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In the pangolin’s absence

In the pangolin’s absence

Tessa R. Salazar

“Will I see a Pangolin there?”

This was the first question I asked the person at the other line. The answer I got was not so optimistic. Pangolins, or “balintong” as they’re called by native Palawenos, had become a rare sight even in their natural habitat in Palawan. The pangolin, anteaters that have large, protective keratin scales similar in material to our fingernails and toenails covering their entire skin, are the only known mammals that have this feature.

Unfortunately, their uniqueness has made them an obvious target for poachers, who sell them in bulk to traditional medicine peddlers who claim that pangolin scales and skin heal certain ailments. Pangolins, in fact, are the most trafficked mammals in the world. Adding to that, pangolins are also vulnerable to deforestation.

Despite the slim odds of seeing a balintong in the flesh, I still opted to go for the long drive from Puerto Princesa City to Narra town, nearly 100km away.

I was at Puerto Princesa City a day ahead of the Feb. 16 World Pangolin Day celebration at the town of Roxas. I was scheduled to join a group led by Mazda Philippines to document the turnover of a brand-new Mazda BT-50 Pangolin Edition II pick-up to Katala Foundation Inc (KFI), a conservation group that documents and protects the provinces’ critically endangered endemic wildlife species, including the pangolin. KFI’s director and co-founder, German biologist Sabine Schoppe, has dedicated nearly three decades for nature conservation and awareness campaigns for endangered species.

The author (seated left), together with the staff, at the Katala Institute

I flew in a day ahead so I could touch base with former Inquirer news reporter Andrea H. Trinidad who now owns and runs Wanderlust Bed & Breakfast, just a kilometer away from the Puerto Princesa International Airport.

Andrea’s B&B was wonderful. The rooms were clean, and the staff were helpful and cheerful. Best of all, they were able to prepare a vegan breakfast for me. I had my coffee and lengthy chat with Andrea. Afterwards, I called the Katala Institute in Narra if I could visit and perhaps chance upon a rescued pangolin. The institute serves as a center for conservation, research and education that focuses on highly threatened species in the Palawan biogeographical subregion.

Despite being told that I would likely not find a pangolin that day, I told them that I would still proceed to the institute. I rented a small SUV and drove for around 90 minutes, traffic-free, on well-paved roads and scenic passes, appreciating the relatively untouched beauty of the province.

Upon my arrival at the institute, I was met by its young and jolly staff: education coordinator Anna Rose L. Agullo; turtle and pangolin keeper Kimberly Rose Barlas; main keeper Angeles G. Satioquia; landscaper Zaldy L. Guion; field officer Mark G. Quinit, and; assistant landscaper Johndy Mark Gullos.

They brought me to a temporary enclosure for pangolins. The enclosure had a single tree at the center for rescued pangolins to climb on. Rescued pangolins are brought here to be nursed back to health before being released back into the wild. Released pangolins are attached with a telemetry device on their backs, so the team could monitor and track their movement and location. On my visit, there was no rescued pangolin for me to see.

Nevertheless, my brief visit wasn’t for nothing. I saw an Asian leaf turtle. This turtle has marginal scales, and it has patterns that look like a leaf. I also saw a Southeast Asian box turtle, two porcupines (who were up that time even if they were known nocturnal creatures). There were cockatoos in their own enclosures.

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The group told me that Philippine cockatoos have also been threatened due to poaching and habitat destruction. In 2021, typhoon Odette damaged the nest trees of Palawan hornbills, and this has become one of the more daunting challenges for conservationists.

“We educate the students and visitors in the conservation of plants and animals, but they can also be educators by sharing what they have learned from our activities,” said Anna Rose.

The team showed me the area’s natural wetlands, which may dry out almost completely between December and May and are flood prone for the rest of the year. Artificial wetlands were also created to buffer the extreme fluctuations of the water regime in the area.

The group also told me that aquatic animals have adapted to seasonal changes in their habitats. Wandering Whistling Ducks are far ranging in search of open water bodies. They can only be observed in the area during the rainy season.

These conservationists essentially laid out before me an ecosystem that has been at play long before human beings came into existence. And now we Johnnies-come-lately have come in quite rudely and are tipping the natural balance off kilter, with our unquenchable thirst to acquire more territory than we need to transform it to our liking, with our baseless and unscientific beliefs in medicine that harm more than heal, and with our tendency to be a greedy, selfish species.

My drive back to Wanderlust was the same distance, but it felt so much longer.