In a race to save the pangolin, Philippine researchers reach out to local communities

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EJN, Palawan, the Philippines

In the wilderness of the southwest Phillppines’ Palawan Province, dubbed by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources as the country’s last biodiversity frontier, lives the Palawan or Philippine pangolin (Manis culionensis), one of eight species found in Asia and Africa.

But this shy, scaly creature is now the most heavily poached and trafficked mammal on the planet, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). And scientists and conservationists are racing against time to document its habits and behaviors before its habitat is lost to urbanization and its population decimated by poaching.

The Palawan pangolin is one of eight species, all of them classified as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature / Courtesy of the USAID Protect Wildlife project.

Pangolins are threatened by growing demand for their meat, considered a delicacy in some cultures, and for their scales, used in traditional medicine, with China and Vietnam the two primary consumer markets for pangolins, according to a report by TRAFFIC, an organization working to address the wildlife trade through conservation.

In early April, 12.7 tonnes of pangolin scales, packed in 474 bags and worth US$38.1 million were seized by a team from Singapore’s National Parks Board, Customs and Immigration and Checkpoints Authority. The parks board estimated that the seized scales came from two species and were equivalent to 21,000 pangolins.

Each year 20 tonnes of their parts are trafficked internationally, the report shows. Between 2010 and 2015 pangolin traffickers used nearly 160 smuggling routes. A million pangolins are estimated to have been poached in the last decade.

Like all pangolins, the Palawan species is listed as endangered under Appendix I of the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna, or CITES.

The Palawan pangolin is also classified as critically endangered under the Philippines’ Wildlife Resources Conservation and Protection Act of 2001, which bans the collection, hunting or possession of any form of wildlife in the province without a permit. The act establishes strong penalties for actions against species listed as endangered, including up to six years of imprisonment and fines ranging from around US$500 to more than $12,000.

“We are in a race to save the pangolins,” said Sabine Schoppe, Program Director of the Palawan Pangolin Conservation Project at the Katala Foundation Inc.’s Pangolin Center, calling the situation facing the pangolin here “alarming.”

“They will likely become extinct before we can get comprehensive data on the population size and conservation of [the] pangolin,” she said, explaining that the pangolin’s survival in the wild is threatened by poachers and traders as well as the destruction of its natural forest habitat.

A member of the pangolin field research team of the Katala Foundation conducts a ground survey in the Victoria-Anepahen Mountain Range in Palawan Province, an important habitat for biodiversity and endemic Palawan pangolins / Courtesy of the USAID Protect Wildlife project.

While there is scant data on wild populations of pangolins, Schoppe estimates that its numbers have fallen by between 85-95 percent over a period of 40 years.

According to a survey that Schoppe’s research team conducted recently, an average of 3.8 adult pangolins have been sighted among 100 hectares of forested area on the north side of Palawan island. In central Palawan, the average number of sightings drops to 1.7 adults across 100 hectares of forested area and only one adult pangolin in 100 hectares of forested area in the south.

As part of her work at the Katala Foundation, Schoppe is leading the USAID-funded Protect Wildlife project launched in April 2018 in collaboration with the Katala Foundation’s Pangolin Center; the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development (PCSD), a local government body; and the Palawan State University. The project, which focuses on conservation, is intended to help decisionmakers and wildlife authorities come up with policies to better manage pangolin habitats.

“[The] pangolin has been ignored until recently,” Schoppe said. And that means there is very little scientific information about it, including its abundance in the wild, feeding habits and habitat needs.

“Are they disturbed by people or can they live with people?” Schoppe asked. “We really do not know how to manage the remaining population of the Palawan pangolins.”

One possible way to save their population from declining, she suggested, would be declaring the homes of the Palawan pangolin as critical habitats.

So far no areas in the Philippines have been protected specifically for the conservation of pangolins, although it can be found within two large protected areas: Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park, spanning 22,202 hectares (54,860 acres) in central Palawan, and Mount Mantalingahan Protected Landscape, covering 120,457 hectares (297,700 acres) in the south. Poaching in both parks is prevalent and difficult to monitor given the large area. 

Scale of the problem

According to TRAFFIC’s Southeast Asia May 2018 report, a total of 39 seizures were found in which the Philippines was either implicated as a source country or place of seizure. The total volume of trafficked pangolins was estimated at 3,537 animals. However, this number was largely attributed to one incident in which 2,870 pangolins were seized from a vessel that ran aground in a coral reef in Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park. The vessel was allegedly manned by Chinese nationals, and according to the arrested crewmen cited in TRAFFIC’s report, the pangolins were from Indonesia en route to China. In most cases, the Philippines was implicated as a source country as well as an end-use destination.

The PCSD said that the primary threats to the Palawan pangolin are hunting for local use of its meat, scales and skin, an increasing international trade with East Asia and deforestation associated with illegal timber harvesting and agriculture. The species was reported as being heavily hunted in the 1990’s as well as in more recent times.

“We are in a race to save the pangolins,” - Sabine Schoppe from the Palawan Pangolin Conservation Project

Although the full extent of the illegal trade is unknown, there appears to have been an increase over the past decade, according to PCSD. For example, between 1999 and 2012, there was a rise in the number of confiscated pangolins, which may be indicative of either an increase in demand or trade or improved law enforcement. Between 1999 and 2009, 47 animals were seized, according to a report by PCSD, but between 2010 and 2012, confiscation involved 369 animals.

In a news report from last October by the Philippine News Agency, environmental authorities arrested a fisherman in Taytay municipality for illegally trading 10 Palawan pangolin, a violation of the Wildlife Resources Conservation and Protection Act of 2001.

An official from the Community Environment and Natural Resources Office told the news agency that the suspect had been engaged in the illegal wildlife trade for months and had already made a lot of shipments.

Indigenous peoples, local communities as wildlife wardens

Education has proven to be a powerful tool for changing the perception of poachers towards conservation, said Indira Lacerna-Widmann, Director of the Philippine Cockatoo Conservation Program at the Katala Foundation.

Poachers are usually members of the Palaweno and Tagbanua ethnic groups in Southern-Central Palawan who depend mainly on hunting and poaching as a source of basic needs and income, she said. 

The pangolin research team with the Katala Foundation / Courtesy of the USAID Protect Wildlife project.

Aside from improving law enforcement to prevent the hunting and illegal trade of pangolins, Lacerna-Widmann said encouraging indigenous peoples and local communities to increase local stewardship and protection efforts are crucial in the conservation effort.

 “You have to find a connection to the environment, to the community and [to] how protecting their surroundings positively impacts them and the value of the species in their lives,” she explained.

Indigenous groups in the area used to hunt and domestically trade pangolins, mainly for food and traditional medicine, but now it is prohibited by the law. “So we need to give them alternative livelihoods, like being a wildlife warden, protectors or conservationists,” Lacerna-Widmann said.

The Katala Foundation has done this under previous programs, including one on the cockatoo, with alternative livelihoods provided by local government units. It aims to do so with its pangolin program, she said.

There are several stages in order for local communities to become wildlife wardens, Lacerna-Widmann said. Among them are knowledge and awareness of protected areas, sharing of opinions and ideas and the provision of alternative livelihoods so they no longer need to depend on poaching.

“Most of the hunters are the indigenous peoples, and they know very well how to look for certain species and ways to communicate with them and their environment. They have that knowledge that we wanted to put into positive use, like in pangolin conservation,” said Glesselle Batin, Program Co-Manager of the Palawan Pangolin Conservation Project at the Katala Foundation. “There are hesitations from some indigenous peoples, but we need to explain very well to them that they need to take care of their ecosystem and respect enforcement of existing wildlife laws.”

The conservation project is also useful in identifying areas that are critical pangolin habitats, Batin explained.

"...we are hopeful that more and more people in the local community and indigenous peoples realize their role in conservation and in the protection of the pangolins." - Glesselle Batin

A field research team of the Katala Foundation, comprising people mostly from the local community and indigenous groups, conducted ground surveys from September to December 2018 on a dozen 200-hectare plots in Palawan’s Victoria-Anepahan Mountain Range. The ground survey involved searching for pangolins, recording their movements, measuring pangolins in the wild and observing their forest habitats.

The team recorded 14 pangolins in a total surveyed plot area of 800 hectares. The ground survey showed that slash-and-burn farming, charcoal-making and timber harvesting continue in forest habitats where pangolins live.

The field research team also installed camera traps in six plots in December last year totaling 4,000 hectares of forest to record and take photos of pangolins and other Palawan wildlife at any time of the day.

“Since the pangolin conservation project has just started, we are hopeful that more and more people in the local community and indigenous peoples realize their role in conservation and in the protection of the pangolins,” Batin said.

Awareness and science-based recommendations can contribute to action on conservation by policymakers and local communities for the Palawan pangolin, including reduction of the threat, said Lawrence San Diego, communications manager of USAID’s Protect Wildlife project. But it doesn’t stop there.

“I think more than addressing the lack of scientific information on the Philippines’ own pangolin species, the project also tries to harness the expertise of local partners for this pangolin research,” he explained. “The project wants to demonstrate that collaboration among researchers and experts, government agencies, civil society, the academe and local communities is vital to the success of this study.”

Crisanta Marlene Rodriguez, director of the Biodiversity Management Bureau at the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, shared similar views about the important role local people play in protecting native pangolins.

“We vow to continue to be vigilant in protecting our species, particularly the pangolins,” she said, noting that national and regional wildlife authorities are implementing stricter enforcement mechanisms to protect the country’s biodiversity. “We, however, ask the people in the communities to be vigilant and to continue monitoring the trade in pangolins and inform us of the trend in order to protect these species.”

This is the first of a series of reports exploring threats to the Palawan pangolin and efforts by researchers, local communities and indigenous groups to protect it from extinction. A similar version was also published in Mongabay.

This version was updated on April 29th to remove an Earth Day reference in the lede and add information about protected areas where the Palawan pangolin can be found.