by Shavez Cheema
Before we go any further, I wish to make something clear: my love for the Sunda Pangolin takes the form of wishing to conserve it; I want to protect it from misguided people who still think it is acceptable to kill it for food or to use its scales in traditional Chinese medicine.
How did my love start?
It was 2011 and it was getting late. I’d finished my sports training and left home to have dinner with a few of my teammates, we have had kueh tiaw, a Chinese noodle dish here in Borneo. It is midnight, the whole highway is mine. I am racing my car home at 100 km/hour, it's drizzling a bit. Under a bridge I notice a monitor lizard walking along the side of the road, I drive past and it seems to be limping. But wait - a Monitor lizard, at midnight? No, this isn’t right, I’ve never heard of that! I stop my car. I take out a flash light and run back to this ‘lizard’. I look left and right and it's starting to rain hard now. Is this worth it? Then, I notice it. What is this animal? It is scaly and scary looking, yet fascinating and amazing. After 15 minutes watching, I’ve had my first date with a pangolin! I saw her eat ants out of a termite mound before disappearing.
Little did I know that 9 years later, in 2020, I would be dedicating my life to protect this animal, one which has triggered my interest in conservation of all wildlife in Borneo. Little did I know that earlier than this, in 2015, internationally famous newspapers such as The New York Times would be publishing articles describing the pangolin as the most trafficked animal in the world (Goode, 2015). There are 8 species of pangolin in the world, 4 in Asia, 4 in Sub-Saharan Africa and all of them are threatened by poaching and habitat loss.
The Sunda Pangolin is a scaly anteater, a mammal found in all parts of Borneo, in other words in Brunei, Kalimantan, Sabah and Sarawak. It has been found in almost every terrestrial habitat you can imagine, from palm oil plantations, primary rainforests, disturbed forests, montane forests, peat swamps and, quite frequently and shockingly to some readers, in urban housing areas and towns. It is not strictly an aquatic species but it can even swim!
The maximum size recorded for a Sunda pangolin is 56cm and its weight is usually in the range of 4-12 kilograms, although 1StopBorneo Wildlife has recorded one individual of 15kg and another of 16kg during its rescues on Borneo. The Sunda pangolin is a strict ant and termite eater. They usually have a single baby that often hangs on the back of the mother’s tail, but there are still big gaps in our knowledge of this cryptic creature. Additional information is presented at: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/s/sunda-pangolin/.
The ecological importance of pangolins and their prey.
Apart from the obvious reason that the loss of any species is an irretrievable loss to our planet, why else should we be worried that pangolins are under serious threat? Importantly, in their ecosystem, they are the major predator of ants and termites and to understand the significance of this, we need to look in turn at the role ants and termites play in the maintenance of soil at a neutral pH. Ants and termites are soil engineers. They have significant effects on their local environment. Although individuals are small, their colonies may be surprisingly large. Firstly they may change their immediate surroundings by collecting soil for nest building and secondly they may alter the level of nutrients within the ground as they collect food for their colonies and indirectly impact local populations of many animal groups from decomposers such as collembolans to species much higher up to food chain (Cheema et al. unpublished data).
Ants also prey on insects and other invertebrates, whilst others feed on plants. Let us imagine if pangolins became extinct what impact might this have on ant populations? Theoretically, in the short term, the loss of pangolins could be a joyous occasion for the ants and their numbers might increase. But then the excessive numbers of ants might have a further impact on the ecosystem described above, resulting in an ecological imbalance (Cheema et al. unpublished data).
When are they active?
Sunda pangolins are nocturnal, meaning they are only active at night. Very few amateur or professional scientists are studying pangolins in Borneo, although a number of interesting observations have been recorded. Throughout Borneo, active pangolins have been recorded in all hours of the night, but it seems interesting that different types of observers, including some researchers, citizen scientists, wildlife guides and drivers in logging concessions, have particularly seen them active in the 5-hour period from 2300h to 0500h. For example, Jessica Haysom, a wildlife researcher with the University of Kent and South East Asia Rainforest Research Partnership, who undertook some camera trapping in Sabah, Borneo, has recorded pangolins 10 times during her 15 months of camera trapping. She reported the times of detection as being: 1934h, 2101h, 2302h, 02019h, 0227h, 0245h, 0246h, 0249h, 0430h, 0504h, in other words 8/10 sightings were in this 5-hour period.
These observations are supported by others: Mike Gordon, a wildlife photographer has seen them 2300-0400h and once at 2000h; my personal sightings have mainly been around midnight (5 times as well as once at 2100h. There has also been a pangolin reported outside a bar near the centre of Kota Kinabalu! Anecdotal evidence from loggers also seems to confirm peak pangolin activity from midnight until 0400h.
The ‘golden question’, then, is why are pangolins most active during these hours? It would seem unlikely that this behaviour is to avoid predators, since clouded leopards and pythons, known pangolin hunters, are also active then. Is it because this coincides with the time of maximum activity of their own prey, ants and termites or are they less active, and so more likely to be in their nests. This would seem more likely since pangolins targeting ant and termite nests would then gain maximum benefit whilst expending less energy hunting for dispersed animals that are out foraging away from their nests.
It is a surprising fact that Sunda pangolins can be excellent swimmers. There is anecdotal and video evidence of them swimming in both rivers and in the sea. For example, in Brunei, a video recorded how after being released into a tree hole, a pangolin then left the hole, entered a nearby stream and swam away to escape all the unwanted human attention. There are other videos from Borneo of pangolins swimming, including one in the open sea off the coast of West Coast Sabah In Sabah, pangolins have been recorded on Pulau Tiga, Pulau Banggi, Pulau Sipadan and Pulau Gaya, all islands which are quite far from land. It seems probable that pangolins have colonised these islands by swimming from the mainland. Another example from Sabah supports this: a local fisherman saw a pangolin swimming out to the open sea, towards an island near Kudat and followed it and confirmed that it really did reach the island.
It seems that pangolins are good swimmers as well as excellent climbers! Their ability to climb is more widely known; tourist guides have photographed them in rainforest canopy and loggers have seen them hopping about high in trees when disturbed during tree felling. It is clear that there is still so much to learn about our scaly anteaters!
Conservation in Borneo
There now seems to be greater grounds optimism for the future of the Sunda pangolin in Borneo. The Chinese government in Beijing has promised to bring in reforms to control the trade in wildlife, for example as shown in these two reports: https://www.cnbc.com/2020/02/12/chinas-wild-animal-trade-changed-for-good-by-coronavirus.html and https://news.cgtn.com/news/2020-02-11/China-to-overhaul-wildlife-law-to-prevent-viral-outbreaks-O06arj8PWo/index.html. This could mean a fall in demand for illegal trade in many wild animals, including the Sunda pangolin, and this in turn should result in less poaching in its strongholds in Borneo.
Initiatives within Borneo to protect the pangolin are now better organised and funded. The Sabah Wildlife Department is doing its best to apprehend more poachers and sellers and its Wildlife Rescue Unit has also saved more pangolins and is helping to raise awareness about pangolin conservation. The Sarawak Forestry Department is also increasing its commitment to detect and arrest online sellers of pangolin products. 1StopBorneoWildlife, a local NGO, and individuals such as Elisa Panjang, a pangolin researcher, are also contributing to initiatives to develop conservation awareness and report illegal poaching.
I myself am leading various wildlife rescues in Borneo either physically leading them or have a network of rescuers in different cities and towns in Borneo. We advise and guide them on the best way to release them. In places for example in Sabah we mostly collaborate with the Wildlife Rescue Unit and give them the information leading to rescues whenever appropriate. We have successfully conducted 137 rescues in Borneo with recorded details and photographs of each operation up to date at November 2020 (details available on request).
The flow is in the right direction! Perhaps now, pangolins have a brighter future in Borneo but we mustn’t be complacent: much more needs to be done and we must have more people and many stakeholders working together. In particular, we must be ready to grasp any opportunity offered by global events beyond Borneo, for example the impacts of changes in Chinese government policy and the COVID19 pandemic.
Better awareness & enforcement will ultimately lead to the saving of this species. Pangolin Tourism is perhaps an another avenue which could lead to further protection of this species. Imagine tagging rescued pangolins and releasing them, and only high paying wildlife tourists get access to the viewing of the animal with no touching involved. Its being done with other animals in Africa and Borneo, so why not the Sunda Pangolin.There is no harm in trying.
What can you do to help? Always report any illegal sales of pangolins to the local authorities. If you ever stumble upon a pangolin crossing the road, try not to disturb and let it safely cross over. Volunteer with a local organization working with pangolins to create further awareness in the community .
A special thank you to Dr.Martin Parry for your kind edits to this write up and guidance.
Goode, E. (March 31, 2015) A Struggle to Save the Scaly Pangolin.’ The New York Times, New York. New York Company.
Cheema, S, Wong, C Payne, J and Repin, R A FIELD GUIDE TO TAWAU HILLS PARK. (awaiting publication) NATURAL HISTORY PUBLICATIONS