Operation Pangolin launches to save the world’s most trafficked wild mammal

17 February 2023

Ahead of World Pangolin Day on 18 February, researchers and conservationists announce an ambitious new plan to save the world’s most trafficked wild mammal — the pangolin.

Pangolins, the only truly scaled mammal, are extraordinary creatures but also the most illegally traded wild mammals on the planet, with all eight species threatened with extinction. Launched today, Operation Pangolin will see an international team of researchers work in partnership with local stakeholders to develop pangolin-specific monitoring methods and interventions to prevent illegal offtake and trafficking of the species - the highest conservation priority for these mammals.

There are four core pillars to the project:

  1. monitoring of pangolin populations, including developing and deploying new technologies to do so;
  2. understanding the social-ecological systems in which pangolins are harvested, used, and traded in key areas in Central Africa to inform locally-led sustainable conservation solutions;
  3. using insights from conservation criminology to prevent the illegal harvesting and trafficking of pangolins;
  4. using artificial intelligence and machine learning approaches to unite diverse data streams to prevent wildlife crime involving pangolins, including through predictive approaches.

The researchers will work with local conservation stakeholders, including indigenous peoples, local communities, and government agencies to deploy pangolin monitoring programs, implement conservation interventions, and develop predictive tools for addressing wildlife crime.

The project has launched in Cameroon and Gabon, Central Africa, with the support of a $4 million grant from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, with plans to expand into Nigeria soon. With further funding, the team hope to expand their efforts into Asia, the only other continent with native pangolin populations.

The University of Oxford will focus on the social component of the project. This work will be overseen by Dr Dan Challender, an interdisciplinary Conservation Scientist based in Oxford University’s Department of Biology and the Oxford Martin School, who has been involved in pangolin research and conservation for 15 years.

Dr Challender said: ‘In the last decade pangolin populations in Central Africa have been under increasing pressure from offtake for local use and international trafficking of their scales. This project has the potential to transform pangolin conservation, first in key locations in Central Africa, and then extending into parts of Asia. By taking an interdisciplinary approach and using novel technology and artificial intelligence methods, the project will give pangolin populations in these regions the best chance of survival.’

Throughout history, pangolins have been sustainably harvested for their scales (used in Traditional Medicine in Africa and Asia) and for their meat. In recent decades, however, overexploitation has exploded despite national and international legal protections afforded to the species. With a likely large proportion of the illegal trade of their scales and meat going undetected, very little is known about the supply chains through which pangolins are trafficked. Since 2014, the number of trafficked pangolins seized globally has seen an estimated 10-fold increase, with a notable shift of primary source from Asia to West and Central Africa. It is thought that as many as 8.5 million pangolins were removed from the wild in West and Central Africa for the illegal trade during the period 2014 – 2021.

The Oxford team will conduct research in and around key protected areas with pangolins in Cameroon to understand the social-ecological systems in which pangolins are harvested, used, and trafficked. This will involve working with key stakeholders to collectively identify the conditions that result in the illegal harvest and trade of pangolins. This information will be used to inform context-specific conservation interventions with local actors (including indigenous peoples and local communities) to ensure that any future use and/or trade of pangolins is legal and not unsustainable.

‘Accurate, actionable data is the foundation of effective conservation efforts,’ said Gabe Miller, director of technology on behalf of the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation. ‘Operation Pangolin will provide a blueprint for how conservationists can turn data into solutions that address important issues like wildlife trafficking and the biodiversity crisis head on.’

Besides the University of Oxford, the collaborative research team involves specialists from Florida International University, the Arribada Initiative, the University of Maryland, and the University of Southern California. They are being supported by the Agence Nationale des Parcs Nationaux (Gabon’s national parks agency) to lead implementation efforts in Gabon and the ZSL (Zoological Society of London) to lead implementation in Cameroon. The project is supported by the IUCN Pangolin Specialist Group, a global network of 189 pangolin technical specialists.

Notes to editors:

For media enquiries, including requests for interviews and photographs of pangolins, contact Dr Dan Challender - [email protected]

You can learn more about the project on the Operation Pangolin website and online newsroom:
Website: https://gfjc.fiu.edu/operation-pangolin/index.html
Newsroom: https://gfjc.fiu.edu/operation-pangolin/newsroom/index.html

You can also follow the project’s progress on Twitter #OperationPangolin

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