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.