KOTA KINABALU, April 19 ― As a child, Janine Ruwayah would find pangolins in her backyard at a village in Keningau. They were common enough that she was not afraid of them, but not so much that they were pests.
“Me and my siblings and neighbours found them cute, the way they curled into a ball when approached and the way they looked and moved was also interesting. We occasionally played with them too which was fun, but in hindsight, not very nice of us,” she told Malay Mail Online in a recent interview.
Now 36, Ruwayah said pangolins featured strongly during her youth; sometimes they were found at local markets for sale, either as pets or food. She never ate them, but she knew others who did. It was part of Murut culture to hunt in jungles and to eat the spoils.
Unlike Ruwaya, her two children aged 11 and eight did not grow up knowing the scaly mammal. Now they are a rare sight, be it in their backyard or the local tamu.
This is unsurprising as experts estimate that, in the last decade, millions of pangolins were killed worldwide for the exotic meat trade and the perceived value of their scales.
Elisa Panjang, a pioneer Pangolin researcher in Sabah, said that based on interviews with villagers, pangolins were common sights in the 1960s when the forests of Sabah was still intact.
“But nowadays, it is difficult even to see one. I can say most sightings are opportunistic, and these people are very really lucky to see one,” she said.
Experts estimated about 10,000 pangolins are trafficked illegally every year. In Sabah, recovered logbooks from a trafficking syndicate showed that 22,200 pangolins were killed from 2007 to 2009 for export.
“However, only about 20 per cent or less of the actual trade is reported by the media, so we don’t know the true number,” said Panjang.
The view was shared by Sabah Wildlife Department enforcement chief Mohd Soffian Abu Bakar.
“In reality, the network is so large and well connected that too many cases go undetected,” he said.
The pangolin is estimated to be among the most trafficked wildlife in the world. Like most other pangolin species, the Sunda pangolin is hunted for its skin, scales, and meat.
Its scales are sometimes made into rings as charms against rheumatic fever or powdered for as traditional medicine. Its meat is eaten by those who believe it to be good for health, or as a cure for arthritis, asthma and back pains. None of these supposed uses are backed by scientific evidence.
The demand is mostly driven by the Chinese, and indigenous people who hunt for wildlife.
The Sunda pangolin, the only species found in Sabah, is protected under Schedule 2 of the Wildlife Conservation Enactment 1997, meaning any hunting or possession requires a licence. Unlicenced hunting is punishable with a maximum penalty of five years’ jail, a fine of up to RM50,000 or both.
“No licence has been given out therefore any hunting or possession of pangolins in Sabah is considered illegal,” said Soffian. However, authorities recognise indigenous communities’ customary rights to hunt for subsistence and are faced with the issue of distinguishing the intentions.
Networks that reach into jungles and out to sea
Last year, the department approved 967 commercial hunting licences, a marked decrease from the previous year’s 1,580. But registered hunters are often not part of wildlife syndicates.
“It’s locals who live near the jungles who participate in such hunting activities and they supply the middle men of trafficking syndicates. Sometimes it's foreigners also. In general, they live within the forests and jungles such as oil palm plantations where chances of finding pangolins are high,” said Soffian.
The “collectors” ― whether local ethnic communities or foreign ― are driven by the lucrative payoff. They can earn as much as RM120 per kg for meat, which is more than a day’s wages at their plantation, or as subsistence farmers.
The scales can also fetch between RM150 and RM180 per kg, and live newborn or fetuses can go for RM2,000 each.
“All they need are two or three a week, and they have enough to go on for a long time. Then they don’t even go to work,” said Soffian.
Some hunt opportunistically, while others turn hunting into their main trade due to the high price it fetches. Due to the mild nature of pangolins, they are easy to catch once found, although the challenge is always in finding it during the night, when they are most active.
The collectors, or hunters, are at the bottom of the network, and only come into contact with the middlemen who have a network of collectors. The middlemen then gather all of the smuggled wildlife and process them for transportation before bringing them to transit points on Sabah’s coast where they are brought out via fishing boats to international waters, and picked up by bigger vessels.
“Their network is well established. The masterminds are often big businesses owners who have other industries, like seafood exporters who have resources and can easily hide the illegal pangolin meat among their goods,” said Soffian.
Combating a worldwide trade
Panjang, who has been studying the mammals for seven years, said that while poaching is the pangolin’s main threat, it was also at risk from habitat loss and fragmentation mostly due to conversion of forest to palm oil plantations.
“I think it make sense to say that illegal hunters and poachers benefited from deforestation for instance, all these logging roads will provide better access for them to go deeper into the forested areas,” she said.
Soffian said that the biggest challenge in fighting against experienced and dogged wildlife trafficking syndicates is the lack of manpower and staffing, rather than willpower.
“We have basically got four wildlife rangers covering the entire west coast. That’s from the northern districts of Pitas and Kudat right down to Sipitang. In the interior districts, we have three rangers and in the east coast we have four rangers.
“The rangers have to do enforcement, wildlife control, awareness programmes. It seems like an excuse, but it’s the truth. For office and administrative work, it's fine to say that. But for field work, you really do need manpower,” he said.
To help offset the lack of personnel, the department uses honorary wildlife wardens who are bestowed with powers of enforcement and may carry out surveillance and operations anywhere in the state.
“We have also recently engaged the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency as an authorised agency under the Sabah Wildlife Conservation Enactment, so this will also help with enforcement,” said Soffian.
Usually, the department depends on public tip-offs to help with its intelligence.
Panjang is also expected to be a key contributor to a Sabah pangolin action plan, but that will likely only be ready in the next five years after more data is collected on the elusive species.
The PhD researcher is studying pangolin ecology and behavioural response to habitat loss and, by the end of the study, is expected to work with local authorities to produce a Sunda Pangolin state action plan.
“Meanwhile, enforcement and education is crucial. The most important is to reduce demand for this species. Identify tools and people willing to do so something on awareness.
“It is also very crucial to identify the target groups in order to understand the survey tools that need to address this group for example; the mindset of rural communities is different than the city people,” she said.
But whether it will be too late by then is anyone’s guess. The claim is that global populations have fallen by up to 80 per cent over the past 21 years.
“Looking at smuggling activities in this region, which is getting worse, I am not surprised to say that in 10 years, pangolin will go extinct in the wild just like our Sumatran rhino, which will be a huge loss for all of us Sabahans,” she said.
A new webseries, Borneo Wildlife Warriors, sees its presenter Aaron “Bertie” Gekoski on his first official rescue operation ― a small female pangolin was injured and needs to be cared for.
Watch Sabah Wildlife Department’s wildlife rescue unit do their best to educate the community and save Sabah’s wildlife.