While searching a car that local informants said was illegally transporting pangolins, Cardamom Protected Forest officials last June were saddened to find three of the “scaly anteaters” hidden in plastic bags above the car’s tyres.
Like armadillos, pangolins curl up into melon-sized balls when threatened, but this mechanism could not protect these three from the illegal wildlife traders who meant to sell them for traditional medicine or luxury food.
“It takes at least 10 days for traders to transport them from the forest to middlemen, and that’s not even the final market,” said Peov Somanak, Central Cardamom Protected Forest program manager for the Forestry Administration, who participated in the June raid.
“By the time they’re rescued, they’re in poor health and some have injured legs because of snares.”
Fortunately for the trio found in June, the new Pangolin Rehabilitation Center at Phnom Tamao Zoo and Wildlife Rescue Center is helping them regain their strength before releasing them back into the wild, said Somanak at the Centre’s official public opening last Friday.
Earlier this year, the Center joined the Angkor Centre for Conservation of Biodiversity as one of two facilities in Cambodia for pangolin rehabilitation.
“If they have injuries, we send them to rehabilitation,” said Heng Sokrith, a coordinator for Conservation International, which supports the Phnom Tamao Centre. “If not, they’re released into the forest immediately, sometimes with transmitters to monitor them.”
The Centre now houses six rescued pangolins, one of which is pregnant, Sokrith said. Zoo staff expect she will give birth in January to one baby – pangolins’ slow reproduction rate is one reason, along with illegal hunting and environmental degradation, that their numbers are plummeting.
A sign on the centre’s enclosure lists the phone number of a wildlife crime hotline to inform officials about the illegal hunting and trading of pangolins.
“If we had no informants, we couldn’t confiscate the pangolins,” Somanak said, adding that while informants are rewarded, hunters and traders could face five to 10 years in prison.
The Forestry Administration, in collaboration with Conservation International and a growing network of informants, has rescued about 100 pangolins from pangolin hunters and traders since their efforts began in 2001, Somanak said.
“We don’t know how many pangolins there are, but we know their numbers are sharply declining,” said Sokrith. “We used to confiscate many; now we confiscate fewer.”
Back in 2001, patrollers used to find thousands of snares that hunters had set up in a given area, but now they usually find only a few hundred at a time, Somanak said.
He was unsure whether this decline reflected a strengthened law enforcement and greater caution by hunters, or a decline in the number of pangolins.
Despite a team of keepers specifically trained to handle pangolins, the Rehabilitation Centre is only a temporary home, except for pangolins that would not survive in the wild, said Nhek Ratanapich.
It is difficult for the centre to replicate the precise diets that the mainly ant- and termite-eating creatures would find in the forest, he said.
“We wish that pangolins didn’t need a home like this and that they could stay in the wild, healthy and free to roam, but with the increasing demands of the wildlife trade, the [centre] is a life saver.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Justine Drennan at [email protected]