This weekend I am privileged to have been asked to present at a Wildlife Featival at The Rainforest Discovery Centre in Sandakan.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- 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.
- Reducing demand is key. Once that stops, so will the poaching.
- 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.
- 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.
After months of hard work A Pangolin Tale: Adventure of the Armored Anteater is available on line from both the UK and US Amazon sites . We are currently working on getting it distributed world wide! 30% of the profits go to support pangolin conservation.
At the moment, the book has been put to great use. Locally a few teachers who I am friends with have been reading it to their classes and I am hopefully going to be working with a local Guide leader to do some events with some groups.
Internationally, a copy has been sent to Save Vietnam’s Wildlife, where I first started working with pangolins for The Carnivore and Pangolin Conservation Program. Here is a lovely photo of the book outside their new education centre.
A wonderful non-profit, One More Generation (OMG) also presented a copy to Sharon Guynup at the Environmental Change and Security Program.
I am also incredibly excited to be working with this group and their founders to launch a pangolin campaign towards the end of the year. These guys are working hard to empower the youth around the world and tackling pressing environmental issues. I am also thrilled to announce that I have accepted their invitation to become an Advisory Board Member 🙂 Stayed tuned to find out what we have planned…
If we cast our minds back to April in 2015 we are reminded of the awful situation where near to 1,000 pangolins were uncovered in a warehouse in Medan, North Sumatra with photos of carcasses burning in deep pits circulating social media. Accompanying that were photos of around 100 lucky individuals being set free, back in the forest.
The world of conservation is a small one and via colleagues I was put in contact with a local guy running a small NGO and got set on the task of doing something to support pangolin conservation in the area. The first step was visiting in the summer of 2015.
The visit, although brief, included a trip to a local village near to where the animals were released. What we found put was heartbreaking. Most of the animals were re-poached, the locals new that they were being released there.
While it is admirable that authorities and organisations are working together to uncover the illegal trade. Poor placement of animals post confiscation means that many are released in poor condition and without any consideration of habitat requirements, adequate distribution or the attitudes and proximity of local communities.
So it starts, we have a small amount of funding to begin work and our hoping to secure some more in the imminent future. The objectives of the project are as follows:
- Investigate, collect information, conduct social surveys and collecting as much information about sightings – where, when and how many were seen in private captivity or in markets.
- Assisting BKSDA (Natural Resources Conservation Centre) and police officials during the confiscation of selected individuals of pangolin from private owners or from bird markets and advising on where to release them.
- Begin developing an ISCP Rehabilitation and Quarantine centre in Bandar Baru (Sumatra).
- Raise awareness of local communities and government institutions about conservation issues regarding pangolin and other wildlife in Sibolangit district and across north Sumatra. The focus will be at those villages in Sibolangit district which have populations of pangolin in the area.
Pangolins are not the only species that the Indonesian Species Conservation Program (ISCP) work on. They have started by supporting the conservation of the slow loris. Please check out the work of Project Kukang.
It is estimated that over the past decade more than one million pangolins have become victims of the illegal wildlife trade yet Brunei remains one of the last strongholds for this species. In July 2015 I worked with 1stopbrunei Wildelife Club (http://www.1stopbrunei.com) and the full report of the activities can be found here: A strategy for pangolin conservation in Brunei
The pangolin has been reported in all four districts of Brunei, namely Brunei Muara, Tutong, Kuala Belait and Temburong. the highest number of recent, confirmed sightings has been from the urban areas in the Brunei Muara district, when the animals are found in houses or seen crossing highways. 1stopbrunei wildlife has released 11 pangolins between 2013 and April 2015. Eight of these releases were animals found for sale online and ten were voluntarily handed over after entering people’s homes. Monitoring by 1stopbrunei Wildlife Club recorded 25 instances of pangolins being sold on social media in 2014 and 6 in the first half of 2015. Despite this the Sunda pangolin is currently not listed on the Wildlife Act (1984).
Several things were achieved during the short project. Firstly, Brunei’s first mini rehabilitation centre was built. It needed deep trenches filled with concrete so that any pangolin could not dig its way out! Secondly many Bruneian conservationists were trained in how to monitor pangolins (and other wildlife) after they have been released, an important aspect that follows international standards laid out by the IUCN. Participants learnt about radio tracking with Very High Frequency (VHF) transmitters and camera trapping.
Camera trapping is an excellent, non-invasive way of monitoring wildlife. Every time a pangolin was released a camera was set up to monitor if the pangolin came out to feed. A healthy pangolin changes where it sleeps every night so it is a good sign if we see the pangolin leaving, feeding and then not returning. This was the case for the two animals released in this project. We also saw evidence of them digging presumably to feed.
Historically, Brunei has been a safe haven for pangolins, however, interviews with locals across the country indicate that poaching is becoming rife. People who previously used to ignore pangolins if seen crossing the road or released if caught in a trap are now poaching them and sending them to Malaysia, often ending up at the border town of Limbang.
Pangolins are slow breeding creatures, they have one offspring at each birth, and their solitary nature also means that populations find it hard to recover when individuals are removed from the wild. As demand only increases and populations across mainland Southeast Asia are decimated, traffickers are looking further afield. Rapid rates of deforestation and development expose pangolins and their natural response to curl up in a ball makes opportunistic poaching easy and tempting – without adequate protection Brunei risks losing not just its pangolin population but other wildlife too. Wildlife we know is here as we have had the joy of seeing them on camera.