Hunters' knowledge could save imperilled pangolins

28 October 2008 by Tom Marshall

Illegal hunting threatens the survival of many animal species, but recent research suggests that the hunters themselves may have an important role to play in protecting them.


Researchers travelled to Vietnam to interview people who hunt pangolins, a distinctive kind of scaly anteater. They found that paradoxically, hunters' intimate knowledge of the forest and its inhabitants could be vital to conservationists' efforts to save pangolins.

Pangolins are little-studied animals; shy and nocturnal, they are rarely seen even by locals. Scientists have found it hard to research their behaviour and habitat needs, or even to form a confident estimate of their numbers.

The researchers behind this study thought that although populations of pangolins were undoubtedly low, scientists were failing to find them in the wild as regularly as they could. Animal seizures indicated hunters were still able to catch large numbers annually, which suggested that local knowledge of the species and their habitat could be invaluable in learning how to find and catch these animals for research.

They decided to explore this idea by talking to the hunters themselves. Combined with existing surveys and biodiversity reports, the interviews let them create the first distribution map of the species in Vietnam, and uncovered promising new tactics to help biologists research pangolins in the field.

The pangolin trade

Pangolins are considered a delicacy across much of Asia, and their scales are used in traditional Chinese medicine. This has created a thriving black market in the animals, which are frequently seized in large numbers by police. Earlier this year, authorities found a shipment in a Vietnamese port containing an astonishing 17 tonnes of frozen pangolins.

Heavy demand means pangolins are one of the most sought-after creatures in the illegal wildlife trade. The researchers found them being sold for around US$90 a kilo in Vietnam - a fortune to many local people.

Pangolins are under massive hunting pressure,

- Peter Newton

It's hardly surprising that some of them turn to poaching to supplement their livelihood. The government resources devoted to catching animal traffickers, meanwhile, aren't close to being up to the job.

This has led in turn to a steep drop in pangolin numbers. The two kinds of pangolin that live in Vietnam - Manis pentadactyla, which lives mostly on the ground, and Manis javanica, which spends more of its life in trees - have both recently been reclassified as 'endangered' on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List of Endangered Species.

Both had previously been classed 'near threatened'; the move skips the intermediate category of 'vulnerable', in a sign of growing concern for pangolins' long-term future. Many now consider pangolins among the most threatened species of mammal in Asia. The main reasons for the decline are likely to be habitat loss and hunting.

Peter Newton did the research for his MSc thesis at the University of East Anglia, in collaboration with other UEA scientists and with researchers from the Carnivore & Pangolin Conservation Program (CPCP) in Vietnam's Cuc Phuong National Park. The work was funded by the Natural Environment Research Council and appeared in September in Endangered Species Research.

Based on the work, Newton became one of the assessors for the IUCN reclassification. "It's good to feel your work is having a definite impact," he says.

Drawing on local expertise

Newton and Nguyen Van Thai from CPCP visited numerous hunters living in isolated homes and remote villages, interviewing them about the methods they use to catch pangolins.

Initially the hunters were often suspicious, but they became more forthcoming when they realised the researchers were not going to turn them in to the police and were simply interested in learning about pangolins.

Newton adds that many found it flattering to be sought out by conservationists because of their unrivalled knowledge of the forests they live in. The researchers also hinted that they might return for more in-depth research; many hunters realised that if they provided information now, they might have a better chance of paying work as guides or advisers later.

"It's easy to criticise what these people do but in general they are simply acting out of need," says Newton. "If there were alternative livelihoods available to them, like helping scientists find pangolins, it's quite possible they would take them."

He suggests hunters could help conservationists place camera traps where they are likely to photograph the right quarry, or by pointing out pangolin burrows so that the inhabitants can be caught and tagged.

"Pangolins are under massive hunting pressure, and to solve this problem there will eventually have to be some kind of political and economic solution, with better law enforcement and more alternatives for hunters," Newton says. "But in the meantime we hope our work will improve our knowledge of subjects like pangolins' habitat needs and social structure."

Newton is now working on a PhD on sustainable resource use in the Brazilian rainforest; another researcher, Dan Challender, has applied for funding for a PhD on pangolin ecology and conservation. He hopes to start next year and spend around a year and a half researching pangolins in the field in Vietnam.

In doing so he may put into practice the lessons of Newton's research, using tricks learned from local hunters to gain more insight into how pangolins live. This may include enlisting local hunters' help to catch pangolins in order to radio-tag them, so researchers can follow their movements.

The fieldwork should ultimately shed light on how many pangolins there are, how widely each individual ranges, what the animals' habitat needs are and even what kind of social structure they have.

"In the future we hope there will be more protection for these forest environments, and at that point research like this will become very important for managing pangolin populations effectively," says Challender.

Challender previously did an MSc thesis researching the behaviour and care of captured pangolins that had been seized alive from the illegal trade, looking at questions like how to minimise life-threatening stress in the animals and how to provide an adequate diet without regularly having to send people into the jungle to find ants and termites.

'Pangolins in peril: using local hunters' knowledge to conserve elusive species in Vietnam' - P Newton, TV Nguyen, S Roberton, D Bell (2008), Endangered Species Research 6: 41-53.