Pangolins have had it rough in the wild. They are being poached relentlessly for their scales, which practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine believe (falsely) to have curative properties. Their meat, too, is in high demand in countries like Vietnam and China as a delicacy.
Unless conservation efforts of all eight subspecies of the elusive animals, which curl up into a protective ball at the sign of trouble, are stepped up and successful throughout the ranges in Asia and Africa, their days might well be numbered. In 2019 alone an estimated 195,000 pangolins were trafficked for their scales, according to experts.
But marked progress has been made in protecting pangolins. In June last year China granted the country’s pangolins (Manis pentadactyla) the highest level of protection and Beijing has also pledged to stamp out the practice of using pangolin scales in traditional medicine around the country.
In the Philippines, too, the Southeast Asian nation’s critically endangered native pangolins (Manis culionensis) still have a fighting chance, according to experts who have conducted a wide-range survey of the scaly anteaters for a new study. Philippine pangolins live only on Palawan island and they have been spotted by locals in 17 of the province’s 18 municipalities surveyed (out of a total of 24), according to the survey.
That is encouraging as so little is know about these elusive creatures in their natural habitat that even their population number remains largely unknown and needs to be guessed. The new data can now enable conservationists to engage in more targeted protection measures in certain areas where pangolins are known to live in forests.
“This is promising for the Philippine pangolin and suggests it is not too late to establish conservation efforts across the species’ range,” stresses the study’s lead author Lucy Archer, an expert the Zoological Society of London.
“Compared to similar studies on pangolin species elsewhere, these results suggest that Philippine pangolin populations may not have reached the critical levels shown by Chinese pangolins in China and Vietnam, or by giant pangolins in Benin,” she adds.
Complicating matters for Philippine pangolins and their conservation is that there is a domestic market for their scales and even meat. The latter is served clandestinely as an exotic dish at some restaurants in Manila to Chinese residents and tourists.
Since 2018, local authorities have intercepted several shipments of pangolin parts. One shipment in September 2019 that was seized in Palawan comprised 1,154 kilograms of dead pangolins, for which alone some 3,900 animals had been butchered.
Teams of experts are now working on more specialized monitoring methods of Palawan’s wild pangolins, the better to track their movements and save them from people who want to do them harm.
“Hopefully, studies like this will aid the development of such methods as new monitoring methods can be trialed in areas where we at least know the species exists,” Archer says. “We can also use local knowledge to target specific habitats and places where people have recently seen the species.”
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