If we cast our minds back to April in 2015 we are reminded of the awful situation where near to 1,000 pangolins were uncovered in a warehouse in Medan, North Sumatra with photos of carcasses burning in deep pits circulating social media. Accompanying that were photos of around 100 lucky individuals being set free, back in the forest.
The world of conservation is a small one and via colleagues I was put in contact with a local guy running a small NGO and got set on the task of doing something to support pangolin conservation in the area. The first step was visiting in the summer of 2015.
The visit, although brief, included a trip to a local village near to where the animals were released. What we found put was heartbreaking. Most of the animals were re-poached, the locals new that they were being released there.
While it is admirable that authorities and organisations are working together to uncover the illegal trade. Poor placement of animals post confiscation means that many are released in poor condition and without any consideration of habitat requirements, adequate distribution or the attitudes and proximity of local communities.
So it starts, we have a small amount of funding to begin work and our hoping to secure some more in the imminent future. The objectives of the project are as follows:
- Investigate, collect information, conduct social surveys and collecting as much information about sightings – where, when and how many were seen in private captivity or in markets.
- Assisting BKSDA (Natural Resources Conservation Centre) and police officials during the confiscation of selected individuals of pangolin from private owners or from bird markets and advising on where to release them.
- Begin developing an ISCP Rehabilitation and Quarantine centre in Bandar Baru (Sumatra).
- Raise awareness of local communities and government institutions about conservation issues regarding pangolin and other wildlife in Sibolangit district and across north Sumatra. The focus will be at those villages in Sibolangit district which have populations of pangolin in the area.
Pangolins are not the only species that the Indonesian Species Conservation Program (ISCP) work on. They have started by supporting the conservation of the slow loris. Please check out the work of Project Kukang.
It is estimated that over the past decade more than one million pangolins have become victims of the illegal wildlife trade yet Brunei remains one of the last strongholds for this species. In July 2015 I worked with 1stopbrunei Wildelife Club (http://www.1stopbrunei.com) and the full report of the activities can be found here: A strategy for pangolin conservation in Brunei
The pangolin has been reported in all four districts of Brunei, namely Brunei Muara, Tutong, Kuala Belait and Temburong. the highest number of recent, confirmed sightings has been from the urban areas in the Brunei Muara district, when the animals are found in houses or seen crossing highways. 1stopbrunei wildlife has released 11 pangolins between 2013 and April 2015. Eight of these releases were animals found for sale online and ten were voluntarily handed over after entering people’s homes. Monitoring by 1stopbrunei Wildlife Club recorded 25 instances of pangolins being sold on social media in 2014 and 6 in the first half of 2015. Despite this the Sunda pangolin is currently not listed on the Wildlife Act (1984).
Several things were achieved during the short project. Firstly, Brunei’s first mini rehabilitation centre was built. It needed deep trenches filled with concrete so that any pangolin could not dig its way out! Secondly many Bruneian conservationists were trained in how to monitor pangolins (and other wildlife) after they have been released, an important aspect that follows international standards laid out by the IUCN. Participants learnt about radio tracking with Very High Frequency (VHF) transmitters and camera trapping.
Camera trapping is an excellent, non-invasive way of monitoring wildlife. Every time a pangolin was released a camera was set up to monitor if the pangolin came out to feed. A healthy pangolin changes where it sleeps every night so it is a good sign if we see the pangolin leaving, feeding and then not returning. This was the case for the two animals released in this project. We also saw evidence of them digging presumably to feed.
Historically, Brunei has been a safe haven for pangolins, however, interviews with locals across the country indicate that poaching is becoming rife. People who previously used to ignore pangolins if seen crossing the road or released if caught in a trap are now poaching them and sending them to Malaysia, often ending up at the border town of Limbang.
Pangolins are slow breeding creatures, they have one offspring at each birth, and their solitary nature also means that populations find it hard to recover when individuals are removed from the wild. As demand only increases and populations across mainland Southeast Asia are decimated, traffickers are looking further afield. Rapid rates of deforestation and development expose pangolins and their natural response to curl up in a ball makes opportunistic poaching easy and tempting – without adequate protection Brunei risks losing not just its pangolin population but other wildlife too. Wildlife we know is here as we have had the joy of seeing them on camera.
I have been lucky enough to work with pangolins in the wild and spend time in the forest at night. Drawing on these experiences I have been working with Oakenday Press to produce a book to increase environmental literacy and support a conservation cause.
The process began with sharing pangolin stories with the author who used this information to put together a delightful night time adventure. From there I had the opportunity to scour personal photos from both Vietnam and Brunei as inspiration for initial sketches.
However, this was just the start and the process has unleashed my creative side. I was encouraged to think about different view points and composition; to work out how to express the height of the trees, the colour of the sky and characteristics of the animals in a way that appeals to children but remains ecologically accurate.
With a deadline of World Pangolin Day 2016 looming I am in the midst of adding colour. I paused for inspiration and spent 45 mins in the children’s section of my local book store selecting some reading!
From there I’ve just managed to established a general theme, the task now begins in adding the detail and bring the story to life.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.