Okonjima Nature Reserve (ONR), home of the AfriCat Foundation, is also called home for a wide range of interesting species, one little known resident is a scaly anteater known as the Temminck’s ground pangolin (Smutsia temminckii) or ground pangolin. They are one of eight pangolin species worldwide and one of four pangolin species which occur on the African continent, all of which are classified as Vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The other four species are found on the Asian continent, all of which are either classified as Endangered or Critically Endangered by the IUCN. These animals are predominantly nocturnal which makes studying them difficult, especially in areas with high concentrations of predators, this is why African pangolin species are highly under researched.
Pangolin are a keystone species who provide a variety of valuable services to the ecosystem directly impacting many other species. Firstly, it is estimated pangolin consume approximately 70 million ants and termites per year, which in turn provides a service to those animals feeding on plants targeted by the insects. As reported in “Illegal trade in Pangolins in Namibia: The impact of a reward scheme over the first year” an estimated 105,000kg of grass can be eaten by these ants and termites in an area home to fifteen pangolin, translating into the food over one year for 30 cows or 430 springbok. The report estimates approximately N$600 million per year can be saved in crop loss due to the service provided by pangolin consuming ants and termites. Pangolin are burrowing mammals, which play important roles within ecosystems by functioning as ecosystem engineers. This results from their turning over of the soil during burrowing and feeding which can help aerate the soil lead to an increase in plant germination.
Traditionally in Africa, pangolin and their scales are moderately used for bushmeat and muti, but now there is a rising demand from Asian markets due to the overexploitation of Asian species which is putting increased pressure on all African species. China and Vietnam view pangolin as a delicacy and their cultures also believe pangolin scales and body parts to have healing powers in traditional Chinese medicine. A pangolin scale is viewed similar to that of rhino horn, despite it being made out of the same material as our own fingernails and hair. In 2014, pangolin were categorized as the most trafficked animal worldwide with numbers of individuals seized exponentially increasing each year. In 2016, all eight species were given the highest level of protection listed under CITES (Convention of International Trade of Endangered Species), Appendix 1, this status is given to species threatened with extinction and CITES prohibits international trade in specimens of these species. Another large threat pangolin face in southern Africa is electrocution by electrified fencing, which is why ONR has raised the bottom wires on all fencing throughout the reserve.
Data published in the report “Illegal trade in Pangolins in Namibia: The impact of a reward scheme over the first year” (Namibia Chamber of Environment, September 2018) states that this rise in demand has become evident since early 2017, when there was a large increase in illegal trade of pangolin here in Namibia. Noting only a few cases per year were previously reported, from September 2017-September 2018 there were 57 cases opened of which 34 live pangolin had been confiscated. This data demonstrates the sudden pressure placed on pangolin in Namibia and the dire need for a better understanding of this species to be better equipped to help save those trafficked through successful release.
THE AFRICAT PANGOLIN RESEARCH PROJECT
There has been minimal research completed within Namibia, for this reason, AfriCat is launching the AfriCat Pangolin Project aimed at studying all details of life for the ground pangolin in Namibia. The overall aim of this project is to understand the activity patterns, population dynamics, prey selectivity, and overall ecology of wild pangolin within ONR and to gather further information about their behavior and survival strategies. The end goal of collecting this data is to shed light on biological baseline knowledge and to create conservation guidelines for ground pangolin which can be applicable across their range. Another very important objective is to increase awareness of the vulnerable status of southern Africa’s only pangolin species.
Using VHF tags attached to the scale, we are able to track pangolin in order to collect spatial data and observe their behaviors including prey selectivity, activity patterns and budgets, and survival strategies. The spatial data collected is used to determine home range sizes and changes in movement across seasons. Camera traps setup at known burrows will also assist in collecting data about activity patterns specifically determining emergence and return times at burrow locations. Remote weather stations allow us to look at the effects of weather conditions on pangolin active times and durations. All of the data collected will be used to further our knowledge on overall pangolin ecology. As we learn from ongoing research and advanced methodology, additional areas of focus will be included into the research.
“If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?”