KOTA KINABALU ― As a child, Ms Janine Ruwayah would find pangolins in her backyard at a village in Keningau. They were common but they were hardly intrusive.
“My siblings, neighbours and I found them cute,” she said in a recent interview. “The way they curled into a ball when approached and the way they looked and moved was also interesting.”
Now 36, Ms 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 Ms Ruwayah, her two children aged 11 and eight did not grow up knowing the scaly mammal. Now they are a rare sight in their backyard.
This is unsurprising as experts estimate that millions of pangolins were killed worldwide in the past decade, for the exotic meat trade and the perceived value of their scales. The Sunda pangolin is also found in Singapore but it is critically endangered due to habitat loss, with only about 100 individuals remaining.
Ms Elisa Panjang, a pioneer Pangolin researcher in Sabah, said that based on interviews with villagers, pangolins were a common sight 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 really very 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 Ms Panjang.
Sabah Wildlife Department enforcement chief Mohd Soffian Abu Bakar agreed.
“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 use 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 Chinese buyers, 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. Unlicensed hunting is punishable with a maximum penalty of five years’ jail, a fine of up to RM 50,000 (S$15,885) or both.
“No licence has been given out, therefore any hunting or possession of pangolins in Sabah is considered illegal,” said Mr Soffian. However, authorities recognise indigenous communities’ customary rights to hunt for subsistence and are faced with the issue of distinguishing the intentions.
Networks that span jungles and 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 too. In general, they live within the forests and jungles, such as oil-palm plantations, where chances of finding pangolins are high,” said Mr Soffian.
The “collectors” ― whether local ethnic communities or foreign ― are driven by the lucrative payoff. They can earn as much as RM 120 a kg for meat, which is more than a day’s wages for a plantation worker or a subsistence farmer.
The scales can also fetch between RM 150 and RM 180 a kg, and live newborn or foetuses can go for RM 2,000 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 Mr 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 them at 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 before bringing them to transit points on Sabah’s coast, where they are brought out in fishing boats to international waters, and picked up by bigger vessels.
“Their network is well-established. The masterminds are often big business owners who have other industries, like seafood exporters who have resources and can easily hide the illegal pangolin meat among their goods,” said Mr Soffian.
Combating a worldwide trade
Ms 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 makes sense to say that illegal hunters and poachers benefited from deforestation … all these logging roads will provide better access … deeper into the forested areas,” she said.
Mr Soffian said that the biggest challenge in combatting 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 … In the interior districts, we have three rangers and in the east coast we have four rangers,” he said. “The rangers have to do enforcement, wildlife control (and) awareness programmes. It seems like an excuse, but it’s the truth. But, for field work, you really do need manpower.”
To address the shortfall, 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 Mr Soffian.
Usually, the department depends on public tip-offs to help with its intelligence.
Ms 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 pangolin ecology and behavioural response to habitat loss. The PhD researcher is expected to work with local authorities to produce a Sunda pangolin state action plan.
“Meanwhile, enforcement and education is crucial,” she said. “The most important (element) is to reduce demand for this species. Identify tools and people willing to do 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, pangolins will go extinct in the wild, just like our Sumatran rhino, which will be a huge loss for all of us Sabahans,” she added. MALAY MAIL ONLINE