animal welfare

Trafficking for traditional medicine threatens the Philippine porcupine

Keith Anthony Fabro
Trafficking for traditional medicine threatens the Philippine porcupine

PALAWAN PORCUPINE. Though Philippine porcupines are relatively nocturnal, wildlife cameras in Palawan's Victoria-Anepahan Mountain Range have captured some porcupine activity in the early mornings.

Katala Foundation

Bezoars are believed to have curative properties for diseases ranging from epilepsy to cancer, and experts say rising demand for bezoars threatens to make porcupines 'the next pangolins'

In the rapidly shrinking lowland forests of Palawan Island, the Philippine porcupine (Hystrix pumila) can be found under tree buttresses, foraging for fallen root crops and fruits. Endemic to Palawan and neighboring islands, Philippine porcupines can grow up to (66.5 centimeter or 26.18 inches) long, and are mostly nocturnal and solitary animals.

Inside the digestive tracts of these quilled creatures, some of these plant materials remain undigested, forming what is called a bezoar. These stone-shaped aggregations are medically benign for porcupines, but conservationists say they could be one of the factors most imperiling Philippine porcupines and other porcupine species globally.

Porcupine bezoars are believed to have curative properties in traditional Chinese medicine, although no scientific evidence proves their efficacy. The diseases bezoars are said to treat include diabetes, dengue fever, typhoid, epilepsy, and hepatitis. More recently, bezoars have been touted as having cancer-curing properties. They are either sold in their whole stone-shaped form, in powdered form, or as part of formulations in traditional medicine.

“There are signs that they may be the ‘next pangolin’ of the illegal wildlife trade due to a rising popularity of bezoars in the market,” said Indira Lacerna-Widmann, chief of the Palawan-based nonprofit conservation group Katala Foundation Inc. Pangolins, whose scales are sought on the black market, are believed to be the world’s most widely trafficked mammals.

Wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC also recognizes the international trade in porcupine as an emerging problem.

“There are indications that porcupines are being heavily harvested for trade for various reasons,” TRAFFIC spokesperson Elizabeth John told Mongabay.

“Not every porcupine produces bezoar and poachers could be culling many in order to find one, raising questions about the volume being taken out of the wild,” John said.

The extent of the trade remains unclear. What’s certain, TRAFFIC said, is that many species are not protected under law and can be harvested in countries where they occur. Additionally, there is plenty of local demand in Southeast Asia for porcupines and their bezoars, and these animals are farmed in some Southeast Asian countries.

“We need a better understanding of the scale of this trade, stricter regulation and closer monitoring. Without these in place now, we could have an undetected or escalating problem and action could come too late for less iconic or ‘watched’ species like the porcupine,” John said.

Records show five Philippine porcupines were seized from the illegal trade between 2010 and 2019. But there were no publicly available records of bezoar seizures, highlighting that a lot more needs to be done to get a grasp of the scale of the trade and level of demand for this threatened species in the Philippines.

“Authorities have to start looking into this, especially on online trade platforms and social media where more and more of the illegal wildlife trade is taking place. This is a species whose trade flies under the radar so enforcement should also be on the lookout specifically for porcupine bezoars,” John said.

Porcupines are also hunted and traded for other reasons. “The meat is traditionally consumed in many communities, live animals are traded as pets or zoo display animals, and the animal’s quills are also traded for decorative purposes,” John said.

Katala Foundation
FILED WORK. A Katala Foundation field team at work in Palawan’s Victoria-Anepahan Mountain Range.
Katala Foundation
Vanishing habitat

There is no official estimate for the Philippine porcupine’s population, though the Katala Foundation is working with local authorities to conduct a survey through funding from the ICTSI Foundation, Inc. Since 2006, the species’ conservation status has been classified by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as vulnerable.

In addition to wildlife trafficking, scientists are wary that Philippine porcupines are threatened due to the rapid loss of their habitat. Philippine government data show Palawan is losing about 8 hectares (20 acres) of forests per day, or an area the size of about 15 football fields.

The Palawan Council for Sustainable Development (PCSD), a government agency, is considering loosening restrictions on development projects in areas of Palawan that are currently classified as part of its “environmentally critical areas network” or ECAN. This is expected to particularly affect the island’s remaining lowland forests, which could have severe impacts on porcupines.

“Porcupines inhabit the lowland forests of Palawan, one of the most vulnerable habitats that are affected by anthropogenic activities,” said Widmann. She said authorities must strictly implement the law to avert forest degradation and save this species.

PCSD Executive Director Teodoro Matta counters that the move to amend the guidelines for implementing such zoning strategy “would bring a more robust strategy to manage wildlife flora and fauna and their habitats.”

“The implementation of the amended ECAN guidelines will advance the effort of the agency and will make research and wildlife enforcement efficient, improving our response against the threats of wildlife trafficking and environmental problems,” Matta told Mongabay.

TRACKING. The Katala Foundation, in collaboration with local authorities, installs camera traps to track porcupines and other wildlife.
Katala Foundation

The Katala Foundation is working with the PCSD on a study to determine the ecology, biology, and distribution of this endemic porcupine, locally known as durian in honor of the spiny, smelly fruitThe study, which would rely largely on gathering information via camera traps, aims to formulate appropriate conservation strategies, including the introduction of a wildlife warden and a patrolling scheme aimed at reducing habitat conversion and timber and wildlife poaching.

Other mechanisms include addressing the presence of porcupines in agricultural areas, an indicator of the species’ vanishing habitat. Farmers view the porcupines as pests and kill them, putting further pressure on their wild populations.

“Porcupines foraging in their plantations should not be persecuted as they are just finding ways to survive. They have moved into our agricultural lands due to their habitat in the forest being degraded so we should not blame them for this,” Widmann said.

Porcupines also play a role in maintaining the integrity and richness of the ecosystems they inhabit. “As they forage for food, their diggings increase the fertility of the soil, thus improving soil biodiversity,” said Theresa Mundita Lim, executive director of the ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity.

“Soil biodiversity is important in the cycling of nutrients, which is crucial for plant growth; building resistance to erosion; and controlling pests and diseases, among others. For these reasons, porcupines are called ecosystem engineers,” said Lim, former director of biodiversity management at the Philippine Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR).

Philippine porcupines also disperse seeds of fruits they have eaten, helping the forests regenerate, Widmann said. The holes they dig, if abandoned, could also serve as shelters or nests for other animals.

RESCUED. A rescued Philippine or Palawan Porcupine at the Katala Institute.
P.Widmann/Katala Foundation
Ways forward

Internationally, there are programs such as the ASEAN Heritage Parks and Green Initiatives that aim to restore habitats and create green corridors in urban areas while protecting porcupines and other wildlife from trafficking.

Lim said the Philippines and other member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are committed to curbing the global issue of trafficking of wild animals; all 10 countries in the bloc are parties to CITES, the global wildlife trade convention.

“With greater attention on international wildlife trade and its links to public health since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen renewed interest to step up actions against international wildlife trade,” Lim said, noting that ASEAN countries have improved laws and enforcement measures against the illicit activity.

Wildlife crime prevention expert Edward Lorenzo said what the Philippine authorities can do now is to thwart porcupine traffickers before the trade gets too big. “We have to stop being reactive, and start being proactive,” said Lorenzo, a policy and governance adviser to the nonprofit Conservational International Philippines.

The US Embassy in the Philippines recently launched a P24-million ($476,000) “environmental justice” program to strengthen the institutional capacity of the PCSD and its national law enforcement partners to combat and prevent wildlife trafficking and other environmental crimes in Palawan.

Matta said the intervention primarily assists in the operationalization of the interagency and multisectoral Palawan Environmental Enforcement Network, particularly in the establishment of its command center and development of operating manuals.

At the national level, the DENR has proposed amending the current Philippine wildlife law to impose stiffer penalties of up to 20 years in jail and P2 million ($39,660) in fines for violation. With the country’s illicit wildlife trade valued at P50 billion (nearly $1 billion) annually, the proposal also seeks to classify “wildlife trafficking,” “wildlife laundering,” and “organized syndicate crime” as separate offenses.

Lorenzo said the approach to wildlife crimes in the Philippines needs “a big rethink.”

“We have to stop looking at arresting a poacher as a success. It’s like you’re hitting the small guy. It’s a win but it doesn’t stop it (wildlife crime) long term,” he said. “We need to hit the upper echelon of the syndicate – whoever is responsible for financing the poaching, the consolidation, the transport across borders.” – Rappler.com

Citations: Yew, P. M., Lee, W. L., & Lim, Y. Y. (2017). Antioxidant and intracellular reactive oxygen species/reactive nitrogen species scavenging activities of three porcupine bezoars from Hystrix brachyura. Pharmacognosy Research, 9(4), 366-371. doi:10.4103/pr.pr_145_16

Khan, A. Y. F., Ahmed, Q. U., Narayanamurthy, V., Razali, S., Asuhaimi, F. A., Saleh, M. S. M., … Wahab, R. A. (2019). Anticancer activity of grassy Hystrix brachyura bezoar and its mechanisms of action: An in vitro and in vivo based study. Biomedicine & Pharmacotherapy, 114, 108841. doi:10.1016/j.biopha.2019.108841

Heinrich, S., Toomes, A., & Gomez, L. (2020). Valuable stones: The trade in porcupine bezoars. Global Ecology and Conservation, 24, e01204. doi:10.1016/j.gecco.2020.e01204

Brooks, E. G. E., Roberton, S. I., & Bell, D. J. (2010). The conservation impact of commercial wildlife farming of porcupines in Vietnam. Biological Conservation, 143(11), 2808-2814. doi:10.1016/j.bioc

This story originally appeared on Mongabay.com on July 28, 2021.