One of the most wonderful thrills I've had in Taiwan was walking down to my car one evening from the university when a Formosan Flying Squirrel suddenly floated out of the forest, glided across the road, and then vanished into the trees on the other side. But flying squirrels are not the only unusual mammal Taiwan sports. I was banging around Google Scholar the other day looking for stuff when I stumbled across this final report of the Formosan Pangolin Population and Habitat Viability Assessment. What's a pangolin? Here's an old description from the 1930s....
The Pangolin is not an Armadillo though both, together with Sloths, Ant-eaters, and Ant-bears, belong to the same order. Armadillos are confined to the New World whereas Pangolins are only found in the Old World....
...Chinese species the claws on the fore feet are twice the length of those on the hind feet. The small external ears, the small eyes and the long claws on the fore feet are clearly shown in the photographs on plates 6 and 7. A few other curious features of this most primitive animal might be mentioned. The overlapping scales are formed from hairs glued together, (there are no dermal plates such as underlie the horny scales of the Armadillo,) very much in the same manner as the horn of the Rhinoceros which has no bony core. The adult Pangolin has ho teeth, in consequence it cannot bite or eat hard food, and it has a long extensile tongue which can be protruded for a considerable distance through its small tube-like mouth. The tail is very powerful and to a considerable extent the tip is prehensile; the photographs at the bottom of plate 7, illustrate the tail and shew that the easiest way in which to lift the animal is by this organ. The tail is covered above and below by overlapping scales and may be used for protection for the creature can roll up into a ball covering its face with its tail.
Pangolins (Manis pentadactyla pentadactyla), also known as scaly anteaters, used to be quite common on the island, but like many of the island's animals, they were hunted for their unusual features -- in this case, the scales, and their meat. The picture at left, which I borrowed from TravelTaiwan.com, shows a pangolin from the island. According to the Report, pangolins used to be common here until the beginning of the 20th century, but now sightings are rare. The Report observed:
Little else is known regarding pangolin biology or the status of wild pangolin populations in Taiwan. There is little collaboration among researchers studying Formosan pangolins and no comprehensive management strategy for the species. The Taipei Zoo has cared for many injured or displaced pangolins that have been rescued, and its staff has accumulated some knowledge of pangolin husbandry, but this information has not been widely disseminated. For these reasons, the Taipei Zoo, the Taiwan Forestry Research Institute (TFRI) and the IUCN/SSC Pangolin Specialist Group (PSG) approached the Taiwan Council of Agriculture regarding the need for a population viability assessment and development of a conservation management strategy for the Formosan pangolin.
Pangolin populations are also suffering from decimation of their habitats, like many other Formosan animals. They are threatened by any kind of clearing or construction activity, from road construction to cemeteries. Taiwan's insane land use laws, passed to help the construction and concrete industries, encourage not only overbuilding, but also building on the slope areas where pangolins live. Another issue is the government's habit of concretizing stream beds, which prevents forest animals from accessing them. Because pangolins live at altitudes below 1000m, they are also threatened by feral dogs that humans bring with them into these regions, and the development of orchards, betel nut, and bamboo plantations.
Pangolins are also threatened by smuggling. Although hunting pangolins is illegal, they are still regularly poached in Taiwan. Prior to the termination of legal shipments roughly 1000 skins a month were shipped off the island -- insignificant compared to the CITES indexing of 185,000 pangolin skins traded worldwide between 1980 and 1985 (source). Smuggling also threatens them in another way: pangolins smuggled in as exotic pets are sometimes released on the island, leading to hybridization. This is a common problem wherever exotic pets are smuggled. The World Wildlife Federation notes of pangolin smuggling:
Two out of three Asian species of pangolin are found in Southeast Asia — the Malayan pangolin (Manis javanica) and the Chinese pangolin (Manis pentadactyla). Although these species are some of the most observably traded animals in the region, they are often overshadowed by “poster” species such as elephants or tigers.
Today the Taiwan Forestry Research Institute has a project to tag pangolins in order to track their movements and better understand the habits of this secretive mammal. At present the animal is still distributed throughout most of its original range, according to the Institute, but its numbers have been drastically reduced. Researchers believe that it reproduces only very slowly. Hopefully a way can be found to save this unique animal from the many threats it faces.