June 19, 2024

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

By Jack Bojan
11th February 2022

Imagine a creature that is both hairy like a mammal and scaly like a fish, can roll into a ball like a woodlouse and has a tongue as long as a chameleon’s. This is not a creature of fantasy or Greek mythology but rather artistically describes the pangolin. Pangolins are mammals with a scaly set of armour made from keratin and are found on the continents of Africa and Asia. They are insectivores and primarily feed on ants and termites, using their powerful front claws and long sticky tongue (which is often longer than their bodies!).

Pangolins are undoubtedly incredibly unique and enigmatic animals. However, they are also a species which is under serious threat; pangolins are the most heavily trafficked mammal globally, with pangolin products even more sought after than that of species such as elephants, tigers, and rhinos.

Now, where do I come into this? My name is Jack, and I am a current MSc student at Imperial College London. I was born and raised in Hong Kong and during my undergraduate degree in Zoology at Leeds, I undertook a placement year which brought me back home and into a laboratory at the University of Hong Kong: the Conservation Forensics laboratory.

Conservation or wildlife forensics is a recently emerged branch of science which aims to use lab-based techniques such as those used in forensic science and apply them to help combat the illegal wildlife trade as well as other conservation issues. Perhaps you could think of it as the silent witness of the wildlife world – but without the theme music.

Whilst conservation is something which has always interested me, an in-depth study of pangolins is not what I had planned for my industrial placement year. I initially began the year by helping with several other projects, such as using genetic sequencing to identify patterns in the illegal trade of helmeted hornbills (Rhinoplax vigil) and studying the invasive population of yellow-crested cockatoos (Cacatua sulphurea) which call the parks of Hong Kong their home. However, when it was time to start on my own research project, my supervisor, Dr Caroline Dingle, suggested an intriguing project with this under-researched mammal and I leapt at the chance.

Pangolins can be trafficked for their meat but in 99% of instances, they are trafficked for their scales. Pangolin scales are used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat a range of ailments (without any peer-reviewed evidence to suggest that this is effective). This high demand is threatening all 8 extant species of pangolin and pushing them to the brink of extinction. Hong Kong is a major transit destination of illegal wildlife products heading into China; just six months before I started working at the lab, the Hong Kong authorities conducted one of the largest ever seizures of pangolin scales – a whopping 9-tonnes of scales! Due to cooperation between the University of Hong Kong and the Hong Kong government, I was able to gain access to samples of scales from the seizures.

Using the scale samples, I implemented a relatively new technique in the world of conservation forensics called stable isotope analysis. Elements such as carbon and nitrogen come in different isotopic forms (the same elements but with differing numbers of neutrons) and through analysis of such isotope ratios found in the scales, I was able to infer information concerning the species, diet, and location of these pangolins.

This technique has previously been very successful when studying elephant ivory; myself and the lab were some of the first to apply this technique to pangolin scales! With this information, we hope to help preserve the existing pangolin populations and make it easier for authorities to gather information from seizures which could lead to convictions of the poachers and traffickers.

I would really like people to take away a few key points from this article. Firstly, an increased awareness of the illegal wildlife trade of pangolins and hopefully the inspiration to investigate this area of science further. Secondly, if you would like to hear any more about my research, please reach out to me with my student email, jack.bojan21@imperial.ac.uk. I could not include specific detail in this article due to a significant amount of data still being in review. Finally, when entering the world of research, you may have a dream topic or species but do not let this limit you – take as many of the chances you are offered as possible. You never know where they may lead!

Jack Bojan is a contributing writer for I, Science. With a degree in Zoology from the University of Leeds and a background in conservation research, he is now undertaking an MSc in Science Communication here at Imperial College London. He hopes to enter the world of wildlife media and one-day present nature documentaries on the big screen.