Animal trafficking has hit pangolins harder than any other group of animals on Earth, as they’re traded both for their meat and their unusual scaly armor. A popular ingredient in traditional medicines in Asia, the use of their scales in alternative therapies has now been banned in China but despite this, the scaly creatures remain a target for smugglers. New research happening in Gabon, Central Africa, aims to create an “isotopic fingerprint” for pangolins in order to crack down on the sale of their products.
Practicing in the Agence Nationale des Parcs Nationaux (ANPN) in Gabon, a Wildlife Capture Unit led by ecologist David Lehmann embarked on a 2-week chase of Ghost, the largest giant pangolin, Smutsia gigantea, on record. Weighing in at 38 kilograms (84 pounds) and stretching 1.72 meters (5.6 feet) from head to tail tip, Ghost will provide Lehmann’s team with valuable insights into one of the world’s least researched species. Giant pangolins are nocturnal animals that reside underground in complex networks of burrows that would pose an obstacle to even the most experienced of potholers.
“We know little about their basic ecology, their movements and population sizes, and our lack of knowledge hinders our efforts to protect them,” Lehman told The Guardian. “What we are doing here is pioneering work.” The team is operating as part of the European Union’s Ecofac6 program, which was launched to protect biodiversity in the Congo Basin.
The goal of the isotopic fingerprint is to provide data to wildlife crime units so they can accurately report where smuggled scales have come from. By understanding where the trafficked animals or animal products have come from, the Gabonese National Park Agency can improve their approach in responding to poaching.
Ghost can provide Lehmann’s team with the samples necessary to build this isotopic fingerprint, which means when such crimes come to court, the species and origin of a seized, trafficked animal can be proven without doubt. Isotopic relates to the concentration of oxygen, hydrogen, and carbon stored in an animal’s keratin plates, which is unique to each environmental zone, allowing researchers to link the pangolin scales’ isotopic fingerprint to the corresponding “isoscape,” or geographic area. Working out where the scales come from improves authorities’ capacity to crack down on smuggling routes.
While Ghost probably didn't much enjoy his unexpected grooming session, he and the other pangolins will be protected and unharmed in their habitat while researchers observe their movements to build a better understanding of these elusive animals. The same group of pangolins is even contributing to research into the zoonotic spread of Covid-19, as the same burrows Ghost has been tramping about in are shared by bats, which are known to carry many nasty bugs. It’s hoped this house-sharing situation might shed new light on how viruses can spread between wild animals and potentially make their way to market.
[H/T: The Guardian]