Site icon Conservation news

Shining a light on Sri Lanka’s little-studied pangolins: Q&A with Priyan Perera

  • Sri Lanka’s small population of Indian pangolins has long been threatened by hunting for domestic bushmeat consumption, but conservationists have identified an emerging trend of the animals being captured for trafficking abroad.
  • Efforts to protect the species here have failed to take off as a result of poor general awareness about the animal, persistent myths about eating its flesh, and a dearth of scientific studies into Sri Lanka’s pangolins.
  • Priyan Perera, a globally recognized expert on the species, says he hopes to change that, starting by first filling in the knowledge gaps about the pangolins and their behavior, while also raising awareness in communities and schools to discourage hunting.
  • In an interview with Mongabay, Perera talks about the importance of better understanding Sri Lanka’s Indian pangolins, incidents pointing to the nascent trafficking trend, and how to care for seized or injured pangolins.

COLOMBO — For decades, the small population of Indian pangolins found in Sri Lanka has faced a single consistent threat: the domestic meat market. Pangolin meat is considered a delicacy by some, while others believe it has medicinal properties for a range of ailments. New trends, however, show how the world’s most trafficked mammal is further threatened by a growing export market that sees it smuggled to nearby India on board fishing boats. To date, though, Sri Lanka is not yet considered a key trading or source country for pangolin trafficking.

Found in forests, grasslands and human-modified habitats such as rubber, tea and cinnamon plantations, these shy, scaly anteaters are nocturnal creatures that prefer to stay inside their burrows during the day. But villagers in search of pangolin meat know how and where to locate them.

Priyan Perera from the Department of Forestry and Environmental Science at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura is Sri Lanka’s top pangolin researcher, having dedicated the past decade to study the elusive creatures. He set up a research site in a forest reserve in southwestern Sri Lanka, and is working with a team of young researchers to help scale up pangolin conservation on the island.

“I have tried to increase pangolin research to better understand the evolving threats to the endangered species. The local research has been scanty, and to mount conservation efforts, we need further studies and reliable data,” he tells Mongabay.

Before Perera started looking into the pangolins of Sri Lanka, the only available scientific literature about them was a 1983 study that looked into the distribution of the Indian pangolin. It took more than three decades for that to change. In a 2017 study, Perera reviewed the existing knowledge, threats and research priorities, and in a follow-up study in 2018, he looked at pangolins’ habitat preference in southern Sri Lanka.

“There is a dearth of knowledge which we have tried to bridge with a series of fresh studies,” says Perera, a member of the Pangolin Specialist Group at the IUCN, the global wildlife conservation authority.

In an interview with Mongabay, Priyan Perera spoke about the importance of better understanding Sri Lanka’s Indian pangolins, incidents pointing to a nascent trafficking trend, and how to care for seized or injured pangolins.

Pangolins excavate their own burrows, and these abandoned burrows later provide a home to other fossorial animals like porcupines. Image courtesy of Priyan Perera.

Mongabay: What made you choose this rare area of research and what have the pangolin behavioral studies yielded so far?

Priyan Perera: I felt there was a lacuna in Indian pangolin research. As children, we also knew they were in abundance, but over the years, it is common knowledge that it is not easy to sight them. There is an unanswered question there. After a 1983 study, we have not carried out substantial research on pangolins and it was needed.

Indian pangolins are solitary creatures except when they mate and/or rear their young. They are known for their shy behavior and their classic curling up in self-defense. Nocturnal by nature, pangolins stay inside their burrows during the day. They also produce a hissing sound whenever disturbed or feel threatened.

They excavate their own burrows, and these abandoned burrows later provide a home to other fossorial animals like porcupines.

It is also important to recognize their role in regulating insect populations in their habitats, in particular ants and termites.

Considered the world’s most trafficked animal, the Indian pangolin is faced with existential threats due to the bushmeat trade. But lack of awareness about this harmless creature is also a serious threat to their survival. People have various myths and beliefs which drive the bushmeat trade. Pangolins are targeted both for their scales and meat. In Sri Lanka, their meat is a delicacy and some believe the meat contains medicinal properties that can cure asthma, strengthen muscles and even serve as an aphrodisiac.

Pangolins are able to swiftly roll up into ball-like posture when stressed or under threat. Image courtesy of Priyan Perera.

Mongabay: What’s the extent of occurrence of Indian pangolins in Sri Lanka?

Priyan Perera: Sri Lanka had some population distribution studies before. There is a dearth of knowledge since, which we have tried to bridge with a series of studies that looks at various aspects.

I have been studying them since 2013, identifying evolving threats to this elusive and endangered creature. We first reviewed existing knowledge, did gap identifications, and then looked at threats to species survival and research priorities through a 2017 study. A 2018  study looked at pangolins’ habitat preference in southern Sri Lanka. We next looked at their foraging habits.

As for occurrence, let’s try to recall our childhood when we were able to sight the occasional pangolin in forest areas and in villages. But it is no longer easy to sight them. What was a common sight three decades ago has become a rarity now, and it is the simplest indicator of potential threat to their survival and habitat alterations.

We are studying habitats to improve not just data but also to study behavior. They occur mostly in forests, rubber and cinnamon plantations as well as tea-dominated home gardens. We have identified that human-modified agricultural lands adjacent to forests serve as important foraging habitats for them, in addition to natural forests.

The information on population and distribution are inadequate, and we used a method of combining primary and secondary data to assess both distribution and conservation status. We undertook systemic review of literature and field studies and also analyzed data on crimes and rescue efforts. There is no information available on the natural history of the pangolins found here. To understand the traditional uses of pangolins, we interviewed the leader of the Indigenous community known as the Veddahs, to gain insight into who has been traditionally hunting for subsistence.

Considered the world’s most trafficked animal, the Indian pangolin is faced with existential threats due to the bushmeat trade. Image courtesy of Priyan Perera.

Mongabay: Have you observed changes in the threats faced by pangolins in Sri Lanka?

Priyan Perera: They are primarily threatened by hunting and poaching. The loss of habitat is also a stress. Elsewhere, they are also trafficked a lot. Our research has also shown the emergence of Sri Lanka as a smuggling gateway to India using boats. Some consumption patterns are also changing here, evolving from subsistence to the meat trade that caters to East Asians.

While smuggling of pangolin scales to India is happening, the potential threat lies in the evolving pangolin meat consumption patterns. There is also some online trading of pangolins.

Mongabay: Are there any pangolin rescue programs are here?

Priyan Perera: There is general lack of awareness on pangolin care. Besides running community awareness programs, we also conduct awareness programs for children who attend school close to our research center in Yagirala.

In order to care for pangolins, we first need to understand the kind of threats that exist. They are often attacked by dogs or picked up for meat and sometimes for their scales. Though they are killed or captured mostly for subsistence, there is also illegal possession or trading by locals.

If you find an attacked or trafficked pangolin, it is going to be dehydrated and be in a state of shock. The animal needs to be calmed and water should be provided. Keep them away from direct sunlight. When transporting to a safe place, ventilated wooden boxes are the best, and wildlife officers are best equipped to handle such situations. To nurse pangolin babies, canine baby milk is a good option. For mature pangolins, it is best to offer them their natural diet: red weaver ants, termites or boiled poultry.

Pangolin researcher Priyan Perera during a field study. Image courtesy of Suresh Wettasinghe.

Mongabay:  Has the possibility of pangolins being an intermediate host to the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 impacted the meat trade?

Priyan Perera: There are multiple global studies by now on this particular role of pangolins and the possible impact on humans.

Researchers from South China Agriculture University have suggested that pangolins could potentially be linked to the deadly coronavirus after detecting a virus in pangolins that was near-identical to the coronavirus that infected people. More studies are needed to establish a direct link of pangolins to the present pandemic.

However, with the pandemic causing so much fear of infection and fatality, we did not learn about a decline in the demand for pangolin meat.

On the brighter side, I feel the pandemic affords us an opportunity to drive conservation policy to end the illegal trade in pangolins and call for mitigating potential health risks associated with consuming wildlife. Despite the fear mongering during the height of the pandemic, it is not clear whether the pandemic has resulted in the reduction of pangolin markets.

Mongabay: Have you been able to identify pangolin smuggling patterns?

Priyan Perera: Sri Lanka is not a sourcing market, of meat, live animals or scales. We also doubt whether the incidents are well-recorded. We feel there is serious data deficiency. Let’s look at some of the key confiscations recorded.

Customs at Bandaranaike International Airport, the main international airport, have recorded attempts to smuggle scales to India mostly. These incidents include:

These, along with information gathered from ground-level law enforcement authorities and hunters/poachers, suggest the existing of an emerging market for pangolin scales. Contemporary trafficking primarily involves scales sourced in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal, with the most common destination being China.

There needs to be more studies on the expanding market. It is also likely due to declining populations of the Chinese and Sunda pangolins [Manis pentadactyla and Manis javanica] as well as hunters/poachers becoming increasingly aware of the monetary value of pangolin scales in the global and East Asian markets.

Banner image: A pangolin foraging for food inside a small cave in a forest in southwestern Sri Lanka. Image courtesy of Priyan Perera.

Citations:

Perera, P., Karawita, K., & Pabasara, M. (2017). Pangolins (Manis crassicaudata) in Sri Lanka: A review of current knowledge, threats and research priorities. Journal of Tropical Forestry and Environment7(1). doi:10.31357/jtfe.v7i1.3018

Karawita, H., Perera, P., Gunawardane, P., & Dayawansa, N. (2018). Habitat preference and den characterization of Indian pangolin (Manis crassicaudata) in a tropical lowland forested landscape of southwest Sri Lanka. PLOS ONE13(11), e0206082. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0206082

Xiao, K., Zhai, J., Feng, Y., Zhou, N., Zhang, X., Zou, J., … Shen, Y. (2020). Isolation of SARS-CoV-2-related coronavirus from Malayan pangolins. Nature583(7815), 286-289. doi:10.1038/s41586-020-2313-x