After ensuring the pangolin’s survival over the first week of release, our aims recently have been redirected to ensure that we are collecting useful data about her movements, activity patterns and den site use.
This means that we are going out every day to locate where she is sleeping and take a GPS location. Then at night we camp around 150m away from the den site and take bearings every 15 mins for the entire night. When a bearing changes substantially or becomes very difficult to pick up, we know that she is active (although she might not necessarily leave her den site). At this point we move around so we can take many different bearings from which to estimate her location.
The majority of the time she has been using tree hollows, and often staying in the same hollow for two or three consecutive nights. Occasionally, it has been very difficult to pinpoint exactly where she is as she is hidden in a thicket that it is not possible to access.
Over the first two weeks she stayed around 100m from the release site. Then she completely surprised us, travelling nearly 500m to find a new den site. This was unusual as there were more than enough tree hollows and food sources in the area that she was in.
However, it is not unusual for there to be some form of dispersal when an animal is first released. Exploratory behaviour and occasional sallies outside of an animal’s home range is to be expected. It was just an unexpectedly large distance to travel in one night. However, after a few days in this area, she moved right back to within 100m of the release site, where she still currently remains.
The first week after release was always going to be a tense time; the introduction to a new environment will undoubtedly cause some acute stress. However, if our selection of a release site was a good one then it minimise the chance of the stress building into anything chronic and being detrimental to her health.
To make the transition as smooth as possible a “soft release” approach was adopted. This is where food and water are provisioned at the release site for the entire week. We were pleased to see that only on Saturday night did she feed from the provisions and the start of the rainy season meant that there were more than enough water sources around for her to utilise.
The main priority for this week was to check that she was still alive. The most obvious way to do this would be to see her: easier said than done. For the first three days we decided that we did not want to be too invasive. Previous experience trying to watch her in captivity indicated that she was reluctant to come out of her den if she could smell our presence and we wanted to make sure she came out to feed. The best that we managed was getting estimates of her den site locations from afar; although this did indicate that she was moving.
On Monday we started tracking her at night; to try and identify when she was active. This proved tricky because it was too dangerous to access the den sites at night, therefore we relied on looking for changes in signal strength and bearing estimates at certain safe locations around the release site to help us determine if and when she was active.
The best result came on Tuesday morning when we located and approached her den (picture below) and heard her inside it-solid evidence that she was alive! Over the next few nights we continued to accurately locate her den and set up camera traps (without the flash so as not to stress her) to record when she was active.
On Friday night, her den site was at a location where we were able to set up hammocks nearby. Every hour we went to the den to check if she was still there. At 2:30 she had left, and we then waited until morning to locate her new den site. We woke at first light and were waiting before we went to find where she was sleeping. Then all of the sudden, out of the forest and across the path wandered our pangolin! Looking in good condition, moving without an injury and clearly oblivious to our presence, this assurance that she is doing well was the perfect way to finish off the first week of field work!
So far the discussion on this blog has been focused on HOW we are conducting this release program but up until now, there has been very little focus on the WHY. With the release day approaching, now seems like an appropriate time to talk about this: What is it about this endangered species that means a release program should be considered as a management option for conserving this species?
Firstly, the Sunda Pangolin is listed on the IUCN Red List as ‘Globally Threatened-Endangered’ (Duckworth et al., 2008). It is one of the most exploited animals in South East Asia, hunted for local use and to satisfy the demand for wild meat, scales and skin in Traditional Chinese Medicine. As confiscations can be of large numbers of live animals, not only do captive facilities run the risk of becoming quickly saturated but an opportunity is being missed to reinforce wild populations.
Secondly, Sunda Pangolins are adaptable animals and can survive in most habitats (Lim, 2007). It is a diet generalist (feeding on several different species of termite and ant each night) and known to be both arboreal (in the canopy) and ground dwelling (in tree hollows or underground burrows) in their sleeping habits. These ecological requirements can be met in relatively small areas in a number of different habitat types. Therefore, theoretically, there should be an abundance of potential release sites within its geographical range.
Finally, there is a severe lack of awareness regarding the plight of pangolins. A release project like this provides the opportunity to help address this problem and begin to stimulate an attitudinal change towards the trade of pangolins.
On paper, a release may seem like a fairly straight forward procedure. In reality, hunting pressures and habitat degradation and destruction make finding suitable sites harder than it should be; and the susceptibility of Sunda Pangolins to stress makes rehabilitation a difficult process.
However, Nam Cat Tien is known as one of the best protected areas in Vietnam, filled with primary and secondary forest in which to find suitable release sites (of which many have been found). Furthermore, the team at the CPCP centre have dedicated a lot of time over the past years developing methods and guidelines for the rehabilitation and release of trade confiscated pangolins with minimal stress to the animal.
It is this gentle approach and attention to proper preparation that gives the animals the best possible opportunity to survive and positively impact on the conservation of the Sunda Pangolin.