Taiwan’s pangolins suffer surge in feral dog attacks

Hexbyte Glen Cove

Pangolins, usually prized for their scales, brave a different danger in conservation-conscious Taiwan — a surging feral dog population.

In most of its habitats, the heavily trafficked pangolin’s biggest threat comes from humans. But in Taiwan, the scaly mammals brave a different danger: a surging feral dog population.

Veterinarian Tseng Shao-tung, 28, has seen firsthand what a dog can do to the gentle creatures during his shifts at a hospital in Hsinchu.

Last month he worked to save the life of a male juvenile pangolin who had been lying in the wild for days with half of its tail chewed off.

“It has a big open wound on its tail and its body tissue has decayed,” Tseng said as he carefully turned the sedated pangolin to disinfect the gaping injury.

It was the fifth pangolin Tseng and his fellow veterinarians had saved this year, all from suspected dog attacks.

Chief veterinarian Chen Yi-ru said she had noticed a steady increase of pangolins with trauma injuries in the last five years—most of them with severed tails.

Pangolins are covered in hard, overlapping body scales and curl up into a ball when attacked. The tail is the animal’s most vulnerable part.

“That’s why when attacked, the tail is usually the first to be bitten,” Chen explained.

Wildlife researchers and officials said dog attacks, which account for more than half of all injuries since 2018, have become “the main threat to pangolins in Taiwan” in a report released last year.

Most trafficked mammal

Pangolins are described by conservationists as the world’s most trafficked mammal, with traditional Chinese medicine being the main driver.

Although their scales are made of keratin—the substance that makes up our fingernails and hair—there is huge demand for them among Chinese consumers because of the unproven belief that they help lactation in breastfeeding mothers.

That demand has decimated pangolin populations across Asia and Africa despite a global ban and funded a lucrative international black market trade.

All eight species of pangolins on both continents are listed as endangered or critically endangered.

Taiwan has been a comparative conservation success story, transforming itself from a place where pangolins went from near-extinct to protected and thriving.

Chan Fang-tse, veterinarian and researcher at the official Taiwan Endemic Species Research Institute, said the 1950s to 1970s saw massive hunting.

Pangolins are described by conservationists as the world’s most trafficked mammal, with traditional Chinese medicine being the main driver.

“Sixty thousand pangolins in Taiwan were killed for their scales and hides during that period,” he told AFP.

A 1989 wildlife protection law ended the industry, while rising conservation awareness led the public to start embracing their scaly neighbours as something to be cherished, rather than a commodity.

The population of the Formosan or Taiwanese pangolin, a subspecies of the Chinese pangolin, has since bounced back with researchers estimating that there are now between 10,000 to 15,000 in the wild.

But the island’s growing feral dog population—itself a consequence of a 2017 not to cull stray animals—is hitting pangolins hard, Chan warned.

“Pangolins are most affected because they have a big overlap of roaming area and pangolins don’t move as fast as other animals,” Chan said.

Picky eaters

Pangolins are also vulnerable because of how few offspring they have.

The solitary Formosan pangolins mate once a year and only produce one offspring after 150 days of pregnancy. Captivity breeding programmes have had little success.

“It may be more difficult to breed pangolins than pandas,” Chan said.

The rise in injured pangolins has created another challenge for animal doctors: finding enough ants and termites to feed the picky eaters who often reject substitute mixtures of larvae.

Piling into a truck with three other vets, Tseng headed to a tree to retrieve an ant nest he had recently spotted.

“We have to be constantly on the lookout and go search for ants nests every couple of days now because we have more pangolins to feed,” Tseng said.

A pangolin can eat an ant nest the size of a football each day.

The government has also called for residents to report nest locations to help feed the pangolins until they can be released back into the wild.

But the injured in Tseng’s care will likely have to be sent to a zoo or government facility for adoption after it recovers.

“It will have difficulty climbing up trees and won’t be able to roll itself into a ball shape,” Tseng said.

“It has lost the ability to protect itself in the wild.”

© 2022 AFP

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Endangered pangolins get fresh chance in S.African clinic

Wildlife rehabilitation Specialists check the vital signs of a trafficked rescued pangolin.

The hospital room is air-cooled to feel like a pangolin’s burrow. The patient, Lumbi, is syringe-fed with a protein-packed smoothie, given a daily dose of medicine and has his vital signs checked.

Lumbi is being treated for a blood parasite after he was rescued from traffickers during a police sting in South Africa’s northern Limpopo province late last year.

He and several other pangolins in the room are patients of Johannesburg Wildlife Veterinary Hospital, founded in 2016 to treat and rehabilitate indigenous wildlife.

They were confiscated from poachers in South Africa and neighbouring countries, including Namibia, Mozambique and Zimbabwe.

Many pangolins are in a horrendous state when they are rescued and need of medical care, after being kept in sacks and car boots for weeks with no food or water.

“It’s like an ICU () for pangolins,” said Nicci Wright, the wildlife rehabilitation specialist attending to Lumbi.

The pangolins are kept at a secret site during treatment, which takes anything from weeks to months, before they can be released back into the wild.

Although pangolins have existed for around 80 million years, medically little is known about them.

Pangolins ‘are like people’

“They are so different to other animals. They really are,” said Wright, who has been working with pangolins since 2008.

Pangolin Counter Poaching Team members hold a pangolin rescued during a joint operation with South African Police Services (SAPS) in Johannesburg suburb in March.

Sometimes vets have to fiddle with various treatment regimes to provide the appropriate medication.

“The actual veterinary medicine and rehabilitation process hasn’t been well documented and very little is actually know about the African species,” said Wright.

Vets administer standard treatments used on other mammals such as cats and dogs. Often they work.

“Sometimes to you just have to take a chance, and so far we have taken chances and we have been very successful and they have responded very well,” said vet Kelsey Skinner.

“It’s just a leap of faith every time you try something,” said Skinner, 30, after giving Lumbi his daily dose of meds.

Having cared for sick pangolins for several years, Skinner discovered that, like people, they have different personalities.

The scaly-skinned, insect-eating mammals are solitary, nocturnal animals.

Wildlife Rehabilitation Specialist Nicci Wright (l) and veterinarian Kelsey Skinner feed medication to a rescued pangolin.

“They are like people. They have just the most unique little personalities.

“Some of them are shy. They don’t want to be touched. Others are very out there and play a lot in the mud. They are comedians,” she said.

“The level of personalities is like dealing with a whole lot of different people. Everyone is just so unique.”

The most trafficked mammals

Pangolins are believed to be the most trafficked mammals on earth. They’re prized for their scales—made of keratin, like human nails—which are used in Asia for their supposed medicinal properties.

Only found in the wild in Asia and Africa, their numbers are plummeting under pressure from poaching. Some species are listed by wildlife watchdogs as critically endangered.

It’s not known how many pangolins are left on the planet.

The ward that now cares for Lumbi was also home, until recently, to a named Steve. Last month, Steve was released back into the wild, where he belongs, after making a full recovery.

Pangolins are believed to be the most trafficked mammals. They’re prized for their scales, which are used in Asia for their supposed medicinal properties.

Gareth Thomas is a volunteer pangolin walker who walked Steve weekly during the seven months of preparation for his release.

“I’ve been with him since day one. I was there when he got pulled out of the box from the poachers,” he said during one of their final walks before the release.

After a six-hour drive, Steve was set free into the vast 23,000-hectare Manyoni Game Reserve in southern KwaZulu-Natal province.

Pangolin monitor Donald Davies from Zululand Conservation Trust offloaded a specially designed crate from the van, with Steve inside and opened it.

With two telemetry devices attached to his scales, the pangolin cautiously stepped out, sniffing around and casually walking away to find ants for an afternoon grub.

Volunteer Gareth Thomas took ‘Steve’ out for walks during seven months of preparation for his release into the wild.

“He has all the skills he needs to survive in the wild now,” said Davies.

Freeing them into the wild is a crucial process to ensure the endangered mammals survive after the huge investment poured into their treatment and rehabilitation.

‘Steve’ was released into the wild last month after making a full recovery.

“The release process is one of the most important, because it has to be done correctly,” said Wright.

The gentle creatures can only be released into a relatively safe area, such as a well-patrolled private game reserve, to avoid them falling into the poachers’ clutches again.

And, in addition, the habitat has to be right. “We need to be absolutely sure they are finding the right food, they are finding the burrows. Otherwise they will simply die”.

© 2022 AFP

Endangered pangolins get fresh chance in S.African clinic (2022, April 13)
retrieved 13 April 2022
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