Late last month, CI’s Cambodian Pangolin Conservation Program opened the Pangolin Rehabilitation Center (PRC) near Phnom Penh. Today, Annette Olsson, the scientific technical advisor of CI’s Greater Mekong program, reflects on her six years working with pangolins.
Pangolins are amazing animals — very cool and strange, gentle and yet incredibly strong. Also known as scaly anteaters, they are covered with protective, overlapping scales, and can quickly roll up into a tight ball when threatened.
In 2006, I began working with the Sunda pangolin (Manis javanica), the only pangolin found in Cambodia. At that time, very little research had been conducted on this species, especially compared with other more widely known animals, and the growing threat to its future was only just being realized. Since then, we have discovered that these pangolins have become very rare or locally extinct in some areas.
To change this situation, we first needed to know the status and threats pangolins face throughout Cambodia. To do so, we carried out interview surveys across the country with villagers living in areas known to be inhabited by pangolins. These surveys found that pangolins are now rare in many places where they previously were common, mainly due to hunting for the illegal wildlife trade.
Interviewees were largely aware of the laws, but also felt that the incentives from hunting pangolins were much greater than the potential consequences. A live pangolin can often fetch more than US$ 100 — an irresistible sum for poor hunters and farmers. This high price is due to the high demand for pangolins in traditional Chinese medicine and as a luxury food, which has increased over the last few decades.
Pangolins for the Chinese markets were originally sourced within China and nearby areas. However, with depletion of these sources, these animals are now imported from all over Southeast Asia and Africa. Over the past decade, tens of thousands of pangolins have been illicitly traded across international borders each year.
The ultimate solution here will be to reduce consumer demand for wildlife products. Some groups are focusing on this aspect of the problem, but this is a gigantic task that will require enormous effort to have an impact. It is also a longer-term solution, as people do not change their behaviors overnight.
In parallel with this, illegal wildlife trading and trafficking must be made less desirable and more difficult through the intervention of all stakeholders, including local communities and governments. The illegal wildlife trade has grown to be one of the most lucrative illicit markets in the world — comparable to drug, weapon or human trafficking — and drastic measures are needed to end it.
We began our conservation efforts in the forests, working with the local communities in the Central Cardamom Protected Forest (CCPF) to increase their awareness and understanding of pangolins and the protection laws that are in place to conserve them. We also worked with rangers from the Cambodian Forestry Administration to make sure they clearly understood the laws and their role in the protection of this species.
In collaboration with the Pangolin Conservation Support Initiative (PCSI), in 2008 CI held a workshop to educate and train rangers and community representatives from the greater Cardamom landscape about pangolin conservation and law enforcement, and to find ways for all parties to work together towards improved conservation. This collaboration spurred the website www.savepangolins.org, one of the top conservation websites for this species to date.
In addition to working with the adults in the villages, another focus of our community engagement is educating children, as they transfer the knowledge to their parents and will eventually be making decisions themselves about whether or not to engage in the illegal wildlife trade.
Of course, the other side of this tale is the individual pangolins caught up in this trade. The lucky few that are confiscated from hunters tend to be in very poor condition due to trapping techniques and transportation methods. Sometimes they are kept for days in plastic bags without food or water, hidden in small spaces. Initially, when rangers confiscated pangolins, they were released straight away no matter their condition, but post-release tracking showed that released injured pangolins often didn’t survive.
This led us to assist with the development of two specialized pangolin rehabilitation centers: the improvement of rehabilitation facilities for pangolins at the Angkor Centre for Conservation of Biodiversity (ACCB), and the development of the new Pangolin Rehabilitation Center (PRC) at Phnom Tamau Zoological Garden and Wildlife Rescue Center. Both centers aim to release the animals back into the wild when their health has recovered.
The PRC was officially opened last month and currently has six pangolins under its care. The center is open to the public; informational materials in Khmer and English will help educate visitors on pangolins and how we can all contribute to their survival. These facilities give all of us involved in pangolin conservation hope that this species will inspire the public to have greater respect and care for them.
Pangolins are part of Cambodia’s natural heritage, and we still have a chance to preserve them. I am always impressed by them, and so saddened when I see the fate of those caught and traded under horrible conditions. They have the right to exist just like other living beings, and the way that humans treat them and use them is disgusting to me.
Pangolins are part of forested ecosystems just like gibbons and elephants, and it would be unforgivable to find one day that they are gone. I hope that the work that we are doing and ever-growing public interest in this species will help to ensure a future in the wild for these magnificent creatures.
Annette Olsson is the scientific technical advisor of CI’s Greater Mekong program.