November 11, 2014

Saving the Pangolin and the Planet

Scott Pursner with Native People in Taiwan

Scott Pursner with members of the Amis tribe in Taiwan

You’ve probably never heard of or seen a pangolin. Native to Asia and Africa, they resemble armored anteaters. Their thick scales and long snout and tongue are purpose-built for hoovering up millions of ants or termites in a night of hunting. In appearance, if not lineage, they harken back to prehistory when dinosaurs and other scaly beasts roamed the planet. They lack the appeal of elephants, chimpanzees, tigers and other exquisite mammals that grab headlines for being hunted to the brink of extinction. Despite the lack of fanfare, though, the pangolin is one of the most threatened species on earth. In China, in particular, the pangolin is prized for its meat, which is eaten as a delicacy and seen as a sign of status. Its scales are also used in traditional medicines, and its blood is viewed as a healing tonic. Hence, these small, nearly defenseless animals are trafficked by the thousands.

Stopping China’s pangolin poaching takes passion and gumption. In neighboring Taiwan, researchers are doing their best to save this little-known but ecologically important species.

Pangolins—once populous throughout Taiwan—are threatened by hunting as well as habitat loss and rapid development. Taiwan’s pangolins still live scattered throughout the island but most of them inhabit the country’s mountainous eastern region— a place of few city-dwellers yet many indigenous people. Protecting the pangolin in Taiwan requires establishing strong ties with these groups, one of which is the Bunun. Taiwain’s third largest tribe, the Bunun were traditionally a nomadic people known for their hunting prowess. Today, pangolins are often found in the areas near Bunun villages, and researchers at Taiwan’s National Pingtung University of Science and Technology have been working with one Bunun village, Luanshan, for years, trying to find ways to collaborate on conservation efforts.

Fortunately, one of these researchers, Scott Pursner ’05 is making headway in preserving Taiwan’s pangolins. 

Taiwan Beach

This piece appeared in AU VU, Fall 2014 issue.
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