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While trekking in the forests to install camera-traps in the hinterland of Sarawak, a foul smell led our wildlife conservation team to a pangolin carcass. In conjunction with World Pangolin Day, one of our programme assistants Jim Wisco Jihiem from Sarawak Conservation Programme, shares the team’s discovery which motivated him to learn more about this species. World Pangolin Day is observed every third Saturday of February to raise awareness about this mammal and its threats. This year the celebration falls on 20 February and it’s the 10th anniversary.
In early March 2020, our Wildlife Conservation team conducted a camera-trap survey which took place in a forest management unit (FMU) deep in the Heart of Borneo (HoB). The camera-trap survey aims to determine the biodiversity of the FMU in line with its efforts in sustainable forest management. Data collected will be used for the management and conservation of wildlife within the HoB.
On the third day of this field trip, two of my colleagues and I were trekking in the FMU with some local guides. After several hours of hiking, there was a foul smell - indicating something was rotting. Curiosity got the better of us, so we sniffed around and followed the smell, and lo and behold, we found a dead pangolin! All that was left to it were scales and bones.
We could only guess what happened to the dead pangolin, partially hidden among the bushes. Most probably it was a meal for another animal. We spent about 10 minutes checking the carcass, took some photographs for our field work report and then continued on with our journey.
Personally, I was excited with the finding as it was my first encounter with the animal although not alive. To this day, I still wondered what happened to the pangolin - what animal ate it and how long had it been there before we chanced upon it. This prompted me wanting to know more about this species when I returned to the office.
The Sunda pangolin (Manis javanica), also known as Malayan or Javan pangolin, is categorised as critically endangered in the International Union for Conservation of Nature or IUCN Redlist. This species is also reportedly among the most heavily poached and exploited animals. Last year, TRAFFIC Southeast Asia published a report stating that about 900,000 pangolins were trafficked globally from 2000 to 2019 “with significant proportions linked to Southeast Asia.” The report also said a whopping “96,000 kg of pangolin scales mostly African were seized from 2017 to 2019 across Malaysia, Singapore and Viet Nam, representing about 94% of the total amount of scales confiscated in Southeast Asia during this period.”
Pangolins are mostly hunted for their scales and meat, due to high demands in the black market for traditional medicine, which has no proven medicinal value. The scales are made up of keratin, the same materials in human fingernails and hair. Wide scale poaching has led to the rapid decline of Sunda pangolin numbers not just in Malaysia but world wide. Hence it is not easy to chance upon a pangolin even in camera traps that we set. Out of tens of thousands camera traps images our team members screened from different sites in the past two years, we only had 16 images of pangolins, all from one site - that’s how rare this species is.
According to Phillipps’ Field Guide to the Mammals of Borneo and Their Ecology (2018), Borneo had another species, the giant pangolin (Manis paleojavanica) which was 2.5 times the size of Sunda pangolin. Unfortunately, this species became extinct a long time ago.
The sole pangolin species in Borneo - the Sunda pangolin - is at peril. It used to be commonly found throughout Borneo including in cultivated areas. This scaly ant-eater can weigh between 2.5kg to 2.7kg. It is a slow breeder with a long gestation of 150-180 days followed by four months of maternal care. A young pangolin normally travels with its mother - clinging on the mother’s back until it becomes independent. One of our camera trap images was of a baby riding on its mother's back. Our team was thrilled to see this.
The field guide further said pangolin’s diet consists of ants, termites and some invertebrates. It can rip open the ground and tree nests of ants or termites with their long claws and lick up the insects with its long tongue. The only known natural predator is the Sunda clouded leopard as pangolin scales have been found in the big cat’s scats. My colleagues and I now have a strong feeling that the carcass of the pangolin we discovered was left behind by a clouded leopard.
Today there is a lot of conservation work by different agencies and organisations in order to protect pangolins in the wild. They are important animals in the ecosystem because they act as natural pest controllers and help to regulate ant and termite populations. Without pangolins, there will be imbalance in forest ecosystems.
We need to do our part in conserving this species before it is too late. There are no other major threats to the existence of pangolin in Borneo other than poaching by humans. A small act can bring much needed help for pangolins survival. For a start, each of us can help by not or stop buying and consuming pangolin or its parts, and any wildlife.
We can also report any illegal wildlife activity at markets or online to the authorities. In Sarawak, contact Sarawak Forestry Corporation hotlines (Kuching: 019-8859996, Sibu: 019-8883561, Bintulu: 019-8332737 and Miri: 019-8290994); or Sabah Wildlife Department at 088-254 767 or file in an e-complaint to www.wildlife.sabah.gov.my and for those residing in the Peninsular Malaysia, contact Perhilitan Malaysia at 1-800-88-5151 or MYCAT Wildlife Crime hotline at 019-356 4194.
Lastly, learn more about pangolins this World Pangolin Day. This year’s celebration falls on 20 February 2021 and visit https://www.pangolins.org/ for more ideas on what to do to celebrate and conserve this species. Do your part, save wildlife.