Protecting pangolin populations
Fighting to save the world's most trafficked mammal
Last month, the Animal Concerns Research and Education Society (Acres) posted a picture on Facebook of a two-month-old pangolin pup, named Stardust, clinging on to its dead mother.
It had been found by a group of cyclists along a mountain bike trail in one of the nature parks here.
Stardust is now being cared for at Wildlife Reserves Singapore. Its director of conservation, research and veterinary services, Dr Sonja Luz, 47, told The New Paper that pangolins are being killed for their perceived health benefits. And if this issue is not addressed, it can push pangolin populations to the brink of extinction.
This year, Singapore seized nearly 38 tonnes of contraband pangolin scales and nine tonnes of elephant ivory tusks. In total, the hauls were worth over $170.2 million, with about 40,000 pangolins and 300 elephants killed.
Carrying Stardust while speaking to TNP at the Singapore Zoo two weeks ago, Dr Luz said it reminded her of her first encounter with a pangolin in 2003 when the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore had seized a shipment of 34 live pangolins. They were coiled up, stuffed in nets and packed in styrofoam boxes.
She said: "When I opened one of the boxes, a baby pangolin was still strapped to its mother. It broke my heart."
According to the National Geographic, the pangolin, shy and harmless, is believed to be the world's most trafficked mammal, hunted for its scales for use in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM).
Dr Luz said, traditionally, it is believed that pangolin scales help nursing mothers with lactation issues.
She said: "We now have modern medicine that can replace the medical need but it will not replace the belief. As long as there are people who believe that it works, there will be a demand."
She said replacing traditional medicine was a slow and sensitive process.
She added: "We have to be mindful of and not demand a culture to drastically change overnight."
Mr Louis Ng, founder of Acres, told TNP there is no scientific evidence that pangolin scales have medical benefits.
Said the Member of Parliament for Nee Soon GRC: "It is the keratin - the same substance in fingernails - that is found in them that they are killed for. But just like rhino horns and tiger bones, pangolin scales don't work."
Ultimately, it comes down to greed, Dr Luz said. The more endangered a species, the higher the value, she added.
And with species such as the pangolin becoming a rarity, poachers are encouraged to stock up wildlife parts as reserves.
She said: "The poachers keep the parts in warehouses and then they will most likely restart a market claiming they have the last few tonnes.
"With the threat of this (illegal) trade, conserving wildlife is tough because it is really small wins and big losses. It is exhausting trying to catch up. It is like you are in a constant marathon."