Pangolin Poaching: Battling For Survival

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Pangolins are the most trafficked animal in the world. But in the age of climate change, pangolin poaching is only one of the threats these mammals may face yet– to their habitat, range and prey availability. They’ve been called the most illegally traded and sought-after mammal in the world. But pangolin poaching is not the only menace to these animals; a species that has become increasingly threatened over the past decade due to demand for its meat and scales for consumption, medicinal purposes and superstitious value. Little is known of the threat that climate change may pose on the habitats and range of the Temminck’s ground pangolin (Smutsia temminckii) in southern Africa.
the kalahari desert is a region of interest in the pangolin poaching trade of South Africa

A typically beautiful sunset in the Kalahari desert of South Africa.

In the Northern Cape, the 110 000-hectare Tswalu Kalahari Reserve occupies a space that serves as the south-western edge of the ground pangolin distribution range. Here, University of Witwatersrand Ph.D. candidate Wendy Panaino is studying the effects of climate change on pangolin physiology and behavior, with the support of the Tswalu Foundation. “The illegal wildlife trade is the greatest threat to all pangolin species at present,” says Panaino. “If pangolins are not able to adapt to climate change, then this, superimposed on poaching, may lead to extirpation in some areas.”

A close up photograph of a pangolin in the Kalahari region of South Africa.

A recent study of weather data in South Africa revealed an increase in the maximum temperatures of South Africa’s arid regions. The Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, for example, has seen an increase of 1.95°C in temperature over the past five decades. “If we wish to understand the effects of changing environments on pangolins, climate change ‘hotspot’ areas such as the Kalahari are ideal.” says Panaino. For nearly three years she has been studying the behavior, habitat requirements, general physiology and ecology of pangolins in the reserve, located just over 250km from Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. Little is known about how pangolins might cope with the direct and indirect effects of a changing climate. Using high-frequency transmitters to track the pangolins, and miniature biologging technology, Panaino has been recording fine-scale body temperature patterns of six pangolins at Tswalu. She has also spent time observing their behavior, tracking their activity on camera traps, analyzing scat, and monitoring diet and prey abundance through observations and pitfall trapping.
anti pangolin poaching efforts have led to interesting behavioural discoveries

A pangolin is caught on camera drinking from a puddle – knowledge of the behaviour of pangolins is increasing through anti poaching research.

Over the years, Panaino has witnessed some interesting behavior in Tswalu’s pangolins. “I have been lucky enough to observe scent-marking, male-male interactions, females transporting their pups to new burrow sites and pangolins sand bathing,” she says. “I have also observed the growth and development of the pangolin pups through the use of camera traps placed outside the burrow.” she adds. The research will contribute to effective conservation and management practices of a species that is already severely threatened by the illegal pangolin poaching trade. Linking data to climatic variables from the weather station in Tswalu, Panaino is able to gain great insight into the way pangolins are affected by changes in temperature. Any shift in activity or behavior in the long run may reduce the foraging period for pangolins, and their overall energy intake. “Climate change is likely to affect pangolins both directly via increased environmental heat and aridity, and indirectly via changes in prey availability.” says Panaino. Pangolins may buffer the effects of climate change via behavioral mechanisms such as opting for nocturnal rather than daytime foraging, but Panaino will conduct more monitoring before reaching a conclusion on this behavior.

The Kgalagadi Transfrontier National Park has seen a drastic change in climate in recent years, putting pressure on the pangolin population.

Written by Taryn Arnott Van Jaarsveld   Copyrights 2018 Safari News. All rights reserved. The material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. 
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