Wayfinding: In the Philippines, Local Knowledge Makes a Global Impact
The shy, nocturnal pangolin — an animal that looks like a cross between an anteater and an artichoke — is hard to forget if you happen to see one. That’s what researchers from the United Kingdom and Philippines relied on when they sought out 1,296 residents of the Province of Palawan to describe their interactions with the critically endangered Philippine pangolins (Manis culionensis). Researcher Lucy Archer of the Zoological Society of London joined with the Philippines-based research team of Charity Apale, Darlyn Corona, Josefa Gacilos, and Ronald Amada to conduct interviews across the Palawan province in several languages, greatly enhancing their understanding of pangolin habitat and its interactions with human settlements.
Traditional wildlife surveys can take significant amounts of time and are relatively expensive to perform at large spatial scales. In addition, they are often unreliable for rare, nocturnal, and semi-arboreal species that are difficult to detect, like the Philippine pangolin. So, Archer and her collaborators turned to people living throughout the historical range of the species for information. By recording when and where people had last seen a Philippine pangolin, and whether they thought populations were increasing or decreasing in size, the group was able to establish important baseline information about the geographic distribution and status of pangolin populations. At the same time, and just as importantly, this approach yielded an understanding of differences in threats to pangolins across local geographies, and in attitudes of local residents about engaging in conservation.
“Aside from providing us with much clearer perspective on where pangolins still exist, the people we interviewed also expressed their willingness to conserve the species,” says project manage Charity Apale. “This gives us hope, knowing that the local people in Palawan show inclination towards conserving and protecting the Critically Endangered Philippine pangolin.”
Archer agrees. “Local people living throughout Palawan province have provided us with a much clearer perspective on where pangolins still occur, and the differences in pangolin status throughout their geographic range,” she says. “With 87 percent of respondents able to recognize and provide further information on pangolins, we believe local people are well placed to help guide and co-develop conservation efforts for the species.”
Unfortunately, this work is urgently needed. The Philippine pangolin is one of eight extant pangolin species worldwide, all of which have been placed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, are hunted for meat, and are covered in scales that are trafficked for traditional medicines. Beyond the direct threats posed by trapping and hunting, palm oil plantations are supplanting pangolin habitats at a rapid rate, and climate change poses a diverse set of indirect threats to populations.
Despite the challenges faced by Philippine pangolin populations, Archer and her collaborators are optimistic that their study results will enable conservation action. People living throughout Palawan have provided them with a much clearer perspective on where pangolins occur and on differences in local perceptions of pangolins throughout their geographic range. Both kinds of geographic information will be essential as conservation efforts for pangolins continue to take shape.
Archer, L. J., Papworth, S. K., Apale, C. M., Corona, D. B., Gacilos, J. T., Amada, R. L., Waterman, C., & Turvey, S. T. (2020). Scaling up local ecological knowledge to prioritise areas for protection: Determining Philippine pangolin distribution, status and threats. Global Ecology and Conservation, 24, e01395.