So far in our release program we have seen our pangolins climb up tree trunks and sleep tucked inside tree hollows. However, this morning we found P27 curled up at the base of the tree, after apparently trying to dig a burrow.
Other species of pangolin are known to dig their own den sites, but Sunda Pangolins are thought of as more arboreal and this certainly matches what we have seen so far. He seemed completely unaware of us being there and remained curled up fast asleep; you can see how easy it would be for a hunter to grab him.
With each release we learn something more about the behaviour of these animals and although they may only be small things we observe, it all helps build on our ecological knowledge of this species.
This morning, using radio telemetry, we managed to locate P27’s den site, we know for sure that it was his as we could see him clearly curled up inside.
Radio telemetry usually gets us to with 20-30m of the den site, however, often it then comes down to persistence and a keen eye, checking every den hollow to see if we can find the animal. It is not always successful to find the exact tree they are sleeping in, so it was very refreshing to find him and to confirm he is alive and healthy.
On Friday, rangers in the National Park rescued a wild pangolin from a trap in the forest. It was kept at the nearby rangers’ station overnight before being brought to the science department at the park headquarters. Thankfully the animal had no injuries and the park was keen to release straight away.
Unfortunately, we were unable to convince the park to allow us to either attach a transmitter before release or monitor the animal for a week in our environmentally enriched enclosure to see if and how stressed it was and ensure it was in a condition suitable for release.
It is possible to appreciate why the park wanted to release an animal as soon as possible: the fear that the animal will lose its natural instincts if kept in captivity. Although this may hold some weight, put into context, the amount of time the animal would have spent in captivity would have allowed recovery from the stress of being trapped, transported around and spending several nights in inappropriate enclosures.
Even the slightly longer period of time it would have been held for in order to attach a transmitter would have had minimal impact on the animal’s natural behaviour, especially considering the amount of thought that has been put into the enclosures and diets of the pangolins we deal with.
The best deal that we could reach was to release the animal at a site we had previously assessed, with ample food sources and tree hollows for den sites and the agreement that food provisions and a camera trap could be set up. If the animal is seen to be continually returning and feeding from the supply over the next week, attempts can be made to bring the animal back and put into our care.
On the surface the rescue and release of a pangolin sounds like a success story and for the sake of the animal, let’s hope it is. However, it highlights how important the dissemination of the results of this work is among National Parks and conservation organisations. Sharing our experiences will enable decisions to be made on a case by case basis, rather than simply following rules without any consideration of context.
However, let’s keep our fingers crossed for this animal. The park and the staff clearly have good intentions and a positive attitude that prevented there being yet another victim of the wildlife trade. Furthermore we can celebrate the fact that there are some wild pangolins left in the park!
We have been fairly quiet recently about the release of the second pangolin, as with any fieldwork it’s been a difficult few weeks, but we have good news to deliver.
After one week of release, the transmitter attached to P34 fell off. This was a frustrating turn of events after such a short period of time but not surprising considering she was in some dense bamboo forest.
Having located two of her den sites before the transmitter fell, we set up camera traps there. Furthermore we set some up at eight other locations, all in front of tree hollows that could be potential den sites. Unlike with P33, we were working on a lot less information about her movement patterns.
However, yesterday we obtained a picture of a Sunda Pangolin. All the cameras had been baited with frozen ants, their captive diet, and the photograph clearly shows the pangolin investigating the smell. Although there is no way to confirm that it is P34, it is worth questioning if a wild pangolin would find the novel smell of the frozen ants interesting. The smell may have attracted her due to an association with food, built up during captivity.
We will continue to keep the cameras active to see if we can capture more photographs and are combining this with night spotting in the area and putting sand at the entrances of other tree hollows to record any tracks. These are difficult activities which rely on a large amount of luck; for example, with night spotting they have no eye shine, so we are reliant on listening for sounds of movement. However, tracking her survival is a priority, so it is worth trying all we can to achieve that.