A commodity gone off the scales




Folklore is full with tales of the underdog, the small but wily creature outsmarting the larger and less agile. In Malay and Sri Lankan folklore it is said that there is a small animal that can kill elephants by biting the giant beast’s feet, then coiling itself tightly around the end of the elephant's trunk, and suffocating it. For those elephants out there, don’t worry. Your alleged killer is now nearing extinction itself, and won’t be suffocating you any time soon.

The animal in this story is the Sunda Pangolin Manis javanica, also called the Scaly ant-eater. Its known as tenggiling in Malay, and trenggiling in Indonesian. It looks somewhat like a miniature Stegosaur, with a scaly body and pointed head. It is classified as Critically Endangered animal. This means that if present trends continue there is a 50% chance that the species will go extinct in the wild in the next 10 years and that’s bad news.

Returning to the take of the elephant-killer, it is quite unlikely that pangolins would bite elephants, considering they don’t even have teeth. They eat with their stomachs. They have a gizzard-like stomach that is adapted for grinding food. Pangolins primarily feed on ants and termites, hence the name ant-eater. They catch ants with a unique and amazing tongue. The tongue of a pangolin is longer than their body, and they use these extraordinarily long tongues to reach insects burrowed deep underground.

Talk to local people across southeast Asia, from Sukabumi in West Java's mountains to To’Uban in northern Kelantan, and they reminisce how, as recently as in the 1990s, pangolin were still very common in gardens and forests around villages. People who went out at night to catch frogs would encounter pangolins every night. Now these same people report seeing them maybe once every six months. Of course this is entirely anecdotal, but it does suggest major changes in density.

So, what’s going wrong for this unusual and protected animal? First, there’s a huge illegal market in Vietnam and China for pangolin meat, which is eaten by rich people as an exotic luxury food. In Southeast Asia, it’s often brought out in celebration when a business deal is finalized.

Furthermore, the pangolin’s ground-up scales are used in traditional medicine, apparently to cure cancer or asthma. It is estimated that demand in China alone amounts to 200,000 pangolins per year. As a result of growing demand and declining supply, prices of pangolin scales have gone up from US$250 to US$600 per kg over the past five years. Increasingly, there are reports of large amounts of illegally smuggled pangolins. In one such incident during 2013, 10,000 kilograms of pangolin meat were seized from a Chinese vessel that ran aground in the Philippines. Similarly, in 2014, police confiscated 5,000 kg of pangolin meat and 77 kg of scales in Medan, Sumatra. Very likely such captures are just the tip of the iceberg.

Pangolins are caught on Java, Sumatra, Borneo and other places by stretching long low nets on the forest floor, snaking along ridges, or across them. Pangolins wandering on the forest floor get caught in these nets. As a defense mechanism pangolins roll up, hedge-hog-wise, into a tight ball and are easily retrieved and kept alive in sacks.

Hunting for pangolin scales is certainly not new. In 1949, the naturalist Edward Banks, reported that six hundred pounds of pangolin scales were exported at the time to China from Sarawak alone. These were made into “curry-combs”, which is possibly a type of horse brush.

Interestingly, in Indonesia there is apparently a perception that Brazil's mascot for the 2014 Football World Cup was a pangolin. Not quite. It was actually a three-banded armadillo, nicknamed Fuleco. We can't blame Indonesians for thinking that armadillos are similar to pangolins, because they look alike in body form and scaly outside. In fact, many scientists were thinking along similar lines and for centuries classified pangolins with anteaters, sloths, and indeed armadillos.

Newer genetic evidence, however, indicates the closest living relatives of pangolins are, wait for it, the Carnivora! Yes, they are related to cats, dogs, hyenas and the like. Evolution comes out laughing yet again, one branch on the evolutionary tree creating totally different-looking animals. It’s the power of evolutionary selection. When you feed on ants and don't have any real defense mechanisms, it apparently makes sense to look like a scaly ball with pointy snout.

So what to do? One pangolin species has already gone extinct, the Asian Giant Pangolin, or Manis palaeojavanicus. This was a truly large form of pangolin that could measure over 2 meters long. It disappeared from Java and Borneo around the time when people arrived in its range. We will probably never know the exact role humans played in its demise, or what role other factors (like disease or climate change) played. But as one of the tastiest and most easily caught animals around, it is likely that human predilection for exotic meats had at least some impact on driving the species to extinction.

We need to make sure we do not lose another species of pangolin. A few years ago David Attenborough put the pangolin on his top 10 list of species he wanted to save from extinction. This is going to require some serious action from the wildlife authorities of Indonesia, Malaysia and many other countries. Pangolins are fully protected in Indonesia, so the authorities need to let the people of Indonesia know through extensive media campaigns that catching pangolins is illegal and will be punished.

Being small and weird looking makes you the stuff of folklore but it’s no match for the growing trade in exotic meat which will be the death knell for an increasing number of South-east Asian animals.