Tuesday December 9, 2003
Pangolins in trouble
The pangolin may wear a suit of armour but that has not prevented it from ending up on dinner plates and medicinal stores, writes STEPHEN HOGG.
THE Malayan pangolin (Manis javanica) or tenggiling in Malay is a little-known animal. This strange and rarely seen member of the family Manidae from the order Pholidota is an old-world creature once associated with anteaters, sloths and armadillos.
Once frequently encountered across Malaysia in rubber plantations and oil palm estates, pangolins are more commonly seen these days adorning dinner plates and traditional medicine shops in China.
This ground-dwelling, scaled animal measures close to 1m in length and weighs about 2kg. Completely covered from the neck to the tip of the tail (but not the face, throat and belly) with hard armour-like scales, this unusual creature more closely resembles the new-world armadillo. The scales are tough and made up of agglutinated hair, somewhat like the rhinoceros horn.
Equipped with a long prehensile tail, short powerful legs, tiny eyes and a slender, pointed head, this creature is very adept to its home on the forest floor. Rarely seen in the wild, this elusive species is more probably seen by the public lying dead on the road as a result of a motor accident.
Native to both South-East Asia and Africa, the pangolin prefers lowland to lower-montane forests up to an elevation of about 1,200m. Its strong prehensile tail has several functions, one of which is to act as a support when the animal stands up tall on its hind legs and another is as an extra limb whilst foraging for food in the branches of trees.
The pangolin lives almost entirely on ants and termites. These it locates by scent using its long, flexible and highly sensitive snout. Occasionally, the pangolin eats other soft-bodied insects or grubs but it favours ants which it picks up frantically using its long, sticky tongue which can measure more than the length of its head and body. Amazingly, the pangolin can shoot its tongue out to lengths of up to 25cm.
The tail is used as a support when the animal stands up on its hind legs whilst using its strong forelegs to tear open termite mounds. Superbly adapted for this type of feeding, the pangolin’s face and eyes are protected by thick skin and eyelids. It also has the ability to open and close its nostrils, thus completely protecting itself from ant or termite attack.
Equally suited to trees as it is the ground, the pangolin is an excellent climber. It does this using a caterpillar-type motion: it holds the tree tightly with its fore legs and then brings its hind legs up and so on. It searches tree branches for its favourite food – the leaf nests of weaver ants.
Pangolins now face an uncertain future as humans decimate their population through trade in pangolin skin, leather, meat, scales and live animals. Most of these are destined for China. The pangolin trade is now a major industry. At this rate this animal must certainly be in serious danger of extinction.
In Vietnam it was reported in April that officials confiscated some 600 pangolins and 700 monitor lizards totalling 4.5 tonnes. The animals had been smuggled into Vietnam from Malaysia but, upon their discovery, neither the receivers nor the senders wanted to keep them. Vietnamese officials had no choice but to incinerate the animals after they “failed to adapt to their new habitat.”
Last December, my wife and I encountered a truck filled with 190 pangolins that had just been confiscated by Thai authorities after entering Thailand from Malaysia. Shocking as it may seem, this is not a rare occurrence, with confiscations happening almost daily and numbers of animals reaching up to 500 in one load. Who is to say how many actually reach their destination and evade confiscation?
This trade is illegal but still it goes on. Traders from China apparently paying as much as RM1,500 per animal only encourage perpetrators to continue this illicit trade. There is high demand for scales in traditional Chinese medicines. They are thought to be a powerful antiseptic; medicines made from pangolin scales supposedly cure fevers, skin disorders and venereal diseases.
According to Chris Shepherd of TRAFFIC South-East Asia, a wildlife trade-monitoring organisation, there is currently no legal international commercial trade of the pangolins. “The illegal trade in pangolins is largely out of control, with large shipments of animals being smuggled across numerous international borders, often by the lorry load, to their final destination in China.
“It is not known where all the pangolins are coming from. This is where the public has a role to play ? in supplying the authorities with the information they need to complete this puzzle and to stop this large, illicit trade.”
It is unfortunate that statistics on pangolins are missing in this country. Ask any organisation “What is the status of the pangolin population in Malaysia right now?” and the answer is ... no one can tell you.
There is simply not enough information, money or resources to
study the pangolin and, judging from the amount of trade, there
cannot be many of them left. This is where the public can help. We
need to collect as much information as possible. Please go out and
look for pangolins (but do not capture them) and document their
whereabouts and their numbers. Then feed the information to
firstname.lastname@example.org to build
up a databank on this unusual but beautiful creature.
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