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Pangolin, termite-control ‘specialist’

In Photo: This photo of the pangolin was taken at the Department of Environment and Natural Resources’s Biodiversity Management Bureau headquarters at the Ninoy Aquino Park and Wildlife Rescue Center in Quezon City when the most endangered animal was brought there. It was brought back to Palawan Wildlife Rescue Center to prepare it for release to the wild. Unfortunately, the pangolin died because of stress.

THE pangolin, known as anteater, has recently been included on the list of animals that are threatened with extinction under Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). 

CITES’s Appendix I lists species that are the most endangered among its listed animals and plants. They are threatened with extinction and CITES prohibits international trade in specimens of these species, except when the purpose of the import is not commercial, for instance, for scientific research. 

The listing came following the alarming decrease in the global population of the unique species of mammal that feed on insects, particularly ants, with the hope that global effort to prevent the illegal-wildlife trade would also follow.

Termites are beneficial to forest ecosystems as they feed on dead plant materials, wood, leaf litter, soil or even animal dung.

Recycling of wood and plant matter makes termites ecologically important, as the process help improve soil nutrient, boosting plant in the forest.

Home invaders

At home, however, some species of termites or white ants are horrible pests. They could cause great damage to home structures. Uncontrolled, they could literally bring the house down and cost millions worth of real-property investment.

Who would chose to buy a home invaded by termites, anyway?

In the Philippines homeowners spend huge amount of money hiring professionals just to extinguish the sneaky termites.

Termites leave a thin layer of the wood they feed on for their protection. By the time they are discovered, they have already caused damage that would cost homeowners a fortune repairing the structural integrity of their house.

Termite controller

In Palawan, the only place in the Philippines where pangolins thrive, termite control is not much of a problem.

However, the rampant illegal-wildlife trade targeting unique species of plants and animals, including pangolins, is becoming a serious problem, officials of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) said.Director Theresa Mundita S. Lim of DENR’s Biodiversity Management Bureau (BMB) said maintaining a healthy population of pangolins help control the population of termites. 

While there are other animals that eat or prey on termites, pangolins are the pest’s most notorious predator.

Big appetite for ants

Besides termites, pangolins have a big appetite for ants. A single adult pangolin can eat up to 200,000 ants in one meal, or more than 70 million in a year.

“Without pangolins, there is a big chance the termite population would grow and spread throughout the province, increasing the risk of transfer to other areas, where they can also cause trouble,” Lim said.

Josie de Leon, chief of the BMB’s wildlife unit, said termites are pangolins favorite meal. 

“There are other animals that feed on termites, but only pangolins can effectively control their population,” she said.

Pangolins climb trees to feed on termites that establish colonies on high trees.

While termites feed mostly on dead wood, it could also cause severe damage to trees with weak resistance or protect against attacking white ants.

The unchecked population of termite compromise ecological balance, she said.

Lim urges real-estate and -property developers to invest in protecting and conserving pangolins and their habitats to prevent what could be a major problem caused by home invasion of termites once pangolins become extinct.

“Real-property developers should invest in biodiversity conservation because a healthy ecosystem helps protect their investment from damage caused by termites,” she said.

Most hunted

The pangolin is one of the world’s most illegally traded wildlife.  Based on the estimate of the DENR’s BMB, almost a thousand Palawan pangolins were illegally traded from 2000 to 2013.

China is known to be the destination of pangolins being smuggled out of the country—whether dead or alive—for their alleged medicinal value and aphrodisiac properties.

According to Lim, hunters of pangolins are after their meat, skin and internal organs.

In Palawan wildlife law enforcers reported that even indigenous people are into hunting these defenceless anteaters.

“They know how to hunt them and they know where to find them.  They catch them and sell them to unscrupulous wildlife traders,” Lim said.

Global protection

Its inclusion on CITES list of endangered species highlights the importance of maintaining a healthy population in the wild, along with its ecological importance in helping regulate insect population and ensure survival of seedlings.

The upgrading of the pangolin to CITES Appendix I came with stricter penalties for those involved in the illegal trade and killing of the harmless mammal.

Environment Secretary Regina Paz L. Lopez recently warned against catching, trading or killing anteaters as mandated by CITES.

Adopted by over 180 countries, CITES is an international agreement that aims to ensure the survival of wild plants and animals. Appendix I lists plants and animals that are threatened with extinction, thus, trading them internationally for commercial purposes is strictly prohibited.

Of the eight pangolin species worldwide, only one can be found in the Philippines. Locally known as balintong, the Manis culionensis is endemic to Palawan province. 

Palawan’s anteater is critically endangered, with its numbers highly threatened by its low fecundity or number of offspring produced per year, loss of habitat, and illegal trade of its scales and meat.

Prior to its inclusion in Appendix I, the pangolin was listed in Appendix II, which provides a modest level of protection as it requires exporting countries to ensure that any traded pangolin specimens have been legally obtained and that their export will not be detrimental to the species’ survival.

“Further endangering the pangolin is a crime that threatens our biodiversity and the fragility of our ecosystems. The DENR will not hesitate to apply the full extent of the law to anyone caught catching, killing or selling pangolin,” Lopez warned.

Republic Act 9147, or the Wildlife Resources Conservation and Protection Act, prescribes various penalties for illegal acts toward threatened species.

Stricter penalty

Under the law, illegal transport of pangolin may merit imprisonment of up to one year and a fine of up to P100,000. A jail term of up to four years and a fine of P300,000 await those who will be found guilty of trading pangolin.

The killing of pangolin carries a jail term of up to 12 years and a fine of up to P1 million.

The ban on the international trade of pangolins was proposed and approved by the Philippines and the United States during the World Wildlife Conference of the CITES Conference of Parties in Johannesburg, South Africa, held from September 24 to October 5.

With the illegal trade compounded by habitat loss and the species’ low rate of reproduction, officials of the DENR believe that it would be impossible for pangolin population to recover, given current rates of catch.

The inclusion of the Philippine pangolin in Appendix I of CITES would help prevent the further decline of its population in the wild and ensure their continued performance as a regulator of insect populations.

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