Landscape ecology and behavioural responses of the Sunda pangolin (Manis javanica) to habitat fragmentation and degradation in Sabah, Malaysia


PhD Researcher: Elisa Panjang

Supervisors: Benoit Goossens and Rob Thomas

Institution: Cardiff University

Sponsor: Houston Zoo Inc., USA.

Status: Completed (January 2016 – December 2023)


In Sabah, the Sunda pangolin (also known as a scaly anteater) is reported to be relatively widely distributed (Payne & Francis, 1985). However, until now, there are no detailed studies on population levels, ecology, or life history, which are crucial for the conservation and protection of the species.

The Sunda pangolin has been long facing serious threats from habitat destruction, due to habitat conversion and degradation in Borneo (Sodhi et al., 2004). Illegal hunting and wildlife trade are closely related to habitat destruction; for example, logging roads provide better access to forested areas (Sodhi et al., 2004; WWF, 2005). In addition, this species is threatened with extinction due to high levels of hunting and poaching for illicit international trade, mainly for its meat and scales (Challender et al., 2014).


  1. To identify habitat suitability and ecological niches for Sunda pangolin;
  2. To determine the species’ home range; and
  3. To determine the movements of the Sunda pangolin in a fragmented and degraded landscape in Sabah.


Using a multidisciplinary approach to collect ecological information on the Sunda pangolin, including:

  1. Sign spotting: for an elusive and nocturnal animal such as the pangolin, it is almost impossible to find individuals, but signs of their presence can be observed. The technique was conducted during the day to find indirect signs of pangolins like opened termite nests, bark scratches, underground burrows, footprints, faeces or scales. The sign spotting was carried out along trails, noting any signs of pangolin evidence.
  2. Spotlighting: used for nocturnal animals to try and locate them during periods of activity. It is conducted by spotting eye shine by torch lights. Other direct signs like rustling noises and smells were also observed. This technique was conducted during the night from 2200-0300 hours. Transects for spotlighting defined by time (between four to six hours) at a very slow pace, around 500 m/hour, were performed by two to three persons.
  3. Camera trapping: To establish the presence/absence and activity patterns, camera traps with an infrared triggering system technology (RECONYX brand) were set up. All cameras will be operated 24 hours a day. The functionality of camera traps was checked every month. GPS recorded all set up points. The canopy coverage was also captured using a digital camera and calculated.
  4. Satellite telemetry: a small tagging device unit will be attached to a scale of the hind leg of a pangolin instead of using a radio collar. This is because a pangolin usually rolls into a ball when sleeping/resting and is a burrowing animal.
Sunda pangolin ©DGFC

Once captured, the pangolins were sedated to collect blood, hair and scale samples. The satellite-tagged pangolins were measured, weighed, photographed, and their health checked. The animals were released back to their capture site and closely observed for any adverse effects. After release, tracking was conducted to collect behavioural observations. Satellite data provided activity patterns, habitat use, home range, and dispersal distance information.

  1. Community survey: interviews were conducted with respondents from the local communities who might be possible hunters, traders and consumers. The interviews were conducted as formal conversations by using a structured questionnaire adapted from pangolin surveys carried out by TRAFFIC (Chin & Pantel, 2009). These interviews provided insights into pangolin ecology, trapping techniques, and hunting activities in Sabah.

Upon completion of the study, the findings were written up for scientific publication, and reports were applied to the conservation of the Sunda pangolin in Asia, particularly in Sabah. The study’s results were used to help understand the needs of the Sunda pangolin in Sabah and work towards long-term conservation actions for the species. The research is also used as an educational tool to increase awareness among local communities (including potential hunters, traders, and consumers) and plantation managers and workers on the status of endangered wildlife and the legal consequences of possession and consumption of the species.

The results of this research were included in the Sunda Pangolin State Action Plan.

Speaking about pangolins to the public at the RoR event ©DGFC