The plight of the pangolin

After graduating from university, my first job relating to my newly acquired forestry science skills, was with an international NGO as a research assistant in a pangolin project. I was so happy and proud about getting this job – it was my dream to protect the environment and wildlife.  And also I didn’t want to keep my knowledge sitting in an office!

One day, my work needed me to go to the forest to release pangolin that we confiscated through illegal activities. Our team went to the Central Cardamoms Protected Forest to release the pangolin. As a girl of just 23 years old, this was the first time into the forest for me – my first time and for two whole weeks!

Pangolin. Credit: Prak Chanthy.

Pangolins are nocturnal, solitary animals that feed on ants and termites. They are adept climbers with prehensile tails, and often climb to access ant nests in trees. Credit: Prak Chanthy.

We carried rice, equipment for cooking, dry food, hammocks and net blankets into the forest and found a place to set up our camp (near the water so easier for cooking and washing). There were difficulties I’d never thought of before – even going to the toilet was hard, to find somewhere safe and hidden. Not as easy as I thought, but I managed, and became quite good after a few practices.

Pangolin. Credit: Prak Chanthy.

Pangolins sleep in hollows either in, or at the base of, trees. The availability of these hollows (which is higher in undisturbed forest) is therefore very important for the species. Credit: Prak Chanthy.

My team had six people in it – two research managers, two rangers and my school colleague and myself. Snakes and tigers didn’t scare me – there was only one thing that made me run – LEECHES! They appear in the wet season, with little mouths like a pin. I don’t like the pin – it makes me hurt and blood comes out and goes everywhere! While following a pangolin track, I saw a lot of leeches in the lower areas of the protected forest and I even told my team I cannot go down because of leeches.

Pangolin sleep in the daytime and find food at night which makes it very hard to find them, with only one antenna, a radio tracker, flashlight, GPS, compass and some snacks and water for the team. We started at 7pm, working through to midnight or more. Very late, so in the in the morning we don’t wake and often slept until lunch time! We had two groups on rotation, taking each night in turn so one group can sleep. There was always a meeting after dinner, where we’d sit in our hammocks and discuss the night before’s efforts with tracking the pangolin.

Pangolin. Credit: Prak Chanthy.

Pangolin with a tracking device. These animals are hunted and collected intensively for their skin, meat and scales – researchers estimate that during the 1990s several tens of thousands were harvested and traded each year. Credit: Prak Chanthy.

After my first experience – and I have been back to the forest several time now, but I’m still really scared of leeches!! – I decided to write a story about the wonderful pangolin.

Download the story in English or Khmer (PDF).