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When I was a child, the pangolin was a common sight in my village. I remember my mother telling me “I just got back from the rubber tree plantation where I saw a pangolin, he was following my footsteps as he saw the light from my head torch while I was tapping the trees”. It was common to hear of encounters like this, but, due to increasing poaching and smuggling activities, this beautiful creature is no longer a common sight in my village or anywhere else in Malaysia.

Pangolins: The Most Illegally Trafficked Mammal in the World

The pangolin is the most illegally trafficked mammal in the world, facing multiple challenges to its existence. Not only is it threatened by habitat lost, but also by the belief that it’s body parts are valuable for traditional medicine. It is also considered a delicacy, being served in restaurants across China – and increasingly in other parts of SE Asia – to feed a growing form of perverse food tourism. It is cheaper for someone from China to travel to Sabah and eat a pangolin than to buy it in China.

"It is cheaper for someone from China to travel to Sabah and eat a pangolin than to buy it in China."

Why are Pangolins critically endangered?

The Sunda pangolin (Manis javanica) is native to Malaysia and increasingly vulnerable to extinction. The main contributing factor that has led to the species being listed on the IUCN species red list is the illegal wildlife trade from South East Asia to China.

Thousands of pangolins are smuggled every year from Peninsular Malaysia and Borneo through neighboring countries, ending up in the live animal markets of China. According to the Pantel and Anak (2010) report from TRAFFIC, more than 22,000 pangolins were collected for trade in an 18-month period between 2007 and 2009 in Sabah. In early February 2018, Taiwanese Customs found 4,000 butchered pangolins shipped from Malaysia in a cargo container at the Kaohsiung harbor. Due to the high demand, a pangolin can be sold by a local pangolin hunter for as much as RM 6000 (USD 1500).

Saving pangolins from extinction

Jimmy Lee (Conservation Medicine) and Andrew Ginsos (WHU) collecting biological samples from a pangolin that was confiscated from smugglers, before releasing it back into the wild.

Studying populations will contribute to saving pangolins from extinction

The current population status of the Sunda pangolin in Malaysia is still unclear due to the lack of population studies. In order to contribute to our understanding of this species and to attempt to help save the species from extinction, I am conducting my master’s to study the zoonotic viruses and the population genetics of confiscated pangolins from Malaysia.

Saving pangolins from extinction will require the studying of several factors. The genetic study will hopefully provide useful information of the origin of the animal, routes of smuggling, population health status as well as a reference for use in future forensic investigations. I have recently been selected as a member of the IUCN Species Survival Commission Pangolin Specialist Group and attended the International Conference on One Plan Approach Conservation Planning and Formosan Pangolin PHVA workshop to expand my knowledge regarding the successful pangolin conservation plans adopted in other countries that hopefully can be implemented in Malaysia. As education is one of the most important efforts to decrease pangolin poaching and consumption, I’ve also presented my work to the Young Leadership for Sustainability Workshop during the Bornean Eco Film Festival in an effort to spread information regarding pangolin conservation issues to the younger generation.

As Dr. Seuss said: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better, it’s not”. I really hope that people and governments throughout SE Asia will recognize the threat to this amazing animal and stop consuming the pangolin, so in the future hopefully I will have the opportunity to tell my children stories of seeing a pangolin in the forest, just like the stories my mother told me.

Saving pangolins from extinction