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.
I have been lucky enough to work with pangolins in the wild and spend time in the forest at night. Drawing on these experiences I have been working with Oakenday Press to produce a book to increase environmental literacy and support a conservation cause.
The process began with sharing pangolin stories with the author who used this information to put together a delightful night time adventure. From there I had the opportunity to scour personal photos from both Vietnam and Brunei as inspiration for initial sketches.
However, this was just the start and the process has unleashed my creative side. I was encouraged to think about different view points and composition; to work out how to express the height of the trees, the colour of the sky and characteristics of the animals in a way that appeals to children but remains ecologically accurate.
With a deadline of World Pangolin Day 2016 looming I am in the midst of adding colour. I paused for inspiration and spent 45 mins in the children’s section of my local book store selecting some reading!
From there I’ve just managed to established a general theme, the task now begins in adding the detail and bring the story to life.
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.
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.
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.