Last week, 50 scientists gathered in Singapore to discuss the future of a highly endangered genus of mammals: the pangolin. Not much is known of these uniquely beautiful creatures, as they are shy, reclusive and notoriously difficult to keep or breed in captivity.
The four-day conference — the first ever devoted to pangolin conservation — is an initiative of the International Union for Conservation of Nature Species Survival Commission’s (IUCN-SSC) Pangolin Specialist Group, which was established last year, and of which I am a member. My CI-Cambodia colleague Sokrith Heng and I were eager participants in the meeting.
Over the last decade, attention to the pangolin — sometimes known as the scaly anteater — from both conservationists and the media has increased substantially. Although pangolins may be unknown to many in Europe and the Americas, they are among the most trafficked mammals in Asia and parts of Africa. As a result, pangolins are being hunted to extinction, primarily as a food and medicinal source to consumers in China.
The disappearance of pangolins isn’t just bad news for these species; it could also have an impact on the animals’ native forests. Pangolins are thought to act as a natural pest control in their habitats, keeping local ant and termite populations in check. A single pangolin may eat as many as 70 million insects every year.
The conference successfully brainstormed and outlined several priority actions that need to happen to improve the status of the pangolins. These include conducting additional research and monitoring to determine pangolin numbers, directing funds to protect pangolin habitat strongholds and addressing the demand for pangolin meat and scales.
One of the things I found most interesting at the conference was that research revealed that while there is evidence of medicinal properties in pangolin scales, these same properties were found in a number of herbs that were cheaper and much more sustainable to acquire.
I believe the conservation community must survey pangolin consumers to learn if they would be willing to switch to more sustainable herbal remedies. I have to hope that consumers would be pleased to have an option that did not contribute to the extinction of species or cause unnecessary pain and suffering of animals.
Perhaps the most important outcome of the conference is the revelation that all pangolin species will probably need to be upgraded (either to “critically endangered” or “endangered”) on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, which is a considerable jump for several of the species and reflects their dire situation.
These listings (which will be official only after a rigorous review process by IUCN) are the highest category of endangerment, on par with the Sumatran rhino, tiger and Asian elephant. Another important strategy discussed at the conference is the need to upgrade the pangolins from Appendix II to Appendix I, so that tougher penalties can be put in place for the illegal trade of these species.
I have been working on threatened species in Cambodia for several years now, including pangolins, otters and bears, and have recently been invited to join the steering committee of the Asian Species Action Program (ASAP). This program, recently formed by IUCN, aims to consolidate resources to conserve Asia’s most threatened species.
ASAP was created not a moment too soon. It’s becoming clear that while Southeast Asia has historically been full of unique wildlife, if we don’t take serious, immediate and necessary steps to stem illegal trade and consumption, pretty soon there will be none left.
Annette Olson is the scientific technical advisor of CI-Singapore, CI-Cambodia and the Moore Center for Science and Oceans. Read her previous blog post on pangolin conservation work in Cambodia.