Illegal wildlife trade

In a Philippine village, pangolin hunting happens under local officials’ watch

Keith Anthony S. Fabro

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In a Philippine village, pangolin hunting happens under local officials’ watch
Barangay officials in Culion, Palawan do a balancing act trying to save the Philippine pangolin species and keeping their posts

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PALAWAN, Philippines – It was pitch-dark sometime in 2015 save for a lonely moon that occasionally peeked from the clouds, casting a faint glow on grass that swayed with the cold northeast monsoon wind that blew. Everyone in the remote village of Halsey in the island town of Culion was fast asleep. Except for 39-year-old Dennis* and his dog Itim.  

Their elusive target was nocturnal, so they patiently stayed awake. Dennis set aside thoughts of rest in the meantime despite being dead tired from his daylong toil in his mother-in-law’s small farmland.

“You have to walk silently because they are evasive,” he said in an interview back in October. 

Dennis brought a bolo anticipating the worst that could happen in the field. He had to be careful. If anything happened to him, he could die while being rushed to the hospital in the town proper – an hour away by boat or around two hours by motorcyle. 

After hours of silently wading through the grassland, Itim sniffed what his master had been looking for. He barked and ran towards the pitiful prey. It was a few hours before dawn and Dennis’ eyes were bloodshot. The barking signified he would be putting food on the table for his 8 children and wouldn’t have to worry in the next few days. 

Dennis switched on his flashlight, unrolled his worn-out sack, and rushed to see Itim’s find. He pointed the yellow light at Itim and he was elated to see a balikon, the local name for the critically endangered Philippine pangolin (Manis culionensis).

“Itim, you did a good job,” Dennis said, gently patting his loyal accomplice on the head.  

There are 8 pangolin species worldwide. It’s in Culion island in northern Palawan where the now near-extinct Philippine pangolin species was first described in 1885 by University of Santo Tomas natural history professor, Fr Casto de Elera. The Palawan pangolin was formerly considered a subspecies of Indonesia’s Manis javanica until it was recognized as a distinct species in 1998.  

“The samples used to confirm Palawan pangolin as a distinct species were taken from Culion, hence the scientific name Manis culionensis,” Levita Lagrada, a pangolin specialist with the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development Staff, told Rappler. Lagrada is a member of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Pangolin Specialist Group.

Aside from Culion, researchers say the Palawan-endemic species are reportedly found in neighboring island towns of Busuanga and Coron, as well as in other island towns – Dumaran in the northeast and Balabac in the southernmost part of Palawan. In the main Palawan island, it has been sighted in the central and northern parts, and is much rarer in the south. 

According to local communities, Palawan pangolins were once abundant in the wild. But with the insatiable demand for pangolins, primarily in China, where its meat is consumed as a luxury food and its scales are used in traditional Chinese medicine, the illegal poaching and subsequent international trade of Palawan pangolins have also accelerated, resulting in an unabated decline in its population.

Because they produce only one to two offsprings a year, replenishing hunted pangolins has been difficult.

While little is known about the rare Palawan pangolin due in part to its elusive, solitary, and nocturnal habits, the species’ population is believed to have dropped by more than 50% over the past 3 decades, based on apprehension data and communities’ observation, Lagrada said. This, as the species had been documented in international trade with China, Malaysia, and possibly even Vietnam. 

The behavior of pangolins has made them being easy to snatch in the wild. When this scaly anteater senses danger, it curls up like a ball, and hunters like Dennis have no difficulty picking up and putting the mammal inside sacks.

From viand to source of livelihood

But “that hunting activity occurred a few years ago,” the non-native hunter Dennis confessed, recalling it happened only “sometime in 2015,” years after he transferred from mainland Palawan, particularly in Taytay town, another illegal wildlife trade hot spot. 

He paused for a few seconds. One of his hands rested on his left knee, which was infected with a boil that left him pinned to his bamboo-made bed for two weeks already. “It started in December and continued up to June,” which, he said, was the “peak season for pangolin hunting.”

During amihan (northeast monsoon), when there is less rain, termites and ants that serve as food to pangolins thrive in the fields. “When you see mounds in the wild, there’s a high chance you can see pangolins,” Dennis added. 

Dennis, who now works as a carpenter in Culion town proper, said that at first, he hunted pangolins for his family’s consumption only.

“I just encountered it along the way so I thought of bringing it home for viand,” he continued. He would scald the pangolin before wiping out its scales and then cooking adobo using its meat.

Where did he dispose of the sought-after scales? He did not reply at first. Later on, Dennis admitted: “There were two men who entered our backyard. They asked me if I could hunt pangolins for them.” Dennis didn’t bother asking the real names of the pangolin buyers. “What they said was they were from Mindoro.”

Located northeast of Palawan in the heart of the Philippines, enforcement authorities identified the island province of Mindoro as one of the major transshipment points for the illegal trade of wildlife species, including pangolins. From there, they are smuggled out of the country via sea.

Hefty profits drive pangolin poaching. Dennis was offered P1,000 to P1,500 per kilo for a live pangolin. In Culion where the average household income a month is P5,000, it’s an easier way of earning money. His wife, who weaves pandan mats to augment their income, was always happy whenever he went home with his haul.

‘If I already collected more than two pangolins, they (pangolin buyers) told me to text them quick to pick up the wildlife,’ he recalled.
LIVELIHOOD. One of Dennis' children, who is in high school, helps her parents earn a living through pandan mat weaving. In Culion town, families earn at least P5,000 a month. Photo by Keith Anthony Fabro/Rappler

‘Not aware’ of law

In a span of months during that “peak season,” Dennis was able to gather around 20 pangolins, with the largest weighing 6 kilos.

“They returned here 5 times,” Dennis said. The hunting didn’t last, though. He heard that pangolin smugglers in southern Palawan – long been identified as an exit point for wildlife smuggling – had been apprehended.

“Since then, I didn’t receive messages from them,” Dennis said, assuming those were the same men who bought pangolins from him.

He admitted being afraid of getting caught too. Under the Philippines’ Wildlife Resources Protection and Conservation Act, people who are caught collecting, hunting, or possessing critically endangered wildlife, their by-products, and derivatives may be imprisoned for two to 4 years and fined from P30,000 to P300,000. For killing and destroying of wildlife under the said classification, those convicted will serve 6 to 12 years of jail time, and pay a fine ranging from P100,000 to P1,000,000. 

Did he continue the job? “Of course, no,” Dennis replied quickly. “Really?” we asked him. “Yes,” he insisted. But he lied once when he was first asked about his involvement in pangolin poaching. What’s clear is Dennis is known in their village, where pangolin-poaching is an open secret. 

“Here, residents who engaged in balikon gathering could be counted on the fingers of one hand,” said Halsey barangay captain Victor Mariano, who described Dennis as a “diligent” hunter. 

“Just last year, late in the evening I chanced upon them (hunters) in the fields when I was driving [on] my way home from Barangay Burabud.” He identified Dennis as one of them. 

Back then, longtime barangay captain Mariano claimed, he was “not aware” that capturing pangolins is a criminal offense under the Philippine Wildlife Act. 

“Unlike other wildlife, pangolins don’t get featured in television news,” he said. Had he known earlier of its critically endangered status, he would have informed his constituents right away.

The barangay chairman said he didn’t think pangolin-hunting is prohibited since they often see this animal in his village. Besides, he said “job opportunities on the island were very limited, and pangolins command good prices” that can help poor families like Dennis’.

So when middlemen from nearby barangays asked him where to buy pangolins, “I pointed them to hunters,” including Dennis. “It was only recently this year when I was informed that pangolin-hunting is illegal, so I told them to stop hunting it,” the village chief added. 

Balancing act

In Halsey’s neighboring barangay, Burabod, pangolin-hunting isn’t also new to village officials. Barangay chairman Marcelito Chavez told Rappler that the veteran hunter he knew who had been supplying middlemen died recently. 

Chavez heard that a live adult pangolin is bought for P3,000 by local buyers from another barangay, Malaking Patag. That’s double the buying price in Halsey. “If hunters can catch 3 pangolins a night, they can effortlessly earn P9,000,” he assumed. 

On both ends of the veranda of Chavez’s two-story house, two taxidermied pangolins were on display, as if to greet visitors. The preserved wildlife were coated with varnish.

“He made these sometime in 2004,” Chavez was quick to point out, referring to the deceased hunter. The village chief observed that before it had been subjected to international trade, pangolins were in high demand locally because they were taxidermied and sold as house decor.

Besides the bonnet-wearing men his barangay tanods encountered during the last pangolin hunting season, Chavez said some villagers still hunt for pangolins for subsistence.

“It’s (pangolin meat) delicious. Do you want someone to catch it for you?” he asked in jest, then laughed, while chopping bamboo shoots for lunch. He handed over the knife to his son who continued the task and went inside his house to put on a shirt.

Why didn’t he hold them liable? His face turned serious. Sitting on a plastic chair, he wore his corrective glasses and crossed his legs.

“It’s difficult when you’re living in a small community where you know each other,” said Chavez, who’s been a barangay chief for two terms or nearly 6 years now. Before he was elected to that post, he first served as a barangay councilor for many years.

‘If you report them to authorities and they belong to a big family, expect [that] you can’t have their votes come elections.’

Playing safe, the Burabod captain opined that barangay officials are there only to mediate on issues involving their constituents. “What we do is to just balance the situation. If they are caught for hunting pangolins by enforcement authorities, I will tell them they’ve already been warned during barangay assemblies that it’s prohibited,” he added.

Barangay officials like Mariano and Chavez have found themselves doing a balancing act, trying to save the species and keeping their posts. And as the Palawan pangolin inches its way to extinction, no hunter has been caught so far in Halsey and Burabod, perhaps among the species’ strongholds in the province.

The Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG), meanwhile, said public officials should forget about the votes they would lose in implementing the wildlife law at the local level to avoid getting sanctioned for negligence and derelicton of duty.

“That reason is very weak considering they already know their mandate,” Daniel Florida III, DILG service team leader for Calamianes, told Rappler. 

In the Philippines, public officials found committing an administrative offense for their negligence in not enforcing provisions of the wildlife law could be suspended or even dismissed from service, depending on the gravity of their offense as determined by the court.

READ: Part 2: Philippine gov’t finds stopping pangolin trade challenging

This series is part of The Pangolin Reports, a news initiative by the Global Environmental Reporting Collective to investigate the illegal wildlife trade of pangolins across Asia, Africa and Europe.

*Name was changed for anonymity

TOP PHOTO: THE HUNT. At night time, hunters in Culion, Palawan, move through this vast expanse of grassland with their dogs in hopes of spotting nocturnal pangolins, which they sell to buyers visiting their village. Photo by Keith Anthony Fabro/Rappler 

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