By Paul Rankin, Bruno Nebe and Dr Debbie Shaw of Pangolin Research Mundulea and members of the Pangolin Specialist Group of IUCN’s Species Survival Commission.

Pangolin Research Mundulea is a pilot project for Namibia based in the Mundulea Nature Reserve, set in semi-arid hills of Montane bush-land in the Karstveld near Otavi.

We study the Cape Pangolin or Temminck’s Ground Pangolin (Smutsia temminckii). Recent IUCN Red List re-assessments of this species show its increasing vulnerability. Like the Asian species, pressure on the Ground Pangolin is increasing, not only because of changes in land use, agricultural practices and electrified fences, but now to satisfy the growing lucrative illegal international trade in pangolin meat, blood and scales used for Asian prestige ‘tonic food’ products and Chinese Traditional/Muthi Bush Medicines.

Many mysteries remain about this pangolin’s behaviour, habits and place in the ecosystem, hampering conservation efforts. Smutsia temminckii is one of the least studied species of pangolin, despite its widespread occurrence throughout Southern and Eastern Africa.

Population levels, life histories and behavioural traits are largely undocumented. We aim to increase knowledge of this pangolin’s basic survival strategies in dry-land savannahs – with their very variable climate, from droughts to flash floods or bush fires. We are fortunate to work closely with the Narrec animal rehabilitation, research and education centre, providing a sanctuary for their rescued pangolins and monitoring post-release behaviour and survival – matters often sadly neglected when pangolins are recovered.

Since starting in 2010 we have conducted a number of surveys of the Mundulea Reserve, e.g. to study local acacia species, systematically map the correlation between signs of pangolin activity and the geology of the Dolomite outcrops interspersed by sandy zones, and identify the pangolin’s ant and termite prey species.

Tracking pangolins in this rocky ecosystem is difficult because telemetry ranges are very limited when the animals are underground during the daytime, nighttime tracking through the harsh bush carries dangers from resident leopard, hyena and big game, whilst tagging devices must be extremely rugged to survive a pangolin’s movements through dense bush or in Aardvark dens.

Using an evolving design of RF telemetry tags, we have been able to track several rescued pangolins released in the Reserve over weeks and months to determine their establishment and fate, despite periods when signals have disappeared (a few have still been lost probably through tag damage).

Essential conservation procedures have been learnt, such as the diligence in tracking releases in the first few days, the importance of immediate rehydration, and use of gloves during handling to avoid human scent contamination which may attract their main predator, honey badgers.

Pangolins exhibit individual activity patterns, some surprisingly have remained in one den for a few days, not emerging every night to forage. Following one released pangolin, we were able to map out its initial wide-
ranging dispersal, in contrast to its subsequent home localization – important conservation knowledge.

A particular theme for us is developing better, affordable tracking technology. We have prototyped and trialled some unique devices.

Another important contribution that one of our project team brings as a world expert in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) concerns the use of pangolin matter in remedies, part of the burgeoning demand from Asia driving illegal trade. Plant substitutes for some of its functions in TCM formulae have been identified which are acceptable to the Chinese medicine authorities. Promoting use of these alternatives might reduce the demand that is driving pangolins to extinction. In Namibia, a very first pilot survey was also conducted of awareness in the country to these national treasures.

In the UK we are proud to have collaborated in a fun but educating street art project to tell the public about pangolins and publicize their plight, by the artist Sinna One. All our work is detailed in our blog with videos on our YouTube channel. We are members of the IUCN SSC Pangolin Specialist Group and the African Pangolin Working Group. We are indebted to many people, such as those at Narrec for sharing their advice, experience and knowledge and not least the Mundulea staff in our team who have helped us to learn about the Ground Pangolin as we work towards conserving this rare and wonderful species.