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.