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Operation Pangolin: the quest to save the world’s most trafficked mammal

The University of Oxford has announced that it is joining Operation Pangolin – a bold initiative to save the world’s most trafficked animal. With pangolins being the world’s most trafficked wild mammal, tackling the illegal trade is an urgent conservation priority.

Dr. Dan Challender, an interdisciplinary conservation scientist based in the University of Oxford’s Department of Biology and the Oxford Martin School, has said: “in the last decade pangolin populations in Central Africa have been under increasing pressure from offtake for local use and international trafficking of their scales.”

Pangolins (also called scaly anteaters) are extraordinary and unique animals. The word ‘pangolin’ comes from ‘penggulung’, the Malay word for roller, referring to their defensive mechanism of rolling up when they feel threatened. They feed on ants and termites with their long, sticky tongues, and they are the world’s only true scaly mammal.

Unfortunately, whilst their scales are an effective defense against predators, they are powerless against poachers, who often remove them directly from their burrows or set up snare traps. Pangolin meat and scales are highly prized by consumers for use in traditional medicine. Due to the ubiquity of the illegal pangolin trade, their numbers have dwindled significantly, and all eight species are now threatened with extinction. Operation Pangolin aims to remedy this by developing pangolin-specific monitoring methods and interventions to prevent the illegal trafficking of the species to further conservation initiatives.

Pangolins have been sustainably harvested throughout history for their scales and their meat. However, they have been significantly overexploited in recent decades, with over a million pangolins illegally taken from the wild to feed demand in China and Vietnam alone. Despite national and international legal protections afforded to the species, there is likely a large proportion of the illegal trade of their scales and meat that has gone undetected. Since 2014, the number of trafficked pangolins seized globally has seen an estimated tenfold increase, and their source has shifted from Asia to West and Central Africa. Researchers estimate that as many as 8.5 million pangolins were removed from the wild in Africa between 2014 and 2021.

When asked about what the greatest threat facing pangolin populations is, Dr. Challender answered that pangolins face two main threats: overexploitation and habitat loss. “Overexploitation is in my opinion the most severe. This has resulted in population decline in Asian pangolins in recent decades and overexploitation of the tropical African pangolins is placing them under greater pressure.”

Operation Pangolin aims to generate data to inform conservation strategies in Central Africa. The research team will work in conjunction with local conservation stakeholders, including indigenous peoples, local communities, wildlife crime authorities, and government agencies, to strengthen protections for pangolins. The project has four main priorities. They will monitori pangolin populations with newly developed technologies and develop sustainable conservation solutions with deep understanding of the social and ecological networks through which pangolins are harvested. The project also aims to use insights from conservation criminology to prevent the illegal harvesting and trafficking of pangolins, as well as machine learning and artificial intelligence to prevent wildlife crime involving pangolins by uniting data streams and creating predictions.

The University of Oxford has pledged to focus on the social component of the project. This work will be led by Dr. Dan Challender. He has been involved in pangolin research and conservation for 15 years. In 2012, Dr. Challender re-formed the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Species Survival Commission Pangolin Specialist Group and served as Chair until 2021.

About the project, he says: “this project has the potential to transform pangolin conservation, first in key locations in Central Africa, and then extending into parts of Asia. By taking an interdisciplinary approach and using novel technology and artificial intelligence methods, the project will give pangolin populations in these regions the best chance of survival.”

Led by Dr. Challender, the Oxford team will conduct research in key areas in Cameroon to understand the ways in which pangolins are caught and trafficked. They will work with key ecological stakeholders to identify the conditions that facilitate the illegal pangolin trade. This information will then be used to create context-specific conservation strategies with local groups (including indigenous peoples and local communities) to ensure that any future trade of pangolins is legal and sustainable. Devising interventions (eg. ensuring the appropriate rights, rules, and incentives) at sites where pangolins occur so that they are not overexploited, and so their habitat is not destroyed are “critical” according to Dr. Challender.

Dr. Challender has further identified education as an important component of conservation initiatives. He underscores that: “education can be used to inform people of the existence of pangolins and the need to conserve them.” He is optimistic about the future of pangolin conservation due to the amount of attention and investment it has received since 2010.

The University of Oxford will work alongside specialists from Florida International University, the University of Maryland, the University of Southern California, and the Arribada Initiative. They are supported by the Agence Nationale des Parcs Nationaux (Gabon’s national parks agency) to lead research and conservation efforts in Gabon, and the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) to lead efforts in Cameroon. This cross-border effort is further supported by the IUCN Pangolin Specialist Group, which forms a global network of 189 pangolin specialists.

The progress of the project can be tracked on Twitter on #OperationPangolin, and on the Operation Pangolin website.

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