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AfriCat Pangolin Research Project

Determining the home range size, population density, habitat selection and ecology of wild ground pangolin (Smutsia temminckii) in the Okonjima Nature Reserve. – Dr. Kelsey Prediger

Biodiversity across the world is increasingly under threat and facing diminishment as climate change, habitat loss, poaching, and wildlife trafficking are ever growing threats. It is important now more than ever to know current populations and ecological statuses of vulnerable and keystone species to better understand what conservation management practices and methods should be implemented to secure a future on Earth for these groups. These factors should provide motivation to target highly trafficked species for conservation efforts before they are classified as critically endangered (Ingram et al. 2018). Southern Africa’s only pangolin species, the Temminck’s ground pangolin (Smutsia temminckii) is at the intersection of these categories, vulnerable, highly trafficked, and acting as a keystone species, whose extinction would cause a top down effect and put the integrity of the entire ecosystem at risk of harm (Jordan, F. 2009).

Pangolin, also known as a scaly ant-eater, are solitary mammals who are predominantly nocturnal. They are covered in scales made of keratin which provide protection from carnivores while they are out of the safety of their burrows foraging. Pangolin play an important role in consuming ants and termites that compete with grazers for food and cause crop loss for farmers, as well as in aerating the soil during feeding and burrowing, which can lead to increased plant germination.

In 2014, Pangolins were categorized as the most trafficked wild animal worldwide with numbers of individuals seized exponentially increasing each year (Challender et al. 2014). With a rising demand for pangolin scales and products and a simultaneous decline in the supply of Asian species, due to overexploitation, African pangolin species are now increasingly targeted by poaching and a resulting intercontinental trade (Challender et al. 2014, Shepard et al. 2016). This increasing pressure from the East Asian markets is in addition to the demand for African pangolin in local cultures being used for bush meat, traditional medicine (“muti”), and rituals (Pietersen et al. 2014a, Shepherd et al. 2016). 

Additionally, increases in numbers of trafficked live pangolin seized by the Ministry of Environment and Tourism (Namibia) stress the importance for investigating factors like habitat preference, population dynamics, foraging preference, and distribution, which can influence the success of the release-rehabilitation of these animals in new home ranges.

AfriCat’s initial study launched in 2017, A pilot study on the population size and ecology of ground pangolin (Smutsia Temminckii) in the Okonjima Nature Reserve (ONR), Namibia, originally tagged two ground pangolin. Technical difficulties involving lost tags put the project on hold. With the hiring of a pangolin focused researcher and MSc student from Namibia University of Science and Technology (NUST), Kelsey Prediger, the project was re-initiated in September of 2018. The pangolin tags have been re-designed and since, there have been no failures as a result of this modification. The project is now known as the AfriCat Pangolin Project and has expanded the research to include a large spectrum of topics important in helping us understand the ecology of pangolin.

The overall aim of this project seeks to address the existing gap within Namibia regarding pangolin research and the exponential increase in trafficking of the species. Pangolin are fitted with VHF transmitters by attaching them to the scale which allows us to track the individual in order to collect spatial data and make behavioral observations. During the tagging process, morphometric data are collected to assess population dynamics and average individual sizes for males and females. During VHF tracking all observed behaviors and feeding instances are recorded to better understand their habitat and diet preferences, reproduction, distribution, and social structure. Camera traps are deployed at known burrows to get an insight into times of emergence and return to the burrow as well as individual interactions at burrow locations. Natal burrows will also be monitored to gain insight into pup rearing and dispersal. An environmental monitoring station actively downloads weather conditions every 12 minutes for us to learn how environmental conditions affect pangolins activity patterns. Ant and termite surveys are done monthly to assess prey abundance and plant productivity across their home range.

The aim of the applied research is to assess the home range size, population density, and ecology of ground pangolin within ONR and to gather further information about their behavior, habitat preference, and survival strategies. From this research, we hope to determine suitable habitats of release for seized ground pangolin (from the illegal wildlife tracking industry) as well as establish conservation management methods for release of rehabilitated ground pangolin. The end goal of collecting this data is to shed light on biological baseline knowledge of the species and to create guidelines for the ground pangolin as a whole within Namibia. An additional objective is to increase awareness of the vulnerable status of southern Africa’s only pangolin species through publications in scientific journals, popular science magazines, and platforms that reach the general public.