Wildlife forensics: how a giant pangolin named Ghost could help save the species – The Guardian

A new research programme in Gabon is identifying the ‘isotopic fingerprint’ of the world’s most-trafficked mammal in the fight to beat smugglers. After a two-week chase through Lopé-Okanda national park, a mosaic of rainforest and savannah in central Gabon, David Lehmann and his Wildlife Capture Unit were celebrating – they had caught a giant pangolin nicknamed Ghost, the biggest on record.

A new research programme in Gabon is identifying the ‘isotopic fingerprint’ of the world’s most-trafficked mammal in the fight to beat smugglers

 

After a two-week chase through Lopé-Okanda national park, a mosaic of rainforest and savannah in central Gabon, David Lehmann and his Wildlife Capture Unit were celebrating – they had caught a giant pangolin nicknamed Ghost, the biggest on record.

 

The team – consisting of eco-guards, an indigenous tracker, a field biologist and a wildlife vet – hope that Ghost, who weighs 38kg and measures 1.72m from nose to tail, will give valuable insights in their fight against poaching.

 

A nocturnal lifestyle and the fact that it feels most at home in a complex system of deep inaccessible burrows makes the giant ground pangolin – Smutsia gigantea – one of the least researched species in the animal kingdom.

 

“We know little about their basic ecology, their movements and population sizes, and our lack of knowledge hinders our efforts to protect them,” says Lehmann, a wildlife ecologist. His research is part of the EU’s Ecofac6 programme, a commitment that started in the 1990s to safeguard biodiversity in the Congo basin. “What we are doing here is pioneering work,” he says.

 

The only scaly mammal in the world, a pangolin’s body is covered with razor-sharp, overlapping keratin plates. When attacked, it rolls into an armoured ball with scales raised: an effective defence against predators, but not against the snare traps of poachers. Pangolins are thought to be the world’s most trafficked mammals. With the four Asian species already hunted to near extinction, the African Wildlife Foundation estimates that around 2.7 million pangolins are trafficked from Africa’s rainforests each year.

 

All eight pangolin species are on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s red list, with three listed as critically endangered. As regulators of insect populations, pangolins are a key species in the rainforest: an individual pangolin consumes as many as 70 million ants and termites a year. Without this natural top-down control conservationists fear there would be a cascading impact on the environment, leaving the forest ecology seriously disrupted.

 

Popular for its meat, the pangolin has long been hunted for local consumption but Gabon’s minister for forests, oceans, environment and climates, Professor Lee White, argues that it is the demand in Asia that is of chief concern.

 

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