Protecting Pangolins

Five years ago, there weren't any pangolins in U.S. zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). These "scaly anteaters" were being poached at an alarming rate - an estimated 10,000 per year - but despite their status as the world's most illegally trafficked animal, little was known among animal care specialists about how to care for these creatures, and no official large-scale program within the accredited zoo community was in place to help save these animals.

Today, 40 white-bellied tree pangolins are thriving in six U.S. zoo (with 13 of them here at Brookfield Zoo), and each day, veterinarians, animal care staff, and researchers are learning more and more about these scale-covered mammals. And this past August, the Chicago Zoological Society hosted the first-ever International Symposium on Pangolin Care and Conservation, where pangolin experts and researchers from around the world gathered together to share their knowledge and plans for protecting these special creatures.

While there is still a long way to go when it comes to saving the world's most poached animal, today there is hope. And it all started with the Society.

Collecting Clues

In 2014, Bill Zeigler, the Society's Senior Vice President of Animal Programs, proposed bringing together about 40 white-bellied tree pangolins from their native Togo, a small country in west Africa, to accredited U.S. institutions.

Zeigler was well aware of the threats to all eight species of pangolin - over the past 10 years, more than a million have been poached from the wild for food in the illegal bushmeat trade, for their use in Asian medicines (despite having no actual medicinal value), and for their scales, which are made into jewelry.

He realized that to combat these threats and to help increase wild pangolin populations, it was necessary to learn more about these animals, as very little research had been done on them at the time.

"There is so much that is unknown about the pangolin - the intricacies of their social dynamics, how they reproduce, how much space they need, and how well they can survive in disturbed habitats," Zeigler said. "When it comes to trying to save this animal, we first need to get these kinds of answers."

He reached out to colleagues across the country in attempt to create a network of organizations dedicated to this cause. Five other zoos - Memphis Zoo, Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, Gladys Porter Zoo, Essex County Turtle Back Zoo, and Pittsburg Zoo & PPG Aquarium - along with a nonprofit organization, Pangolin Conservation, agree to partner up to hep save pangolins. All together, these organizations are officially known as the Pangolin Consortium.

"In order to do this right, we needed a large enough pangolin population here in the U.S. to represent as much genetic diversity as in the wild population and to have the best demographic population possible - in other words, the right combination of ages and represented sexes," Zeigler said. "We couldn't do that with just a few animals, and we can only house so many pangolins at Brookfield Zoo. Having a consortium of partners is key to the success of the program."

Not everyone was supportive of the Society's plan. Critics argued that pangolins should not be removed from the wild, as this would further reduce their populations. However, the pangolins weren't taken from their native habitat in a way that could promote illegal trade: they came from individual farmers who had captured these animals on their land and were simply planning to use them as food.

Further criticism stemmed from the fact that pangolins are prone to stress and in the past, many have not survived transportation. However, the Consortium had an on-the-ground person in Togo, who spent months preparing these animals for transportation - deworming them, introducing them to a new diet, and figuring out the best ways to keep them hydrated. Only the animals who adjusted well were transported to the U.S., and so when the first shipment was transported in April 2016, all animals arrived in good health.

And now that they're here in U.S. institutions, the amount of information that can come from the four dozen pangolins could have the ability to save thousands.

In addition to conducting research that will lead to answers to a whole host of questions, the Consortium also is heavily focused on educating the general public about the plight of the pangolin. The six zoos that house pangolins have a combined seven million visitors each year - these are seven million people who potentially can be exposed to the pangolins' story and be moved to help.

Despite the initial criticism, in the past few years, the Consortium has begun to gain recognition by conservation organizations including the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Pangolin Specialist Group.

Veterinary staff perform regular check-ups on Brookfield Zoo's pangolins to ensure they are thriving.

Feeding the Future

When the pangolins arrived at Brookfield Zoo in 2016, animal care and veterinary staff knew next to nothing about them. They're not really featured in veterinary literature, and almost no institutions in the United States have successfully housed the before.

But everyone immediately jumped into learning as much as they could about these special creatures.

"We very quickly created a network of vets working with these animals in North America--the Consortium made that easy to do," said Dr. Copper Aitken-Palmer, associate veterinarian for the Society. "And we all quickly made a basic care document, which we all use to keep everyone updated as we learn more and more."

Ensuring these animals were receiving a proper diet was a crucial first step - and Brookfield Zoo was perfectly positioned to tackle this task. We are one of about 20 accredited U.S. zoos to have a registered animal nutritionists on staff.

Dr. Jennifer Watts, the Society's direction of nutrition, started with analyzing blood samples from each of the pangolins to ensure they were getting the nutrients they needed. She found the original diet (primarily composed of worms, but also containing flaxseed, brewer's yeast, and powdered chitin) was a bit high in calcium, and so adjusted appropriately.

She continues to analyze blood samples quarterly to ensure these animals are receiving all the nutrients they need - and if they aren't, she makes further tweaks.

And again, it's all about Consortium members working together.

"Another zoo analyzed ants from Togo, and learned that they're very fatty, which was really surprising," Watts said. "Normally ants aren't fatty at all, so we had assumed the pangolin's diet was fairly low in fat - but it was actually higher than we thought."

Watts made the appropriate adjustments, and all 13 pangolins at Brookfield Zoo appear to be thriving.

In addition to constantly monitoring and tweaking the pangolins' diet, the veterinary team has two main goals:

1. Understanding the pangolins' reproductive physiology (currently, experts aren't exactly sure of their gestation length or optimal breeding conditions).

2. Becoming familiar with their biggest health concerns and how to detect and treat them.

Once determined, this knowledge can be shared with rehabilitation centers in Asia and Africa, providing these centers with the tools to properly care for these animals and improve their chances of release back into the wild.

"We're pushing the limits of what we're doing as scientists," Aitken-Palmer said. "It's 2018, we know a lot about what's out there - but this is something where we've started from almost zero. We're the ones finding the answers."

A female pangolin and her offspring (known as a pangopup).

Global Growth

While Society staff are leading the charge, when it comes to protecting pangolins, it really takes a global community - and the August symposium was instrumental in developing just that. More than 50 experts, from all over the world, including the United States, India, Taiwan, Togo, and the United Kingdom, gathered to collaborate on strategies for saving these threatened animals.

They shared their expertise and began development of a master plan for managed populations of all eight pangolin species, along with a messaging strategy for education and about ex-situ (outside of their natural habitat) populations' involvement in conservation. The Consortium also awarded several grants to individuals and organizations that will go toward research and conservation of these species, both in the wild and in professional care, developing the global community even further.

While Society staff is thrilled with the symposium's success, they are already looking forward to what they can do next. They hope to collaborate with the University of Lomé in Togo to conduct  more field work and determine what pangolins really need in their habitats, both in the wild and in professionally managed care. Staff could also compare blood samples from wild pangolins with those in institutions, and modify their diet to be even more accurate.

And as the Consortium moves forward with its efforts, Zeigler also hopes to continue to build strong relationship with other pangolin conservation organizations. To save all eight species requires a holistic approach not only to protect the species in their habitat, but to change the driving cultural forces that threaten the group as a whole. Protecting pangolins from extinction is a global issue and requires a global response--a response the Society is committed to cultivating.

Our great thanks to Barbara Levy Kipper for her generous support of the pangolin program.

Posted: 12/5/2018 11:58:41 AM by Bryan Todd Oakley

CZS & Brookfield Zoo

Since the opening of Brookfield Zoo in 1934, the Chicago Zoological Society has had an international reputation for taking a cutting-edge role in animal care and conservation of the natural world. Learn more about the animals, people, and research that make up CZS here at our blog.


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