Pangolins are thought to be the most trafficked animal in the world, and yet, we know relatively little about them. We know the pangolin, which is the only scaly mammal in the world, has a body covered with razor-sharp, overlapping keratin plates. When attacked, it rolls into an armored ball with scales raised.
But due to its nocturnal lifestyle and the fact that it feels most at home in a complex system of deep inaccessible burrows, the giant ground pangolin remains one of the least researched species in the animal kingdom. “We know little about their basic ecology, their movements and population sizes, and our lack of knowledge hinders our efforts to protect them,” says David Lehmann, a wildlife ecologist.
Such is the reason that Lehmann and his Wildlife Capture Unit were celebrating when they caught a giant pangolin nicknamed Ghost, the biggest on record. The team – consisting of eco-guards, an indigenous tracker, a field biologist, and a wildlife vet – hope that Ghost, who weighs 38kg and measures 1.72m from nose to tail, will give valuable insights in their fight against poaching. Lehmann and his team take live samples from giant pangolins such as Ghost – something, according to Lehmann, that has never been done before.
After capture and sedation, samples of blood, saliva, feces, tissue, and scales are taken from each animal and then a GPS transmitter is fastened to its tail. The entire procedure lasts about two hours and provides a unique set of data.
In addition, a network of 24 to 40 camera traps has been set up in Lopé-Okanda national park in Gabon to monitor the animals’ movements, nest ecology, and habitat use. It is hoped that information from the camera traps combined with spatial data will provide an insight into the animal’s life expectancy, territoriality and motion range, and shed light on its reproductive behavior.
Pangolin scales are a popular ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine, used for anything from rheumatism and asthma to cancer; there is no scientific evidence for their effectiveness.
State-of-the-art forensics technology – such as radiocarbon dating and X-ray fluorescence – is already being used to effectively trace illegal timber trading and to target illicit rhino horn and ivory syndicates. With a better understanding of pangolin behavior, scientists can use this type of technology to help preserve these scaly species of mammal.