We spoke to Stewart Muir, the director for the Whitley Wildlife Conservation Trust. He has passionately supported pangolin conservation for many years.
Why are pangolins so endangered?
Pangolins are now the most heavily traded wild mammals in the world. The scales covering their body are in great demand for traditional medicine in Africa, Asia, and particularly in China. Pangolins are inoffensive, insect-eating creatures that roll into a ball when threatened. This makes them very easy to catch by poachers using wire snares or trained dogs. Many of them are transported alive for many days until they reach their final destination. Even those that are rescued are lucky to survive. Their insect diet of live ants makes caring for them, until they are strong enough to be released back into the wild, difficult and complicated.
What do you think makes pangolins so desirable to poachers, and can they ever be stopped?
Ease of capture and transportation together with a high demand is proving fatal for the pangolins. The four African and four Asian species are all under a high degree of threat. Recently, the amount of protection through CITIES (Convention of International Trade of Endangered Species) has increased – certainly all of the Asian species at least are now listed on the IUCN Red List as Endangered or Critically Endangered, therefore increasing their protection, if only by law. However, as the pangolins become less common, their price and the risks that poachers are willing to take goes up. Effective law enforcement is important but getting local people to support and protect pangolins is vital.
What work and research are you currently involved in?
I became aware of the serious problems facing pangolins 15 years ago and we established the first conservation and rehabilitation centre and CuC Phyuong National Park in Vietnam. In the beginning, it was hard to get people to listen. Most people had never heard of a pangolin and were unaware of the scale of the problem. My own organisation and many other zoos have raised funds and worked together, supporting the Vietnamese teams at the Carnivore and Pangolin Conservation Programme and, more recently, the newly-established Save Vietnam’s Wildlife. Over time, we have learnt a lot about keeping and maintaining the animals on their road to recovery. Just getting the pangolins to survive long enough to make a healthy return to the wild has been a major achievement that has taken many years.
How do you think pangolin populations will fare in the next 50 years?
As pangolins become more scare, their commercial value will increase and their decline will become ever more rapid. Only through concentrated international efforts to protect them and educating people to reduce the demand will we save these charming and defenceless animals from extinction.
How can World of animals readers get actively involved with helping to conserve the dwindling pangolin populations?
The best thing World of Animals readers can do is talk about pangolins – have your friends even heard of them and do they know how much trouble they are in? Pangolins need friends. You can directly support a project in Vietnam through the Save Vietnam’s Wildlife website www.savevietnamswildlife.org and also support the work of the IUCN Pangolin Specialist Group.
Photographs: David Brossard