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For Sri Lanka’s pangolins, forests are ideal — but rubber farms will do too

  • Identifying the feeding habits and foraging preferences of pangolins is key to informing Sri Lanka’s pangolin conservation efforts, a new study says.
  • It shows that forests are the preferred foraging sites for the island’s endangered Indian pangolins, and that rubber plantations come second.
  • With forests shrinking, policymakers should consider maintaining rubber plantations and similar preferred foraging habitats for long-term pangolin conservation, the study’s authors say.
  • The study also identifies termites rather than ants as pangolins’ favorite food — a finding with lessons for rescue and captive-breeding centers that currently serve pangolins an artificial diet short on natural feeds.

COLOMBO — A big part of conserving any wildlife species is to conserve its natural habitat. But when that becomes an increasingly difficult task due to human-driven changes in those environments, the next best thing to do is to hold on to those altered habitats.

That’s the surprise finding from a new study on the Indian pangolin (Manis crassicaudata), one of eight species of scaly anteater that’s the most trafficked mammal on Earth. The study, set for publication in the March issue of the journal Global Ecology and Conservation, looks at the feeding habits of Indian pangolins in southwest Sri Lanka. It sheds new light on the species’ dietary composition, and can help better inform pangolin rescue and breeding programs, the authors write.

“Our previous work has highlighted that though there is an increase in rescue programs in pangolin abundant areas, there was limited success due to poor availability of literature on their diet, ecology and behavior,” co-author Priyan Perera, from the Department of Forestry and Environmental Science at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura and a member of the IUCN SSC Pangolin Specialist Group, told Mongabay.

“There is a dearth of knowledge which we have tried to bridge with a series of studies.”

Perera has been studying the Indian pangolin since 2013, identifying evolving threats to this elusive and endangered creature. In a 2017 study he reviewed the existing knowledge, threats and research priorities, and in a follow-up study in 2018 looked at pangolins’ habitat preference in southern Sri Lanka.

Globally targeted both for their scales and meat, pangolins are the world’s most trafficked animal. Image courtesy of Priyan Perera.

This anteater prefers termites

For this study, Perera and his colleagues studied pangolins in the lowland forests and associated habitats of the Yagirala Forest Reserve. They looked at five types of habitats: forests, rubber plantations, cinnamon farms, oil palm plantations, and tea-dominated home gardens. Forests, as expected, emerged as by far the most popular of foraging habitats for the pangolins.

That’s thanks to minimal human activity and the highest availability of the pangolin’s favorite food: termites (ants are second on the list, despite pangolins commonly being known as anteaters).

“The digestibility of the termites seems to be much higher compared to that of ants and other insects consumed by Indian pangolins,” the researchers write. They concluded this by comparing the amounts of undigested ant and termite body parts in the pangolins’ fecal matter.

While the relative digestibility of termites over ants may appear to be a trivial point, the finding is significant for the many organizations involved in the rescue, care and breeding of pangolins for conservation purposes, including those animals saved from the illegal wildlife trade. The artificial diets they tend to be fed in zoos and similar facilities are short on natural feeds such as termites, ants and other insects, which makes rearing pangolins in captivity difficult.

“The findings of this study have important implications for the captive rearing and husbandry of Indian pangolins,” the researchers write. “The information revealed on the dietary composition of Indian pangolins will be useful in the formulation of captive diets.”

Identifying the feeding habits and foraging preferences of pangolins is key to informing Sri Lanka’s pangolin conservation efforts. Image courtesy of Priyan Perera.

Long-term conservation planning

The findings are also important for conserving pangolins in the wild — or at the very least, conserving the types of habitats they prefer to forage in. And after forests, the next best type of habitat is rubber plantations, the study shows. Unlike in stringently maintained tea plantations, rubber plantations accumulate a thick layer of leaf litter on the ground, which provides an ideal environment for the termites that pangolins feed on.

However, fluctuating market prices for natural rubber mean that many of these farms are being converted to more lucrative oil palm plantations — one of the least-preferred foraging grounds for pangolins, according to the study. With an ever-shrinking area of natural forest — the ideal habitat for the species — conservation policy should include maintaining swaths of rubber plantations and similarly preferred foraging habitats, the researchers suggest.

“The study further highlights the importance of human-modified habitats for the survival of Indian pangolins in changing landscapes,” they write. “Such habitats should be included in long-term conservation planning of Indian pangolins.”

Hunting for domestic meat consumption has long been the main threat to Sri Lanka’s pangolins, but a new and fast-growing threat comes from the illegal international trade in pangolin scales, used in Chinese traditional medicine.


Karawita, H., Perera, P., Dayawansa, N., & Dias, S. (2020) Dietary composition and foraging habits of the Indian pangolin (Manis crassicaudata)in a tropical lowland forest-associated landscape  in southwest Sri Lanka. Global Ecology and Conservation, 21, e00880. doi:10.1016/j.gecco.2019.e00880

Banner image of a pangolin in a southwestern forest in Sri Lanka, courtesy of Priyan Perera.

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