Trafficked to Extinction

Taiwanese Researchers Collaborate With Locals In Pangolin Conservation

2019/09/25 ,


The Pangolin Reports

Photo Credit: 汪仁傑 Wang Jen Chieh

The Pangolin Reports

The Pangolin Reports is a pioneering initiative by the Global Environmental Reporting Collective consisting of more than 30 journalists in Asia, Africa, and Europe. The joint investigation looks closely into the illicit trade of the pangolin, said to be the world’s most trafficked mammal.

What you need to know

Criminal syndicates in Africa and Asia are working together — and competing — to meet the seemingly insatiable demand for pangolins in China and other markets. Here's a story of how poachers turned into conservationists in Taiwan.

Reporting of this article was conducted by Janet Lin Hui-chen from The Reporter, a non-profit organization based in Taipei that specializes in investigative journalism.

Deep in Taiwan’s Luanshan forest in the dark of the night, Yu Man-jung spotted some tracks on the ground. “There was a pangolin just here,” Yu pointed out to the team of researchers behind him. Yu, also known as A-yung, moved quickly in the pursuit of more traces. He had developed a keen eye for spotting any signs of the shy scaly anteater over the years in his former career as a poacher.

Before he started working with pangolin researchers at National Pingtung University of Science and Technology (NPUST), Yu was poaching pangolins for a living. That was years ago, before pangolin researcher Hsun Ching-min hired Yu to help track the animal for research. For Yu, the new income helped offset the loss in revenue caused by stricter controls and falling domestic demand in pangolin meat.

Photo Credit: Yu Chih Wei / The Reporter

A native of the mountainous terrain, Yu had spent much of his life around pangolins. The knowledge of the forest and his instincts for finding the reclusive animal have since been credited by researchers for several significant successes in the field.

“If not for A-yung, I wouldn’t have known where the pangolins were,” says Hsun admiringly, using Yu’s nickname. “He was always a trailblazer in the pangolin patrol team.”

“Without a local to lead the way, we would not have been able to find pangolins, no matter how advanced our technology is,” said Hsun.

Yu passed away in 2016 in an accident. However, his contribution to pangolin research and conservation is not forgotten. Hsun is leading ongoing research in Luanshan, Taitung, to better understand wild pangolins and their consumption habits.

Pangolin research can be hard work, involving many – mostly unsuccessful – hours of tracking, analysis of food sources, and even stool-sniffing.

Hsun, who has tracked down 47 wild pangolins in eight years of research, jokingly calls himself “the man who has collected the most pangolin feces in the world.”

Studying pangolin compost and stool are essential indicators of the animal’s nutrition. But the stool is hard to find. Pangolins only excrete once a day. They bury their feces to cover their tracks, which makes it difficult for researchers like Hsun to collect stool samples.

Hsun developed and patented a technique to segregate pangolin stool components, and worked with the Taipei Zoo to further analyze the volume and digestive rate of different ant species in pangolin stools.

Pangolins are notoriously difficult to care for in captivity, and rescued pangolins frequently die from stress and failure to eat. With Hsun’s research, NPUST hopes to learn more about pangolins’ eating habits to improve the survival rates of future rescues.

Taiwan today has become a success story in pangolin conservation, but things were different just half a century ago. From the 1950s to the 1970s, Taiwan exported nearly 60,000 pangolin leather pieces every year. As a result, pangolins almost became extinct.

Photo Credit: Yu Chih-Wei / The Reporter
A newborn pangolin was manually fed at the Endemic Species Research Institute First Aid Station, which is one of the three pangolin rescue centers in Taiwan.

It was only in 1989 that commercial hunting and export were banned after the government established the Wildlife Conservation Act. Today, the population density of Taiwanese pangolins is one of the highest in the world.

RELATED: How Taiwan Plans To Save Pangolins From Extinction

While legislative reform and public awareness have mostly ended the illegal trade, Taiwan remains a smuggling transit point to mainland China.

Just last year, Kaohsiung customs officials intercepted 3,880 descaled and disemboweled pangolin bodies in a container that originated from Malaysia. In another notable seizure, the Coast Guard Administration seized five Taiwan pangolins, along with Asian yellow pond turtles and yellow-margined box turtles in 2015.

These, too, were all believed to be en route to mainland China.

Today, Hsun has honed his skills at finding wild pangolins, although he admits that he mostly relies on luck. We hiked with him up a mountain along the same route that Yu, the former poacher, used. An hour into the hike, we found an old burrow buried underneath a pile of leaves and weeds.

An indigenous resident of the area pointed to a nearby slope. “There’s a burrow and it’s quite new,” he said. We crawled on all fours, holding onto the bamboo to keep our footing, until we spotted the deep underground burrow. It had the fresh remains of a palm-sized ant mound next to it, the remnants of a pangolin's feast.

Hsun marveled at our good luck. Our find was a rare one. “This burrow was dug only in the past two days,” he said. “It usually becomes moldy after that.”

Hsun suggests that the government should employ residents like Yu as guides or ecological conservationists. It should utilize their knowledge and skills to push for even higher conservation goals.

“Perhaps, we can even make Luanshan a world-standard pangolin conservation center,” he said.

This article is part of the global report “Trafficked to Extinction” released by The Pangolin Reports, a pioneering initiative by more than 30 journalists in Asia, Africa, and Europe. The joint investigation looks closely into the illicit trade of the pangolin, said to be the world’s most trafficked mammal.

The News Lens is authorized to reshare this article under the following Creative Commons license: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0).

TNL Editor: Daphne K. Lee (@thenewslensintl)

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Criminal syndicates in Africa and Asia are working together — and competing — to meet the seemingly insatiable demand for pangolins in China and other markets. Over 30 journalists from the Global Environmental Reporting Collective investigate how illegal pangolin trafficking is leading the species to become extinct.

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