‘Superstitious belief kills pangolins’: Q&A with biologist Elisa Panjang

  • Elisa Panjang spends long hours in the field studying pangolin populations, using a combination camera traps, collaring and radio telemetry to monitor the elusive mammal.
  • Her work has helped raise the local protection status of the Sunda pangolin (Manis javanica) in her home state of Sabah, Malaysia, and she says she’s hopeful that conservationists will be able to save pangolins from extinction.
  • Pangolins are the most trafficked animal in the world; their scales are used in traditional medicine and their meat is a delicacy in some countries, despite no evidence to support claims that pangolin body parts have any healing properties.
  • Elisa Panjang spoke with Mongabay about the challenges of fieldwork in the Bornean rainforest, the technologies that work (and don’t work) to track pangolins, and the growing global awareness about the need to protect the world’s most trafficked mammal.

When Elisa Panjang was 10 years old, playing outside her home in Sandakan, a small town in Malaysian Borneo, she heard a snuffling sound near the forest’s edge. As she walked closer, a small, scaly creature came into her view. Its odd looks and characteristics intrigued her. She didn’t know it then, but it was a Sunda pangolin (Manis javanica), endemic to Southeast Asia. She scoured the books in her school library, desperate to learn more. She couldn’t find much, but her curiosity about the scaly creature led her down the path to a career in conservation.

“I dreamed of becoming a scientist, just because of this little pangolin that I saw when I was a child,” says Panjang, today the pangolin conservation officer at Danau Girang Field Centre in Malaysia’s Sabah state and a Ph.D. student at Cardiff University in the U.K.

Elisa Panjang is a conservationist from Sabah, Malaysia, who studies pangolin biology. Image courtesy of Elisa Panjang.

Today, Panjang spends long days out in hot, humid Malaysian forests to study pangolins. Not a lot is known about wild pangolins due to their cryptic behaviors, so Panjang relies on technology like camera traps, collaring and radio telemetry to monitor pangolin populations. Collaring is no easy task when it comes to pangolins, as they must be attached to their scales.

There are eight pangolin species in the world, four found in Asia and four across Africa. Pangolins are said to be the most trafficked animal in the world. The species found in Asia, like the Sunda pangolin, are listed as critically endangered or endangered on the IUCN Red List, while the four found in Africa are listed as endangered or vulnerable. International wildlife trade is hard to monitor because it’s often clandestine, Panjang says, but one estimate shows that nearly 900,000 pangolins were killed between 2000 and 2019.

Pangolin scales are made of keratin, a protein, just like rhino horns, or human fingernails and hair. While many people consume the scales or horns in the belief that they have medicinal properties, there is no evidence to back up that keratin is effective in curing or helping any ailments.

“Superstitious belief kills pangolins,” Panjang says.

In 2016, the legitimate international trade in pangolins was banned under CITES, the global convention on the wildlife trade. But the illegal trade persists, and pangolin populations are still declining despite protections in place. In addition to their scales, they are also killed for their meat and their leather.

Elisa Panjang tracks pangolins using a VHF handheld radio and an antenna. Image courtesy of Elisa Panjang.

The COVID-19 pandemic also put a spotlight on the scaly mammal, Panjang says. It was speculated early on that pangolins were a possible transmission source of the coronavirus from other animals to humans. But, to date, there’s no evidence to back up this claim.

An advocate for wild pangolins, Panjang helped get the local protection status of the Sunda pangolin increased to “totally protected” in Sabah in 2018. She also works with students and communities to raise awareness about pangolins.

“About 10 years ago people didn’t know much about pangolins, at least in my country. And nowadays people are talking about pangolins everywhere,” she says, adding there’s now even a World Pangolin Day, which falls on the third Saturday in February. “I’m very hopeful. There are pangolin groups all over the world. It is OK that we are small, we are very dedicated.”

Mongabay recently talked with Elisa Panjang about what it takes to study pangolins in the wild, how technology helps her track the elusive species, and how she uses education and outreach to get others to advocate for pangolins. The interview was lightly edited for clarity.

Mongabay: Let’s get started on your background. When did you first become interested in Sunda pangolins? Did you always know you wanted to work in conservation?

Elisa Panjang: My interest in pangolins started when I was a child and I saw a pangolin outside my house. I was living near a forested area, and I was attracted to the weirdness of the animal. And then I learned about pangolins from my parents and older people. I remember it was hard to find a book about pangolins back then, even in the school library. Growing up, I was interested in science, especially wildlife, and I loved watching wildlife documentaries, especially from National Geographic. That was the most famous back then. And I dreamed of becoming a scientist, just because of this little pangolin that I saw when I was a child.

And then, after I finished my undergraduate in conservation biology, I became more interested in conservation work, and continued to study pangolin ecology for my master’s and now I’m doing my Ph.D. During the years, I had been doing research and became active in other activities. For example, I carried out pangolin education programs to increase awareness and I was also involved in meeting workshops, like lobbying to improve pangolin conservation in my country. It was a childhood experience, and when I grew up, I became more interested in pursuing this career.

Mongabay: Sunda pangolins are the most heavily trafficked animal on the planet. Why is that?

Elisa Panjang: Superstitious belief kills pangolins in Southeast Asian communities. We had this strong cultural connection to pangolins when I was young. In the 1990s, I saw neighbors consume pangolin meat, and people also kept pangolin scales for medicinal purposes.

This activity intensified today due to more demand and higher prices [for traditional medicine], and people chose traditional medicine to cure illnesses. As modern medicine becomes more expensive in Southeast Asia, you can see this a lot.

It’s not only pangolins, but also other wildlife species. It’s very common in Southeast Asia, and some species are even threatened with extinction due to continuous hunting and the use of wildlife species in illegal wildlife trade.

Elisa Panjang and a volunteer setting up an infrared camera trap and video camera near known pangolin sites. Image courtesy of Elisa Panjang.

Mongabay: It can’t be easy to study pangolins in the wild. Tell me what a typical day out in the field looks like for you. What are some of the challenges that you face working in the field?

Elisa Panjang: My fieldwork involves going out early in the morning to look at the pangolins, so I use radio telemetry. Then, in the afternoon, I set up camera traps to detect pangolins in the area, or sometimes I carry out angle in microhabitat assessment. At night I carry out night surveys to search for pangolins. It’s a full day for me every day, and then the pangolin itself is challenging to study in the wild, due to its elusive behavior and its own story.

We are living in tropical rainforests, and then we sometimes encounter hunters in the forest. So, we fear for our safety, and then sometimes our research tools are not working.

We don’t know much about pangolins, they’re still a mystery, and then walking in the forest is difficult. We encounter many issues. For example, the field schedule can change due to bad weather. Sometimes we encounter people that we don’t know in the sanctuary. There shouldn’t be people apart from researchers in a sanctuary, so when we encounter these people, we are afraid for our safety.

Mongabay: Can you tell me about a time that you ran into a hunter. What happened?

Elisa Panjang: We did our night surveys to search for pangolins … Suddenly there’s people coming from afar, so we don’t know them and then they look suspicious, so we have to be as calm as possible. And then because you can clearly see they are carrying a gun … We were trained with the enforcement team if we experience this kind of encounter … We have to apply all this in the field, but sometimes we are afraid. It’s good to be calm and then remember what we’ve learned.

Mongabay: Can you tell me about your hardest day in the field working with pangolins?

Elisa Panjang: Searching for missing radio-collared pangolins. My team and I have to walk long distances, taking about six to seven hours in the forest to cover huge areas to find this pangolin. Sometimes we find the pangolins but sometimes not. These are some of the hardest days in the field, how long you have to walk.

Mongabay: How are you using technology to track, study and conserve wild pangolins?

Elisa Panjang: In my research, we use camera traps and video cameras to get the pangolin distribution in the wild, and then also to look at pangolin behaviors. Apart from that, I also attached radio, VHF and GPS transmitters on wild pangolins to try to estimate species home range and movement.

I also do post-release monitoring for translocated pangolins using VHF and GPS transmitters. Besides that, I work with a drone pilot to map the home range to better understand in more detail about the pangolin, like how pangolins use the habitat in the area. I need to use multiple approaches to study cryptic species like pangolins, incorporating conventional methods and then also modern technology.

An adult male Sunda pangolin (Manis javanica) at night. Image courtesy of Jerry Lim.

Mongabay: Are there any drawbacks or limitations in using technology in your work?

Elisa Panjang: I’m working in a tropical rainforest. And the problem here is the humidity affects our research tools a lot. The equipment and tools are expensive, and we have to invest a lot for them. So, sometimes they stop working in the field due to the high humidity, bad weather, sometimes flooding. In addition, other species like macaques steal our equipment. Sometimes hunters steal our cameras, which is not really good because what we need is the SD card. The data are very important; therefore we have to replace them. This postpones our fieldwork, because we don’t have enough tools and then we have to buy another tool, that’s lot of money used.

This pangolin is a unique species. You cannot use the traditional collaring methods. I have to attach transmitters to the scales. Sometimes transmitters drop off from the body because pangolins move under dense ground and dense canopy. And then the GPS reception is also interrupted in the dense forests, and we lose our movement data.

Mongabay: Is there any technology that you’ve tried but didn’t work? How so?

Elisa Panjang: The problem in my research is how is to detect pangolins with a reliable tool, so I tried a borescope camera, an affordable one, to detect pangolins inside the tree hollow and underground borrow. But it didn’t work, probably because it’s cheap. So, to buy a very good borescope camera I probably need a lot of money, so I stopped using it because we don’t have the funds.

Mongabay: You helped get the protection status increased for the pangolin. I would love to hear more about that.

Elisa Panjang: I started when I was in my master’s study. I was quite young, quite new. People said I was a young early conservationist, so I don’t know anything, right? But I was the only one studying pangolins in my state at that moment. So, I had to participate. And then I worked with local conservation NGOs to upgrade the status of pangolins in the country.

We had to present our finding with the working group, so a lot of workshop meetings, and we had to produce evidence from the little data that we had, because we just started so we had to produce evidence as strong as possible to make sure they can accept this evidence with the [government] department, the ministers.

After five years the proposal was accepted. The pangolin now is totally protected in my state, so it’s good for my state. And the good thing is that [other states will] follow. It’s good to see there is positive feedback from other states.

Mongabay: The pangolin was identified as a possible transmission source of COVID-19 from animals to humans, which was later shown to be untrue. Did this affect conservation efforts or change the public’s perception of the pangolin?

Elisa Panjang: I heard from my fellow pangolin researchers that people in the area became prejudiced against pangolins. There were incidents where people killed pangolins because the animal might spread diseases. This happened in some parts of Africa.

And then I heard in some countries that more people are working together to ban the illegal wildlife trade. There are two sides of this news.

For me, what’s important is they need to continue to share reliable sources and then use this to educate people. It’s important for scientists and conservationists to use science evidence to share information with people.

A Sunda pangolin (Manis javanica) hiding near some leaves. Image courtesy of Laura Benedict.

Mongabay: You also do lot of community outreach and education. What are your goals in educating children and the community? Do they get to use any technology?

Elisa Panjang: My program is very easy. The goal of my education program with schoolchildren in rural schools and in urban areas is to teach children to love pangolins. For them, it’s very easy.

We organize activities that attract the students. For example, fun activities but at the same time, they learn about pangolins. It’s fun, they are not bored with these kinds of activities. The program’s goals are to educate them about the pangolin’s role in the ecosystem and that pangolins are being protected by the government, so telling them about the policy and how can they participate in pangolin conservation for my research in my area.

I engage with them, and then let them participate in my ongoing conservation so they can prove they can participate in camera-trapping fieldwork.

Mongabay: What positive outcomes have you seen so far in your outreach and education efforts?

Elisa Panjang: About 10 years ago, people didn’t know much about pangolins, at least in my country. And nowadays people are talking about pangolins everywhere, and there are “pangolin days” that they celebrate every year. And more people in my country contact wildlife rescue units to rescue pangolins. I see that increasing awareness, not only in my place, but also globally. I’m working with some international conservation NGOs, one of them is Save Pangolins, to educate people properly about pangolins. I am very happy to see this dramatic growth and increase of awareness in pangolins within these 10 years.

A VHF-tagged Sunda pangolin (Manis javanica) climbs a tree. Image courtesy of Ashraft Yusni.

Mongabay: What’s next for you in your research and conservation work?

Elisa Panjang: Currently I am finishing my Ph.D. study at Cardiff University, and I am also working with the Danau Girang Field Centre as a pangolin conservation officer. I love my job very much. So, what is next for me? I want to continue doing research and education on pangolins. I want to open my own NGO after this and work with partners in my community to consult on pangolins, so I don’t think I will ever change my career.

Mongabay: Are you hopeful that we will be able to save the pangolin from extinction?

Elisa Panjang: Yes, I’m very hopeful. They are pangolin groups all over the world. It is OK that we are small, we are very dedicated.