Taiwan, aka. “Pangolin Island”

In an unlikely story of chance, hard work, shifting local taste and relative international ignorance, Taiwan, just 180 km away from two of the world’s biggest consumers of pangolin scales and meat—has what might be the planet’s highest concentration of the world’s most-trafficked mammal.

Once called a “cuddly cross between an anteater and an artichoke,” the animals curl into a ball when threatened. They are considered a delicacy in China and Vietnam, partly on the theory that blood and body parts are good for virility. They are also used in traditional medicine to treat asthma, cancer and reproductive problems, without any particular science to back up the theory. The environmental website Animaticus estimates that anywhere between 105,410 and210,820 pangolins have been taken from the wild in Asia and Africa since 2011

So how did the animals thrive in Taiwan? I recently asked Kurtis Jai-Chyi Pei, a professor in the Institute of Wildlife Conservation at National Pingtung University of Science and Technology in southern Taiwan, who said the island is probably home to the highest concentration in the world. They are wild Formosan pangolins (Manis pentadactyla pentadactyla), a subspecies of Chinese pangolins.

It isn’t actually a secret that there are pangolins in Taiwan. The island used to legally export pangolin leather to other countries, while the scales and meat from those specimens were consumed by local people. And in 1987 a shipment of approximately 200 live pangolins from China was intercepted by authorities. The animals were later sent to the Taipei Zoo where they all died because the zoo at that time had no experience in dealing with pangolins. “All of them curled up into balls and died,” said Pei, describing a pitiful scene.

From 1950 until the early 1970s, pangolins were rounded up in the tens of thousands annually for both domestic and international markets, which eventually caused a population crash. A hunting ban on the species came into effect in 1973, and this started to make a difference to wild pangolin populations across the island. To top it off, the Wildlife Conservation Act of 1989 seems to have largely crushed the trade.

Furthermore, Taiwanese police seem to be better at law enforcement than their counterparts in other pangolin range countries across Southeast Asia and beyond, and, Pei explained, no one in recent times has really tried to create a local market for pangolin products. The stage was thus set for a recovery in pangolin numbers across the island, and this is what local conservationists are seeing.

Nevertheless, I asked Dr. Pei if he thought Mainland Chinese pangolin dealers and consumers knew about Taiwan’s wild supply, and his reply was: “We’d rather they don’t know.”

Game meat is still available in Taiwan, though this is usually derived from barking deer rather than pangolins or leopard cats (Prionailurus bengalensis), which appear to be endangered in Taiwan but were recently camera-trapped outside of its known range in Chia-Yi County in what might be a hopeful sign. Wild pigs are legally hunted by the island’s aborigines, but illegal fishing has wiped out much of the marine life in the nation’s waters and fishermen have to set sail for the high seas for a decent catch.

Taiwan has achieved other wildlife conservation success stories, notably with the migratory black-faced spoonbill, the success of which came about largely as a result of local and international collaboration. Nonetheless, sad stories abound with Taiwan’s sub-species of the Chinese white dolphin (Sousa chinensis) listed by the IUCN as Critically Endangered as populations have plunged in the waters around the island. In addition, yellow-margined box turtles are illegally exported to China, where they are kept as pets and even as “investments” that could appreciate in economic value. In some parts of the island, wild macaque populations have exploded to the point where farmers are allowed to kill them for invading their crops.

Many stray dogs have gone truly feral and now live in “wolf packs” in the country’s mountainous areas, Pei explained during another meeting—and these feral dog packs also present a threat to pangolins.

With pangolin numbers now rising in Taiwan—they’re even been found on the isolated Yangmingshan massif, a national park right in Taipei—Pei envisions students, scientists and conservationists from pangolin range countries from Africa to Southeast Asia visiting Taiwan to observe the conservation of this species. The Chinese pangolin is in steep decline throughout its range from Nepal all the way across through Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam, and of course China. Unless exotic and superstitious tastes and eating habits in China and Vietnam change soon, this island could soon be the last place on Earth where they are found in the wild.

Gregory McCann is a frequent contributor to Asia Sentinel and the Project Coordinator for Habitat ID. He is the author of the book Called Away by a Mountain Spirit: Journeys to the Green Corridor, and you can support his current conservation project in Cambodia’s Virachey National Park here.