- With the Palawan pangolin’s population decimated by poaching and its habitat lost to urban creep, scientists and conservationists are in a race against time to save and document everything about this forest dweller.
- From 2001 to 2017, the wildlife trade monitoring group TRAFFIC recorded 38 seizure incidents in which the Philippines was the country of origin, transit point or end destination for pangolin shipments. A total of 667 pangolins were seized in these busts
PALAWAN, Philippines — In the wilderness of the Philippines’ southwestern island province of Palawan, dubbed the country’s last biodiversity frontier, lives a scaly mammal found nowhere else on Earth: the Palawan or Philippine pangolin (Manis culionensis). But along with seven other pangolin species from Asia and Africa, it constitutes the world’s most heavily poached and trafficked mammal. With the Palawan pangolin’s population decimated by poaching and its habitat lost to urban creep, scientists and conservationists are in a race against time to save and document everything about this forest dweller.
All pangolins are listed under Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES). That means international trade of wild-caught specimens is strictly prohibited, although that hasn’t stopped huge numbers of the animals from being trafficked — primarily to China, where their scales are in demand for use in traditional medicine. Domestically, the Palawan pangolin is classified as critically endangered under the Philippines’ Wildlife Resources Conservation and Protection Act of 2001, which bans the collection of any form of wildlife in the province without a permit. The law prescribes strong penalties for any violations involving species listed as endangered. Illegal trade in the Palawan pangolin carries a prison sentence of up to six years and fines of up to $12,192.
“We are in a race to save the pangolins,” says Sabine Schoppe, program director of the Palawan Pangolin Conservation Project run by the Katala Foundation, Inc., a conservation nonprofit.
She says there’s a likelihood they may go extinct before scientists can collect comprehensive data on them, so it’s important to carry out more studies on their population size, structure and density, and their reproduction biology. The Palawan pangolin population has experienced a “very alarming” decline of as much as 95 percent over the past 40 years, Schoppe estimates; she points to habitat degradation, overexploitation and the illegal trade as the main threats the species faces.
Schoppe tells Mongabay that declaring known pangolin sites in Palawan as critical habitats could stem the population decline.
The Palawan Council for Sustainable Development (PCSD), a local government body, concurs that deforestation on the island is a significant problem and a serious threat to the viability of the Palawan pangolin population. No areas have been protected specifically for the conservation of the species, 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 is prevalent in both parks, and is difficult to monitor given the large area. Poaching also occurs in the 1,500-hectare (3,700-acre) Dumaran Island Critical Habitat in northwest Palawan.
The PCSD says the primary threats to the Palawan pangolin are hunting for domestic consumption of its meat, scales and skin; increasing international trafficking to East Asia; and deforestation associated with illegal logging and agriculture. The species has been heavily hunted since the 1990s, and although the full extent of the illegal trade is unknown, there appears to have been an increase over the past decade. Between 1999 and 2012, there was a rise in the number of law-enforcement seizures of pangolins, pointing to either an increase in trafficking or improved law enforcement. Between 1999 and 2009, authorities seized 47 of the animals; between 2010 and 2012, they seized 369.
From 2001 to 2017, the wildlife trade monitoring group TRAFFIC recorded 38 seizure incidents in which the Philippines was the country of origin, transit point or end destination for pangolin shipments. A total of 667 pangolins were seized in these busts, according to a 2018 report from TRAFFIC.
Historically, hunting of the species for traditional medicine and rituals by indigenous groups was “not a big deal,” Schoppe says, because the pangolins were killed in sustainable numbers. Spurred by the wildlife law, these same local hunters have since become “protectors or guardians of pangolins,” she says.
“Of course not everybody follows the law,” she adds. “There are smugglers coming with their own dogs [who] hunt for pangolins. It is still rampant.”
The poachers are usually members of the Palaw’an and Tagbanua ethnic groups from southern-central Palawan, who depend mainly on hunting and poaching for their livelihood.
Conservation education has proved to be a powerful tool for changing poachers’ perceptions about the importance of protecting species such as the Palawan pangolin, says Indira Lacerna-Widmann, director of the Katala Foundation’s Philippine Cockatoo Conservation Program.
“We really need to conserve the pangolin species,” she tells Mongabay. “Illegal trade, lack of knowledge of the species and its habitat, habitat loss, and the circumstances surrounding indigenous peoples and their access to natural resources are just some of the negative impacts to the population of the pangolin.”
She says that aside from improving law enforcement to prevent hunting and illegal trade of pangolins, empowering indigenous peoples and local communities to increase local stewardship and protection efforts is crucial in the conservation effort.
“You have to find a connection to the environment, to the community and how protecting their surroundings positively impacts them and the value of the species in their lives,” Lacerna-Widmann says. They used to hunt and trade domestically the pangolins mainly for food and traditional medicine, but now it is prohibited by the law. So we need to give them alternative livelihood like being a wildlife warden, protectors or conservationists.”
Glesselle Batin, co-manager of the Palawan Pangolin Conservation Project, says the indigenous peoples of the island’s highland communities have valuable knowledge about spotting and hunting pangolins that can be put to positive use in conserving the species. Some members of these communities are hesitant, she adds, “but we need to explain very well to them that [it’s important] to take care of their ecosystem and respect enforcement of wildlife laws from the authorities.”
The Katala Foundation has since April 2018 worked with the PCSD, Palawan State University, and USAID’s Protect Wildlife program on Palawan pangolin conservation by identifying areas deemed to be critical habitats for this species.
A field research team carried out ground surveys from September to December 2018, installing camera traps and recording 14 pangolins in a combined area of 800 hectares (1,980 acres).
The survey also revealed that slash-and-burn farming, charcoal-making and illegal logging continues to occur in forest habitats where the pangolins were recorded.
“Since the pangolin conservation project has just started, we are hopeful that [local communities’] behavior changes in the future [with regard to] their role in conservation and in protecting the species,” Batin tells Mongabay. “We need to really raise their awareness on this issue.”
Lawrence San Diego, communications manager for Protect Wildlife, says the results of the ongoing project can contribute to science-based recommendations for conservation actions by policymakers and local communities, helping reduce the threats faced by the Palawan pangolin.
“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 tells Mongabay. “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, and in all the conservation research projects that USAID Protect Wildlife is supporting in all its sites in the Philippines.”
Bringing more science to bear on the issue is something that Schoppe from the Palawan Pangolin Conservation Project welcomes.
“[The p]angolin has been ignored until recently. There is very little scientific information about it such as exploitation rate and abundance in the wild, their feeding habit, how much habitat they need, are they disturbed by people or can they live with people,” she says.
“We really do not know how to manage the remaining population of the Palawan pangolins,” she adds. “So it is really a race against time.”
Banner image caption: To defend itself against predators, a pangolin rolls itself into a ball, making it easy for a poacher to pop in a bag. Photo credit: Wildlife Alliance on Visual hunt (CC BY-SA )
Editor’s note: This story was published in partnership with the Philippines Network of Environmental Journalists and with support of Internews Earth Journalism Network.