Rhythms of Rimba 2016

This weekend I am privileged to have been asked to present at a Wildlife Featival at The Rainforest Discovery Centre in Sandakan.

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Full of music, art and fun the festival also invites conservationists to talk about their work and engage visitors about the issues in conservation. Naturally, I will be talking about pangolins!

I am hoping to share the issues faced in pangolin conservation and ask he audience to help come up with novel ideas to help. Prizes will be on offer for the best ideas.

Thanks to Future Alam Borneo for organising this excellent event!


Pangolin class

My focus this summer has been in Sumatra as we set up some work, initially funded by Cleveland Meteroparks Conservation Fund.

One part of this is to enthuse locals about their wildlife. To start this off we conducted a small school event with some local children in Sibolangit District. They are given regular English lessons and we joined in with an environmentally themed topic, focusing on the Sunda pangolin.

Together we read a copy of ‘A Pangolin Tale: Adventures of an Armored Anteater‘. We then played some games relating to the animals in the book to help them learn the English names. For example, I would say ‘tiger’ and the children would roar like a tiger! It worked both ways, I then had to do the same to learn the names in Indonesian 🙂


Afterwards, we talked about how the scales of the pangolin were made from the same stuff as your fingernails and to remember this all the children created a pangolin picture with their finger prints.


Finally the became pangolin protectors and they all drew an image in the middle of a pangolin shield, which was the same shape as a pangolin scale. .


Although this was only a small event, it is hoped that it can be repeated many times it different places. It can also be developed more and we can teach the children more about the pangolin.

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People’s attitudes towards pangolins

Before we undertake any outreach program it is important for us to understand the perceptions of the people we wish to work with and their attitude towards pangolins.

The village Kutamale where we met some poachers and visited the forest
View from a fruit farm where we conducted some interviews

I often find that poachers are portrayed in a particular light matching either a poor villager who struggles to feed his family or an evil hunter who just wants more money. Maybe this is because it is easier for us to either find sympathy for them or despise them.

I find this stereotyping problematic as we are either just victimising or villainising poachers, it’s untrue and unhelpful. The value of pangolin is so well known that if people see one they will pick it up and sell it. There are actually very few people who go and look for pangolin specifically (because it is so hard to find).

The pangolin is not related to people’s life, they are not a pest on their farms, but they don’t believe that they really help the farms either. They do not want their children to work on the farms, so it is no real issue if they are not here for future generations. In fact, for many of them we had to show a picture of the animal, despite knowing the local name for them.

Interviewing a local farmer

However, we found out some things that may help: They are afraid of the law. If there was to be some sort of government warning and enforcement people openly admit that they would think twice about selling it. We also employed one of the poachers to help us for the few days we were there. He took us into the forest and showed us where he had found them before and signs that he looked for that he thought were pangolin. He was incredibly useful and organized for us to meet other poachers in other villages. He seemed enthused to work with us.

Finding evidence of pangolin with a local poacher.

This gave us some ideas of where we could head in the future.

An important aspect is that different points will have different levels of priority depending on where we are working. This is why investing so much time with interviews is important, we can also re do the interviews in a few years to see if any of the interventions have had an impact.


Pangolin poaching in rural villages

Over the past week I have been in the district of Tongka, an area in Central Kalimantan. This is an area where the locals are desperate to save their Ulin (ironwood) forest-to which they have strong ancestral connections.

Their income is generated from the forest, mainly the cutting and selling of rattan. They hunt in the forest for wild pig, deer and civet. Village law requires those who wish to hunt to ask permission from the village elder, and only then are they allowed to hunt once a month, taking only one species. Those within the village who violate this law are fined and those from other villages are fined and, if necessary, reported to the police. The theory is sound, although as with anything, there are those who rebel. Furthermore, they suffer encroachment from other trans-migration villages nearby and are fighting the threat of palm oil.

They do not view themselves as poor, however, food is not secure. Although in the recent fires they lost a relatively small 10% of their land, flooding from illegal logging by their neighbors and unsustainable farming practices put the future of the forest and their livelihoods at risk.

We visited with Jayadi, trained in the practice of permaculture, in an effort to try and build capacity for a more sustainable approach to producing food and generating income. I was there to provide two camera traps to place in the forest to try and record some of the species that the locals claim are there, include many non-Panthera cats, sunbears and pangolin.

So what about pangolins?

Within the village, over the past year, 8 pangolins have been poached, selling for what is the equivalent of one year’s salary (around 2.2 million IDR). If caught the village fine is 2.1 million IDR but the demand from the Chinese and price makes picking up a curled up pangolin, worth the risk – at the moment they never go hunting for it and they don’t eat it, the poaching is opportunistic.

From an outsiders’ point of view, we may be up in arms – we know this is a Critically Endangered species, the Sunda pangolin being at risk of global extinction. Now imagine you live an 8 hour drive away from the nearest town and have to hop on your motorbike to go and get phone signal; combine this with the insecure food and the fact that the forest that is the foundation of your community is under threat – is what is going on in other areas of the world really going to affect you? Would the loss of the pangolin matter?

To some in the community it does, it makes them sad that they might lose it. However, in their eyes, their hunting practices have not impacted on populations – due to the targeting of those fast breeding species, something the pangolin is not. You wonder though, because they talk openly about how the rhino was here and is now hunted to extinction.

The trip reinforced a couple of things:

  1. Alternative livelihood schemes are great, but they alone won’t save the pangolin. I believe they can be a way to build up a relationship with the village and with that trust the poaching may go down but, as I’ve said many time before, that’s about building up a relationship.
  2. Reducing demand is key. Once that stops, so will the poaching.
  3. While you should always stand by your beliefs, you need to listen and accept those of other people. Then you are in the position to work together and that is the most powerful tool in conservation.
  4. Patience is needed. It can be frustrating, but sometimes slowly, slowly is the only way; but slowly, slowly through many different avenues, can make a big change.