In a bid to save pangolins, considered one of the world's most-trafficked mammals, a new research programme in Gabon is identifying the 'isotopic fingerprint' of the species.
According to a report by The Guardian, David Lehmann and his Wildlife Capture Unit caught a giant pangolin nicknamed Ghost in Lopé-Okanda national park, a mosaic of rainforest and savannah in central Gabon, in Central Africa.
Weighing 38kg and measuring 1.72m from nose to tail, Ghost is the biggest pangolin to be caught on record. The team consisting of eco-guards, an indigenous tracker, a field biologist and a wildlife vet are hoping that the animal will be able to give valuable insights in their fight against poaching.
"We know little about their basic ecology, their movements and population sizes, and our lack of knowledge hinders our efforts to protect them. What we are doing here is pioneering work," Lehmann, a wildlife ecologist, told the media. Lehmann's research is part of the EU's Ecofac6 programme, a commitment that started in the 1990s to safeguard biodiversity in the Congo basin.
According to the African Wildlife Foundation, pangolins are the world's most trafficked mammal, with poachers killing as many as 2.7 million African pangolins every year. All the eight species of the mammal are decreasing in population and are at the risk of extinction, due to the illegal trade for their meat and scales.
"Pangolins are slow-moving and will roll themselves into a ball if they feel threatened - making them easy targets. Their armor-plated scales can cut and inflict serious wounds on a lion, leopard, or hyena - but are no match for a weapon-wielding human. Poachers simply pick pangolins up and drop them into a bag," said the foundation.
Further, very little is known about the species. All the species are also on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's red list, with three listed as critically endangered.
The only scaly mammal in the world, they resemble an armadillo and is found in both Africa and Asia. While four of the species live in Africa, rest four live in Asia. According to IUCN, two of the African species are considered vulnerable and two are endangered. Meanwhile, among the Asian species, one is endangered and three are critically endangered.
In 2016, pangolins were given the highest level of protection under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (or CITES), moving from Appendix II to Appendix I. The listing went into effect on January 2, 2017, banning the commercial trade of all eight pangolin species and their parts. However, this has not been implemented everywhere.
There is a thriving black market for pangolin meat and especially for its scales - which are in high demand for use in traditional Chinese medicine. While there is no scientific evidence for its effectiveness, many believe that the scales cure arthritis and cancer, promote breast-feeding for lactating mothers, improve poor circulation, and even enhance male vitality.
Pangolins are a key species in the rainforest as they act as regulators of the insect population. An individual pangolin consumes around 70 million ants and termites in a year. They provide the earth with all-natural pest control, without which, conservationists fear that there would be a serious impact on the environment, leaving the forest ecology tremendously affected.
"Gabon is seeing the commercial poaching of pangolins. The demand from China and the enormous profit margins are attracting organised crime. For three years now we have been detecting ivory poachers with sacks of pangolin scale," Gabon's minister for forests, oceans, environment and climates, Professor Lee White said.
Lehmann said that he wants to "provide governments with rapid and accurate tools for habitat conservation, and improve wildlife crime forensics in general".
Information regarding the pangolins' hunting grounds, their population density and seasonally preferred habitats is what could help the Gabonese National Park Agency to step up effective protective measures against poaching and trafficking.
For research, Lehmann and his team take live samples from giant pangolins like Ghost, which, according to the wildlife ecologist, has not been done before. They capture the mammals and sedate them, after which samples of blood, saliva, faeces, tissue and scales are taken from each animal. A GPS transmitter is fastened to its tail. The entire procedure, which provides a unique set of data, lasts nearly two hours.
Furthermore, to monitor the animals' movements, nest ecology and habitat use, a network of 24 to 40 camera traps has been set up in Lopé-Okanda national park.
Lehmann and his team hope that the information gathered from the traps along with the spatial data "will provide an insight into the animal's life expectancy, territoriality and motion range, and shed light on its reproductive behaviour."
Using the scale samples, the mammal's isotropic values - the unique composition of chemical elements such as oxygen, hydrogen or carbon that are stored in its keratin plates - are extracted. As each environmental zone has its own unique "isoscape", the "isotopic fingerprint" can help identify a pangolin's geographic home.
Pointing out the importance of lab-based techniques to identify species, José Antonio Alfaro Moreno, a senior specialist for the environmental crime at Europol, said, "You need to prove to the court that this is the actual species and no other."
While DNA analysis is common, stable isotope analysis is yet to be implemented by most countries.
"We are basically fighting on our own at the moment. And we still haven't been able to win this war. Thus far, I don't get the impression that the law enforcement community in most European countries thinks of wildlife crimes particularly seriously," said White. The minister has been at the forefront of Gabon's fight against wildlife crimes.
According to AWF, to help save the pangolin, increased law enforcement is required at all points of the illegal trade. Further, governments must dispel the myth that pangolin scales contain healing properties, to disrupt the demand.
"The more we can share facts about the grave threats facing pangolins and encourage governments to denounce the killing of pangolins, the greater the chances of survival for this unusual species. We must persuade the government to officially renounce the use of pangolin scales and do so quickly — before it is too late for the gentle and elusive pangolin," AWF said.