Sunday, February 19, 2017

The hunt for the pangolin, the world's most trafficked mammal

            Tole rests on the tail of his mother at Bali Zoo in 2014. Photo: AP

East Java, Bali and Jakarta: We have spent the past few weeks combing Indonesia for an elusive sighting of the world's most trafficked mammal.

To be quite frank I had never heard of this prehistoric-looking creature before I came to Indonesia. But the pangolin - the only mammal in the world with scales - has become something of a cause celebre.

Poaching for illegal wildlife trade and habitat loss have made Pangolins one of the most endangered mammals in the world.

Pangolins are the inspiration for the Pokemon character Sandslash.

In 2012, Sir David Attenborough named the pangolin among 10 species he would like to save from extinction, recounting a story of rescuing one from a cooking pot while filming in Asia early in his career.

And for Valentine's Day last week Google launched its latest Doodle game - two pangolins who know in their hearts that they are scaly soulmates. The notoriously shy animal would probably be horrified by the game - the pangolins travel the world making chocolate cake in Ghana and construct a melody in India - but Google says it hopes those who play learn more about the most poached and illegally trafficked animal in the world.

Indonesia is home to one of eight pangolin species known as the Sunda pangolin, which are found throughout Java, Sumatra and Borneo.

We are determined to track one down and so Fairfax Media embarks on a wild goose, er, pangolin chase through Java.

Eight had reportedly been successfully bred in Probolinggo, East Java. Alas, they were gone. The East Java Centre for Conservation of Natural Resources (BBKSDA) said the owner of the breeding program died in a car accident late last year and the eight pangolins were now dead too. None of its staff had ever seen one in the wild.

There were no pangolins at the Surabaya Zoo.

Finally we investigate if they are being sold on the black market.

Our inquiries at the Bratang bird market in Surabaya are met with a firm "no, they are a protected species".

But just as we are about to leave, the parking attendant gestures to a corner stall. "There are no pangolins, but you can order one if you like," the owner says. A few days later we call back. The shop owner says he can't guarantee when a pangolin will become available. It could be days, it could be weeks. He says it will be a live one, maybe two, three years old, costing 3.5 million rupiah ($350). "I'll let you know if I get one."

At the Kupang bird market in Surabaya, there are no live pangolins but scales are on sale for 25,000 rupiah ($2.50) each. (A pangolin has about 120 scales covering its body.)

It is these scales, made of keratin, the same protein that forms human fingernails and hair, along with its meat, considered a delicacy in some Asian countries, that explains why pangolins are believed to make up around 20 per cent of all illegal trade in animals.

There is huge demand for the scales in traditional Chinese medicine; they are believed to assist with everything from curing cancer to stimulating breast milk.

ProFauna Indonesia, a non-profit organisation working for the protection of forest and wildlife, says scales are also used for the manufacture of shabu shabu, the Indonesian slang term for the drug methamphetamine.

"This practice is utterly cruel because the scales are sloughed​ through a boiling process, sometimes when the animal is still alive," ProFauna says on its website.

In early February Chinese authorities launched an investigation after pictures of a lavish pangolin feast, allegedly held in the southern province of Guangxi in 2015, re-emerged online. "I have already deeply fallen in love with this taste of wildlife," a Weibo user reportedly posted.

East Java police spokesman Frans Barung tells us a man was arrested in Jombang in Java last year trying to smuggle frozen pangolin meat overseas. Police seized an astonishing 657 of the critically endangered animals stored in five large freezers. The pangolins were from Borneo and Sumatra, where the illegal trade mafia pay local tribes to hunt them.

Farmers from Jombang in East Java told Profauna that prior to the 1990s they often spotted pangolins. The elusive, nocturnal animals, which feed on ants, caused no bother to the farmers and they left them alone. "But now if we go there, there is none," says Rosek Nursahid from ProFauna.

Unfortunately, due to the limited research on pangolins in Indonesia, there is no record of population numbers. "People are not interested in supporting pangolin conservation," laments Rosek. "It's not fair but it's a fact.

"Orang utans are considered sexy animals," he says. "A lot of people are willing to donate because they are cute, they resemble humans, people are easily touched by looking at them. But what's cute about a pangolin?"

In September last year pangolins were thrown a lifeline of sorts. At a summit in Johannesburg, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna agreed to a worldwide trade ban. However enforcement remains lacking in many countries.

"The rate at which pangolins are being poached is unprecedented and unsustainable," says Mark Hofberg from the International Fund for Animal Welfare. "We have won some hard-fought victories to protect this exotic species but more needs to be done so we don't see pangolins go extinct within our lifetime."

In the end, the only place we manage to find a pangolin is in the zoo. Pangolins are difficult to keep alive in captivity, let alone breed; they are solitary creatures who have one baby at a time and there is no defined mating season.

Miraculously, Tole bucked the odds, and was born at the Bali Zoo in 2014. Tole and his parents, Tera and Ling-Ling, eat 10 per cent of their body weight in ants every day.

"Caring for a pangolin is not easy nor is it difficult," says zookeeper Eko. "You have to pay attention to their hygiene, so they don't get sick from parasites and their diet."


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