques so long as they are regularly repeated.

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School workshops – Brunei

Any conservation strategy, regardless of whether the focus is a particular species, ecosystem or habitat type, should always be partnered with an awareness campaign and education program. Today it was a pleasure to be invited to Jerudong International School to conduct a workshop with students of a variety of ages. The morning started with a session of activities learning about the unique characteristics of the pangolin (did you know that, despite appearance, it is a mammal?). All students were left with tasks to become “Pangolin Protectors” spreading the word about this animal and the threats that it faces. It has been fantastic to hear feedback from both parents and teachers that children have been talking about the workshop and teachers have been initiating extra ideas.

A few afternoon sessions were conducted with some year 9 students. To really help them understand and appreciate the role these animals play in the ecosystem group work began with them thinking about what is known about the pangolin’s ecology and making predictions about what might happen if they are removed from the forest. I was impressed with the ideas they came up with, thinking about predator prey relationships and cascading effects.

Furthermore, they brainstormed suggestions and ideas for alternatives that could be used instead of poaching pangolin – why would it be better to use an inhaler rather than pangolin scales to help with your asthma?

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Stakeholder workshop – Brunei

Wildlife conservation is an integral part of Brunei’s move to a more diversified and greener growth. Following this theme and in the run up to the third annual World Pangolin Day it is a pleasure to be running a workshop focusing on designing and strategy for the conservation of the Sunda pangolin; a species for which Brunei represents one of the last remaining strongholds.

The conservation of our natural fauna requires a multi-faceted approach and so the attendance of key stakeholders from a variety of different ministerial departments, NOGs and university students provided a great platform for collaboration and sharing knowledge working towards a common goal.

In order for any strategy to be successful it has to be nationally feasible. The morning section of the workshop was designed to analyse the environment that we were working in order to determine what is possible. It involved taking an honest approach, critically evaluating the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats faced in pangolin conservation.

Conservation of a species involves focusing efforts in key locations, where work will have a measurable impact on a species at a global scale. Until now the crucial role that Brunei plays in the conservation of Sunda pangolin has not been sufficiently highlighted. This was a chance to emphasize the role that this country plays and what a unique position it is in, thanks to swathes of pristine forest found in this country.

The afternoon session was aimed at providing attendees with basic knowledge necessary for the successful rescue, rehabilitation and release of Sunda pangolin. Group work developed ideas on what records should be taken when collecting a rescued pangolin, how natural behaviors can be encouraged during rehabilitation and how to monitor the animal’s progress and how to assess when it is suitable for release. A risk assessment at all stages of the process was conducted to ensure that guidelines were of an international standard.

It was an incredible success and I would like to thank the hard work of all attendees and the support of the British High Commission in Brunei.  IMG_0658 IMG_0660 IMG_0662 IMG_0664 IMG_0667 IMG_0668 IMG_0669

Pangolin art

In the lead up to World Pangolin Day (21st Febraury), I wanted to share some of the drawings and paintings that I have been doing to celebrate this creature (some more successful than others!) I have some exiting activities organised in the week leading up to it, so keep a look out here and on twitter @adelina84. Enjoy.


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