Rare giant pangolin discovered at Ziwa Rhino Ranch

Conservationists from Chester Zoo have captured ‘momentous’ video footage of the elusive giant pangolin at Ziwa Rhino Ranch in Uganda – part of an on-going  pioneering study that is revealing new insights into the previously secret lives of this little-known species

 Pangolins, sometimes called ‘scaly anteaters’, are the only mammals in the world that are covered in hard overlapping and protective scales made of keratin – the same substance as human fingernails and rhino horn. They live on a diet consisting entirely of ants and termites, which they lap up with their long sticky tongues. These interesting animals are able to quickly, roll themselves up into a tight ball when threatened by a potential predator.

The Giant Pangolin, measuring up to 5.9ft (1.8m) long and weighing up to 5st (75lbs) is by far the largest of the world’s eight pangolin sub-species and is found only in the rainforests and grasslands of equatorial Africa. However, very little is known about giant pangolin behaviour, ecology and habitat requirements – crucial information is urgently required in order for conservationists to develop strategies to monitor populations and protect them.

The zoo team, in collaboration with the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) and the Rhino Ranch managed by Rhino Fund Uganda (RFU), is aiming to uncover new information about the rare nocturnal mammal. So far, the zoo has installed 70 motion-sensor trail cameras installed in Ziwa and these cameras have now captured hundreds of images and video clips of giant pangolin. From these images and films, the researchers are now able to identify a number of individual pangolins by the unique marks and patterns on their scales and are recording previously unknown behaviours.

Commenting on the footage, the Executive Director Uganda Wildlife Authority Sam Mwandha welcomed the news of the discovery saying that the existence of giant pangolins adds to the list of the wildlife species in Uganda. “Chester Zoo researchers recently discovered the lowland bongo in Semuliki National Park so the discovery of a giant pangolin is exciting news to us in the conservation world. These rare glimpses into the lives of giant pangolins are very exciting for those of us who dedicated to protecting Uganda’s rich wildlife. It challenges us to double our efforts and ensure that we protect and conserve pangolins considering that they are an endangered species,” said Mwandha.

It is the first ever study of species in Uganda, taking place in the country’s Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary. Scientists hope to generate vital data that will help with the long-term conservation of giant pangolins in Uganda, and elsewhere in Africa.

Angela Genade, Executive Director of Rhino Fund Uganda said that they had no idea what the effect of securing the sanctuary from poachers would have on other species – the giant pangolin being one of them.

“We were receiving reports from our rangers that giant pangolins were occasionally being spotted while on patrol, so we added them to our species list. When Chester Zoo approached RFU to conduct the study, our response was ‘yes, we have giant pangolin but we know nothing about them!’ The footage and images that the zoo’s conservationists are obtaining has opened a completely new world to RFU and its rangers about what a secure environment actually means to so many animals. We are proud to be a part of this study and are extremely excited at the prospect of this elusive and special animal’s behaviour being understood, which will lead to the ability to protect them better in the wild throughout Africa,” Genade said.

The giant pangolin at Ziwa Rhino sanctuary

Despite being protected by international wildlife laws that ban all pangolin trade, they remain the most illegally trafficked group of mammals in the world. Their meat is considered a delicacy in many countries and their scales are widely used in traditional medicines, particularly in Vietnam and China, despite no medical benefit.

Stuart Nixon, Chester Zoo’s Africa Field Programme and Research Lead, said that, “The giant pangolin is a beautiful, mysterious and utterly fascinating species but studying them is extremely challenging. Being nocturnal, rare and very shy it’s only with new technologies such as high sensitivity trail cameras that we are able to learn more about how they live and interact with their each other and their environment. Tragically we do know the giant pangolin faces a huge risk of going extinct across Central Africa.”

“With no giant pangolins in zoos or safari parks anywhere in the world, all our conservation efforts must focus on saving them in the wild. The race is on against criminal networks that only value dead pangolins, to save this species and protect them well into the future.The momentous images and video we are capturing at Ziwa prove that when sites are well protected against poaching giant pangolins and other species can flourish,” he added.

 In Uganda, hunting or possession of protected wildlife species such as pangolins carries a maximum sentence of 5 years imprisonment, while trafficking of pangolins or any other wildlife species carries a maximum prison sentence of 7 years.

Despite full legal protection in Uganda and elsewhere in Africa, international customs agents have in recent years intercepted large shipments of African pangolin scales. Earlier this month, Hong Kong customs officials seized the world’s largest ever haul of pangolin scales, weighing a staggering 8.5 tonnes and representing thousands of African pangolins.

In Uganda, Customs officials have seized pangolin scales being trafficked through Uganda over the years. Such seizures have set alarm bells ringing for conservationists. UWA is working tirelessly to ensure the protection of these rare and endangered species and their habitats, and continues to work with law enforcement agencies to end the pangolin trade.