Chapter 12: Taiwan

How poachers turned into conservationists

Criminal syndicates in Africa and Asia are working together — and competing — to meet the seemingly insatiable demand for pangolins in China and other markets. Over the last nine months, over 30 journalists across 14 countries and territories investigated how illegal pangolin trafficking is leading the species to become extinct.

Today, we’re sending you our dispatch from Taiwan.

You can find our global report here:

Pangolins: Trafficked to Extinction

Deep in the Luanshan forest in the dark of the night, Yu Man-jung spotted some tracks on the ground. “There was a pangolin just here,” Yu pointed out to the team of researchers behind him. Yu, also known as A-yung, moved quickly in the pursuit of more traces. He had developed a keen eye for spotting any signs of the shy scaly anteater over the years in his former career as a poacher.

Before he started working with pangolin researchers at National Pingtung University of Science and Technology (NPUST), Yu was poaching pangolins for a living. That was years ago, before pangolin researcher Hsun Ching-min hired Yu to help track the animal for research. For Yu, the new income helped offset the loss in revenue caused by stricter controls and falling domestic demand in pangolin meat.

A native of the mountainous terrain, Yu had spent much of his life around pangolins. The knowledge of the forest and his instincts for finding the reclusive animal have since been credited by researchers for several significant successes in the field.

“If not for A-yung, I wouldn’t have known where the pangolins were,” says Hsun admiringly, using Yu’s nickname. “He was always a trailblazer in the pangolin patrol team.”

“Without a local to lead the way, we would not have been able to find pangolins, no matter how advanced our technology is,” said Hsun.

Yu passed away in 2016 in an accident. However, his contribution to pangolin research and conservation is not forgotten. Hsun is leading ongoing research in Luanshan, Taitung, to better understand wild pangolins and their consumption habits.

Pangolin research can be hard work, involving many – mostly unsuccessful – hours of tracking, analysis of food sources, and even stool-sniffing.

Hsun, who has tracked down 47 wild pangolins in eight years of research, jokingly calls himself “the man who has collected the most pangolin faeces in the world.”

The pangolin researcher Hsun Ching-min has spent eight years trekking down wild pangolins to learn more about the shy, reclusive animal. Credit: Tsai Yao-Cheng / The Reporter

Studying pangolin compost and stool are essential indicators of the animal’s nutrition. But the stool is hard to find. Pangolins only excrete once a day. They bury their faeces to cover their tracks, which makes it difficult for researchers like Hsun to collect stool samples.

Hsun developed and patented a technique to segregate pangolin stool components, and worked with the Taipei Zoo to further analyse the volume and digestive rate of different ant species in pangolin stools.

Pangolins are notoriously difficult to care for in captivity, and rescued pangolins frequently die from stress and failure to eat. With Hsun’s research, NPUST hopes to learn more about pangolins’ eating habits to improve the survival rates of future rescues.

Taiwan today has become a success story in pangolin conservation, but things were different just half a century ago. From the 1950s to the 1970s, Taiwan exported nearly 60,000 pangolin leather pieces every year. As a result, pangolins almost became extinct.

A newborn pangolin was manually fed at the Endemic Species Research Institute First Aid Station, which is one of the three pangolin rescue centres in Taiwan. Credit: Yu Chih-Wei / The Reporter

It was only in 1989 that commercial hunting and export were banned after the government established the Wildlife Conservation Act. Today, the population density of Taiwanese pangolins is one of the highest in the world.

RELATED: How Taiwan Plans To Save Pangolins From Extinction

While legislative reform and public awareness have mostly ended the illegal trade, Taiwan remains a smuggling transit point to mainland China.

Just last year, Kaohsiung customs officials intercepted 3,880 descaled and disembowelled pangolin bodies in a container that originated from Malaysia. In another notable seizure, the Coast Guard Administration seized five Taiwan pangolins, along with Asian yellow pond turtles and yellow-margined box turtles in 2015.

These, too, were all believed to be en route to mainland China.

In January 2018, a shipping container was found with 3,880 descaled and disembowelled pangolins at Kaohsiung Port. According to a source at the customs department, the shipment was believed to have originated in Kuching, Malaysia, and was likely en route to mainland China.

Today, Hsun has honed his skills at finding wild pangolins, although he admits that he mostly relies on luck. We hiked with him up a mountain along the same route that Yu, the former poacher, used. An hour into the hike, we found an old burrow buried underneath a pile of leaves and weeds.

An indigenous resident of the area pointed to a nearby slope. “There’s a burrow and it’s quite new,” he said. We crawled on all fours, holding onto the bamboo to keep our footing, until we spotted the deep underground burrow. It had the fresh remains of a palm-sized ant mound next to it, the remnants of a pangolin's feast.

Pangolin researcher Hsun Ching-min examining a pangolin burrow. He relies on local guides to look for the animal, which he studies to improve the survival rates of future rescues. Credit: Tsai Yao-Cheng / The Reporter

Hsun marvelled at our good luck. Our find was a rare one. “This burrow was dug only in the past two days,” he said. “It usually becomes mouldy after that.”

Hsun suggests that the government should employ residents like Yu as guides or ecological conservationists. It should utilise their knowledge and skills to push for even higher conservation goals.

“Perhaps, we can even make Luanshan a world-standard pangolin conservation centre,” he said.

Next week, we’ll send you an exclusive report about failed conservancy efforts in China’s Guangdong province. (If you read Chinese, you can also find it in this week’s edition of the Southern

Here are our previous newsletters: Introduction, Q&A, China, Cameroon, Nigeria, Malaysia, Thai-Malaysian border, Indonesia, Philippines, India, Nepal, Hong Kong, and Vietnam.

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