Plight of the Pangolin

Pangolins are shy, armor-clad anteaters found throughout Asia and Africa. In recent years, an exploding illegal demand for their scales and meat is pushing all eight species towards extinction. Today, the pangolin has the unfortunate distinction of having become the most traded, least known animal in the world – yet most people know little about them or the grave threats they face. 

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Pangolins are found in a number of Rainforest Trust’s project sites, including current projects in Sumatra, where the Sunda Pangolin lives and the Democratic Republic of Congo, home to White-bellied Pangolins. Protecting the rainforests these animals depend on and supporting anti-poaching patrols with conservation partners on the ground offers the best hope to ensure a future for pangolins and a host of other species.

Found across large parts of southern Asia and Africa, pangolins look a little like scaly wing-less dragons. They are in fact shy and elusive anteaters with strong claws used for ripping into termite nests and long tongues to slurp them up. They have long, prehensile tails to hang from, and carry their babies, called pangopups, on their backs.

There are eight living species of pangolins, four each in Asia and Africa. Today, all four of the Asian species – the Chinese, Sunda, Indian and Philippine – are listed as either endangered or critically endangered by the IUCN. The four African species – the Cape, White-bellied, Giant Ground pangolin and Black-bellied – are all listed as vulnerable.

Shy and nocturnal, scientists know little about pangolins. They are rarely encountered in the wild and difficult to study, making it nearly impossible to estimate how many remain. As they are increasingly persecuted for the illegal wildlife trade, there is a real fear that before we can even learn about the history of these unusual animals – they will go extinct.

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For centuries, people have eaten pangolins as bushmeat in Africa and traded their scales for traditional medicine in Asia. In 1820, King George III of England was even gifted an armored suit made from pangolin scales. More recently, in the 1980s there was a craze for pangolin leather until the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) stepped in, banning the trade.

However, in the last decade pangolins worldwide have come under terrible new pressure from an exploding illegal demand driven almost exclusively from newly affluent consumers in China and Vietnam, who value their meat as a “luxury” product and their scales for cure-all medicines.

It is estimated that more than a million pangolins have been killed in the last 10 years for the illegal trade. As demand in China soars, all four Asian species of pangolin have been declared endangered or critically endangered, with many species now teetering on the brink of extinction. As pangolins go locally extinct in Asia, the trade has shifted increasingly to Africa.

Paradoxically, the rarer pangolins become the more their value soars on the international black market, prompting smugglers of elephant ivory and rhino horn to increasingly view pangolin scales as an attractive new commodity.

In an effort to raise awareness for the fifth annual World Pangolin Day, held on February 20th, the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) launched an interactive map to help track the massive scale of the pangolin trade. It shows records from 2000 and 2015, including details about where, when and how many pangolins were seized and poached. “The map is intended as a regularly updated resource for use by anybody working in pangolin conservation as well as for general interest,” the EIA noted in a statement.

We need to do more to raise the profile of pangolins and protect these incredible animals.

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If you live in a country where pangolins and their products are traded you can help by not purchasing these products and reporting illegal trade activities to local law enforcement or the IUCN Species Survival Commission Pangolin Specialist Group.

Learn how you can help protect pangolins and their rainforest habitats in both Sumatra and the Congo Basin.

 

A Commitment to the Congo

Unknown to the outside world until only a century ago, the Okapi is one of Africa’s most graceful and elusive animals. Endangered by hunting and habitat loss, Rainforest Trust’s partners have pioneered ground-breaking research on these mysterious creatures for over three decades in the remote rainforests of the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

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Once thought to be a mythical beast, Okapis are shy forest cousins of giraffes found only in the eastern Congo Basin. Looking a little like a cross between a zebra, donkey and giraffe, the Okapi’s discovery in 1901 was one of the most incredible taxonomic finds of the 20th century. But barely a century later, the future of these enigmatic animals hangs in the balance.

Rainforest Trust’s field partners, John and Terese Hart from the Lukuru Wildlife Research Foundation (LWRF) have studied Okapis and fought to protect their Congolese rainforest habitat for over 30 years. They have made startling discoveries about the natural history of Okapis and many other wildlife species in the area, including Bonobos and forest elephants. Relying on the support of local people, they have developed extensive community backing for their research and collaborated closely with the Mbuti pygmies, one of the last hunter-gatherer societies in the world.

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The Harts met in DRC, formerly Zaire, in the 1970s while John was studying the Mbuti and Terese was a volunteer in the Peace Corps. In the 1980s, they returned together to continue research, married and started a family.

In the late ‘80s, John and Terese conducted one of the first ever radio collar studies of Okapis deep in the Ituri rainforest. They set up their camp at the confluence of two streams, the Afarama and Edoro.

Their first Okapi, a young female, was radio tagged on Easter day of 1986. Tagging rates steadily increased after that, eventually expanding the study area to over 30 miles and numerous individuals.

After tagging, radio antennas and hand-held receivers enabled an understanding of movement and ranges over time. Their study found that female Okapis (which are larger than males) had exclusive ranges between 3 – 4 miles. Males, however, ranged further afield, encompassing territories of 9 – 12 miles, overlapping female territories.

In addition to range and distribution patterns, their study illuminated feeding behaviors never documented. Using their long, muscular tongues, Okapis easily strip leaves from shrubs and bushes in the understory. The Harts identified well over 100 species of plants that are part of an Okapi’s diet.

Their Okapi research has become a classic field study and has even been featured in the 1992 National Geographic Video, “Heart of Brightness”, a play on the title of Joseph Conrad’s brooding “Heart of Darkness,” set in the same Congo Basin, and the family’s surname.

The Harts have since pursued many other ground breaking studies of Congo’s incredible wildlife while working closely with local communities to conserve forests. Despite civil conflict and dramatic social upheaval since they first arrived decades ago, John and Terese have stayed incredibly committed to the region’s wildlife and people. DRC has become their home.

While many parts of the Congo have suffered from decades of disastrous civil war, the Hart’s study area in the Lomami Basin has been spared much of this destruction due to its remote location.

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Rainforest Trust is partnering with LWRF to establish the new Lomami National Park, while simultaneously working to create the 1,194,507-acre Balanga Forest Reserve. The new protected areas will strategically expand protection for wildlife in and around Lomami while establishing highly-trained and well-equipped anti-poaching patrols across the region to protect one of the most important surviving populations of Okapis, forest elephants and threatened primates.

Learn how you can help create a new refuge for Congo’s rainforest wildlife.

The Secret Lives of Matschie’s Tree-kangaroos

Matschie’s Tree-kangaroos are endangered by hunting and habitat loss, but Rainforest Trust’s partners are pioneering innovative research to better understand and protect these amazing animals.

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A group of Papua New Guinean men stare up into the rainforest canopy expectantly. Following their gaze high into the mossy branches, an animal that looks a little like a plush toy teddy bear looks down. It is an endangered Matschie’s Tree-kangaroo, found only on Papua New Guinea’s Huon Peninsula.

As the group waits below, one man slowly climbs up the tall trunk of the tree. As he inches closer, the tree kangaroo suddenly leaps to the ground. Amazingly, the animal pops right up and without missing a beat, scrambles to escape. But it is not fast enough. Soon it has been surrounded and captured.

In the past, a scene like this might spell the end for tree kangaroos hunted for food. Today, local people are using their bush skills not to hunt these animals, but to help gather invaluable data on their behavior and ecology – information vital to conservation efforts for the species. The local hunters are working with researchers Lisa Dabek and Daniel Solomon Okena from the Tree Kangaroo Conservation Program (TKCP), Rainforest Trust’s partner in PNG.

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Matschie’s Tree-kangaroos are found exclusively in the lush rainforests of the Huon Peninsula – a hotspot of rare and endemic wildlife along Papua New Guinea’s northeast coast. These endearingly cute and furry kangaroos feed on leaves, fruits and mosses found at elevations ranging between 3,000 and 10,000 feet.

Having evolved for life in the dense tree canopy of the Huon Peninsula’s mountainous cloud forests, they are supremely adapted to their environment. Sharp claws help Matschie’s Tree-kangaroos with climbing and a long tail acts as a counterweight for balance. Meanwhile, thick chestnut-colored fur insulates against the damp and camouflages against predators.

However, their uncanny ability to blend into their surroundings makes finding and observing them 70 – 100 feet high in the canopy extremely difficult from the ground. But researchers have come up with an innovative solution.

In collaboration with the National Geographic Society, TKCP has conducted ground-breaking research on their behavior through the use of National Geographic Crittercams ©. Crittercams are attached to the animal using a small collar, enabling the animal to film its behavior over the course of up to five days.

Video footage is allowing researchers to glimpse into the hidden worlds of these elusive animals as they forage in the dense cloud forest canopy. Already, Dabek and Okena have gleaned valuable insights into behaviors, distribution patterns and the many different species of plants they eat – mosses, ferns and over 90 vascular plants in the canopy. This information is proving invaluable for making decisions regarding the ecological composition and size of new protected areas based on the needs of the species.

In addition to being extremely useful scientifically, this research is also highly community-driven and supported. Spread across 50 remote villages on the Huon Peninsula, over 12,000 indigenous people live in the community conservation area. Under Papua New Guinea’s unique land tenure system, indigenous clans own and control more than 90% of all land in the country.

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Rainforest Trust, local partner TKCP, local communities, and government partners in the Yopno-Uruwa-Som (YUS) watershed of the Huon Peninsula are working to expand the YUS  Conservation Area by 195,759 acres to ensure a lasting future for the Matschie’s Tree-kangaroo while serving as a model that can then be replicated by other indigenous groups for community based conservation inititatives across Papua New Guinea (PNG).

“We are incredibly grateful for the support from the Rainforest Trust which is enabling us to expand habitat protection in YUS to the landscape-level as a Community Conservation Area,” said Lisa Dabek, Tree Kangaroo Conservation Program Founder and Director. “This added protection will further help in our efforts to conserve the Matschie’s Tree-kangaroo and will actively involve local communities in sustainable management of the YUS landscape.”

Learn how you can help protect Matschie’s Tree-kangaroos and their rainforest habitats in PNG.