In most of its habitats, the major threat to the heavily trafficked pangolin comes from humans. But in Taiwan, the scaly mammals are braving another threat: a growing feral canine population.
Veterinarian Tseng Shao-tung, 28, saw firsthand what a dog can do to gentle creatures during his shift at a hospital in Hsinchu.
Last month he worked to save the life of a young male pangolin who had been lying in the wild for days with his tail half chewed off.
“It has a large open wound on its tail and its body tissue has disintegrated,” Tseng said, gently turning the sedated pangolin to disinfect the gaping wound.
It was the fifth pangolin Tseng and his fellow vets rescued from suspected canine attacks this year.
Chief veterinarian Chen Yi-ru said she’s noticed a steady increase in pangolins with trauma — most of them with severed tails — over the past five years.
Covered in hard, overlapping body scales, pangolins curl into a ball when attacked. The tail is the most vulnerable part of the animal.
“That’s why when you attack, you usually bite your tail first,” Chen explained.
Wildlife researchers and officials said in a report released last year that dog attacks, which account for more than half of all injuries since 2018, have become “the number one threat to pangolins in Taiwan.”
– Most traded mammal –
Pangolins are described by conservationists as the world’s most trafficked mammal, with traditional Chinese medicine being the main driver.
Although their scales are made of keratin — the substance that makes up our fingernails and hair — they are in high demand among Chinese consumers due to the unproven belief that they support lactation in breastfeeding mothers.
This demand has decimated pangolin populations across Asia and Africa, despite a global ban, and funded a lucrative international black market trade.
All eight pangolin species on both continents are listed as endangered or critically endangered.
Taiwan is a similar conservation success story, transforming itself from a place where pangolins went from near-extinct to protected and thriving.
Chan Fang-tse, a veterinarian and researcher at the official Taiwan Endemic Species Research Institute, said massive hunting took place in the 1950s to 1970s.
“During that time, 60,000 pangolins were killed for their scales and fur in Taiwan,” he told AFP.
A 1989 wildlife protection law ended the industry, while rising conservation awareness caused the public to embrace their scaly neighbors as something to cherish rather than a commodity.
The population of the Formosan, or Taiwanese, pangolin, a subspecies of the Chinese pangolin, has since rebounded, with researchers estimating there are now between 10,000 and 15,000 in the wild.
But the island’s growing population of wild dogs — itself a consequence of a 2017 government policy not to kill stray animals — is hitting pangolins hard, Chan warned.
“Pangolins are the hardest hit because they have a large overlap in migratory range and pangolins don’t move as fast as other animals,” Chan said.
– Picky Eaters –
Pangolins are also vulnerable because they have few offspring.
The solitary Formosan pangolins mate once a year and do not give birth until after 150 days of gestation. Captive breeding programs have had little success.
“It might be harder to breed pangolins than pandas,” Chan said.
The increase in injured pangolins has presented veterinarians with another challenge: finding enough ants and termites to feed the picky eaters, who often refuse surrogate mixes of larvae.
Tseng piled into a truck with three other vets and went to a tree to retrieve an ant nest he had recently discovered.
“We now have to keep a constant lookout and check for ant nests every few days because we have more pangolins to feed,” Tseng said.
A pangolin can eat an ant nest the size of a football every day.
The government has also urged residents to report nesting sites to feed the pangolins until they can be released back into the wild.
But the injured pangolin in Tseng’s care will likely have to be sent to a zoo or government facility for adoption after it recovers.
“It will have difficulty climbing trees and will not be able to curl into a spherical shape,” Tseng said.
“It has lost the ability to protect itself in the wild.”