Pangolin's armour no shield to threat from extinction

Pangolin's armour no shield to threat from extinction
Pangolins help control the termite populations in forests and also help aerate the soil when they dig for food or create burrows. Of the eight species of pangolin found worldwide, the Sunda pangolin is the only one that can be found here.
PHOTO: National Parks

Plight of mammals and efforts to help them thrive to be highlighted at event

It walks around clad in armour, yet the pangolin's defences cannot protect it from the threat of extinction. Ironically, its suit of scales is its greatest weakness.

Its keratin scales are made of the same protein found in human fingernails; however, some practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine believe they can reduce bleeding and help lactating women produce more milk.

Such misinformation has resulted in pangolins being poached from the wild; but tomorrow, the plight of the world's only scaly mammal will be highlighted during World Pangolin Day celebrations at the Night Safari.

There will be two talks held at the pangolin enclosure - at 7.45pm and 8.45pm - where visitors can learn more about the threats that pangolins face and what is being done to conserve them.

"Our call to action is for people to help us fight the illegal wildlife trade and not fuel demand for pangolin parts.

"Many species of trafficked animals, like the pangolin, often fall off the radar, compared to animals such as tigers or elephants," said Dr Sonja Luz, director of conservation and research at Wildlife Reserves Singapore (WRS), which manages the Night Safari.

Of the eight species of pangolin found worldwide, the Sunda pangolin is the only one that can be found here, mainly in the Bukit Timah and Central Catchment Nature Reserves.

As insect-eaters, pangolins play an important role in the forest ecosystem. "Certain species of termites, if not controlled, have the ability to wipe out entire forests. But pangolins help keep their populations in check," said Dr Luz.

Besides being pestbusters, they aerate the soil when they dig to find food or create burrows. This introduces oxygen and nutrients to the soil and benefits the roots of plants and animals that live underground.

Dr Luz joins efforts to fight the illegal wildlife trade in pangolin parts. The mammal's scales are believed by some TCM practitioners to be able to reduce bleeding and help lactating women produce more milk.
The Straits Times

Despite their ecological importance, pangolins are known more for their commercial value - which is why they are so heavily poached. Their scales can fetch up to US$3,000 (S$4,200) a kg, with each scale weighing between one and four grams.

Pangolins are also hunted for their meat, considered a delicacy in many parts of China. As their weight determines their value, the animals are often force-fed after capture.

Singapore is among the safest places for the Sunda pangolins as poaching is not as widespread, but they are still critically endangered due to the loss of forest habitats.

The National Parks Board (NParks) estimates that there are more than 100 wild pangolins here.

Its director of conservation Wong Tuan Wah said: "In Singapore, habitat loss as a result of urbanisation remains a threat for pangolins as they are slow-moving and are injured or killed by vehicles when they stray too far off from forested areas onto roads."

In 2014, a pangolin working group comprising local researchers was formed to gather feedback on outreach and research activities to maximise conservation efforts.

Four research projects funded by the WRS Conservation Fund have been undertaken since the start of the year .

Examples include faecal analyses to study the diet and microbial community in the gut of pangolins, as well as projects to study the genetic make-up of the pangolins in Singapore, and their movement and behaviour after they are rescued and released back into the wild.

Another project will look at using dogs in studies.

"The use of sniffer dogs could help researchers locate faecal samples, for example, or help researchers identify where they tend to burrow," Dr Luz said.

NParks' Mr Wong said the board's conservation efforts centre on safeguarding and enhancing the habitats in nature reserves to help native animals thrive.

This includes partnering agencies such as WRS and the National University of Singapore on a pan- golin translocation programme, in which pangolins found to have strayed from forested areas are rescued, rehabilitated and released back into the wild at appropriate locations.

audreyt@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on Feb 19, 2016.
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