Taipei, Taiwan – Set against the forested hills and tea plantations around Taiwan’s capital city, the Taipei Zoo is dealing with an unusual situation with its Formosan pangolins.
The zoo has about 13 of the scaly anteaters, a subspecies of the Chinese pangolin, who take turns to amble about in the public-facing exhibit space.
But as the wild pangolin population in the surrounding forests slowly recovers from years of hunting, they too are venturing into the zoo’s grounds in search of their favourite food – ants.
“Sometimes you can see wild pangolins wandering around the zoo at night,” Cai Yun-ling, who heads the zoo’s African animal section, told Al Jazeera.
“It’s quite strange because they’re still out in the wild but considered an incredibly vulnerable species. You can only find a few wild Chinese pangolins in other countries, so Taiwan is sort of the last resort for the wild ones.”
It is a remarkable turn of events for Taiwan, which just a few decades ago was exporting the pangolin’s distinct leathery scales for use in the global fashion industry and traditional Chinese medicine even though there was – and is – no evidence of any medicinal benefit.
The Pokémon-like mammal was also hunted as bush meat to supplement the diets of rural Taiwanese in a society with limited social services.
Since their near disappearance decades ago, the local pangolin population is slowly growing, according to experts like Kurtis Pei, one of Taiwan’s foremost conservationists. This is in contrast to the situation elsewhere in Asia and Africa where all eight species of pangolins are under pressure and some, including the Chinese pangolin, are critically endangered.
“Ten years ago, [pangolins] were found only in several locations with stable populations but today they are pretty much everywhere, even in the coastal forest areas or grasslands and wetlands,” said Pei, who is based at the National Pingtung University of Science and Technology. He was not able to provide a number for the current population of pangolins.
Threats, however, continue even though the pangolin trade was banned around the world in 2017.
In China and Vietnam, the appetite for pangolin continues and Africa has become a key source.
In 2019, a record year, more than 128,000 tonnes of pangolin parts were intercepted, including two shipments from Nigeria to Singapore containing 28.2 tonnes of parts from 70,000 pangolins, according to a report by the Center for Advance Defense Studies, a United States-based nonprofit that monitors transnational security issues.
The COVID pandemic and its limits on global trade may have given the pangolin some breathing space but at least 23.5 tonnes of pangolins and their parts were trafficked in 2021 to meet the demand for its scales and meat, according to Traffic.
Laws and enforcement
In Taiwan, the pangolin was vulnerable for similar reasons but nowadays, the island has become something of a sanctuary and offers lessons for at-risk pangolin populations elsewhere.
Experts say the landmark 1989 Wildlife Conservation Act has been crucial to the animal’s recovery, with those found guilty of the unapproved export or killing of endangered animals risking fines and as many as five years in prison.
Hunting is also banned across Taiwan, except for a small population of Indigenous Taiwanese. Meanwhile, Taiwan’s traditional Chinese medicine industry soldiers on without ingredients from endangered plants and animals.
Such initiatives have not only helped pangolins, says Nick Ching-ming Sun, who studies the pangolin at the National Pingtung University of Science and Technology, but other animals like the Formosan sika and sambar deer, as well as the goat-like serow.
“I think the most important factor is law enforcement. In 1989, we had the Wildlife Conservation Act. Another thing was economic development 30 years ago, so people don’t have to eat wild meat, they have money and can buy what they want,” Sun told Al Jazeera.
Record seizures of #pangolin scales & meat. Zoonotic diseases linked to illegally sourced #wildlife. Evidence of climate impacts of wildlife crime. Saving pangolins & planetary health requires bolder action at all levels to prevent & combat wildlife crime #WorldPangolinDay pic.twitter.com/5b5AyZONgx
— John E. Scanlon AO (@JohnEScanlon) February 17, 2023
Significant, as well, is a shift among Taiwanese in their relationship with nature. Environmentalism was a key offshoot of the island’s democracy movement and the end of martial law in 1987 opened up access to the island’s mountains and coasts for the first time in decades, fuelling a passion for the outdoors.
The only other place in Asia to see some success in conservation is the tiny island state of Singapore, where the Sunda pangolin has also started to recover thanks to legal protections, Sun said.
Despite its status as a pangolin paradise, Taiwan remains an imperfect one.
Pangolins live on a diet of termites and ants, and sniffing about felled trees and rotting logs often find themselves in smallholdings where they face threats from agricultural chemicals to dogs, vehicles and the gin traps used by farmers to catch vermin.
Nursing pangolins back to full health can also be a challenge depending on their injury and the fact that the easily stressed animal can often develop ulcers, said Taipei Zoo’s Cai. They are also picky eaters and supplying them with sufficient ant nests is expensive, forcing rescuers to come up with alternatives.
It can be a significant challenge as hundreds of pangolins pass through animal rescue centres each year, said Pei, but in a positive trend, many are simply stressed-out but healthy young pangolins who have wandered into farms or other inhabited areas.
Today is #WorldPangolinDay
Did you know that these shy and solitary creatures are the most highly trafficked animal in the world? Their unique scales and meat have made them an easy target for poachers. Let’s protect these amazing scaly mammals. #SaveThePangolins 💔 pic.twitter.com/Y50Y2bDyzQ
— WWF New Zealand (@WWFNewZealand) February 17, 2023
When they see humans or potential predators, they panic and curl into a protective ball. While that defensive mechanism has left them vulnerable to poachers it also makes them easier to rescue.
“Taiwanese have learned that if they find a pangolin in a field, they should send the pangolin to a rescue centre,” he said, “So in the past 10 years, the pangolin rescue centres received more healthy pangolins than injured pangolins.”
The pangolins who cannot return to the wild may end up at places like the Taipei Zoo, where captive ones are helping Taiwan in a rather more unusual political endeavour: pangolin diplomacy.
In 2022, Taiwan lent a pair of pangolins – Run Hou Tang “Cough Drop” and Guo Bao “Precious Fruit” – to the Prague Zoo in the Czech Republic, one of Taiwan’s emerging allies in Europe.
The pangolins replaced a pair of pandas promised by Beijing on the condition that Prague acknowledges China’s sovereignty over Taiwan, precipitating the breakup of Beijing and Prague as “sister cities.”
This month, “Cough Drop” gave birth to a healthy pup, further cementing the revival of the Formosan pangolin and ties between the new “sister cities” – Prague and Taipei.