Members of the Palawan Pangolin Conservation program pose with three trainee "aspins." // Photo courtesy of the Palawan Pangolin Conservation Program

Researchers at the Palawan Pangolin Conservation Program have discovered that “aspins,” or mongrel dogs, can detect pangolins in their natural habitat just as well as hunting dogs, which may aid in the conservation of the critically endangered Palawan pangolin (Manis culionensis).

The program, an initiative of local conservation group Katala Foundation, Inc. (KFI), is currently training three aspins as part of their 25-year multi-stakeholder Palawan Pangolin Conservation Strategy.

During a webinar on Thursday (February 18) hosted by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) under its Sustainable Interventions for Biodiversity, Oceans, and Landscapes (SIBOL) project, Dr. Sabine Schoppe, director of Palawan Pangolin Conservation Program, explained that the idea came about when they discovered that pangolin poachers’ most effective detection tools are hunting dogs.

Dr. Sabine Schoppe explains findings from a study on how local hunters detect pangolins. // Photo screenshot from Zoom webinar 

She added that her team decided to train aspins because hunter dogs tended to attack their targeted prey.

“This option is not available in the long run because the hunter dogs go for their instincts of killing their prey. We decided if aspin[s], our very local dogs, can be trained as detection dogs. We are still in the training phase but I’m happy to share with you that in fact, aspins can be trained to search for a target scent, which is in this case, the pangolin,” Schoppe said in her presentation.

Schoppe’s team of researchers discovered the use of hunting dogs during a study done in 2012, which consisted of interviewing pangolin hunters in the different municipalities in Palawan.

“We interviewed full-time or sideline hunters or even farmers who have access to pangolins on their knowledge of the distribution, trends, ecology, and most especially, hunting methods. Based on that learning, we came up with a method that involved the systematic search of 200-hectare areas during the day and during the night with dogs,” she added. Their research with Palawan locals also aided in their methods to finding Palawan pangolins in the wild, which are difficult to detect without proper knowledge and tools.

Schoppe also presented the Palawan Pangolin Conservation Strategy, a 25-year program that coordinates with the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development (PCSD), the IUCN SSC Pangolin Specialist Group, KFI, and the Zoological Society of London (ZSL). The program involves strengthening pangolin research in Palawan, providing alternative livelihood options to communities to prevent poaching, and to strengthen law enforcement measures to aid conservation.

Palawan pangolins still face threat of extinction due to high demand for their meat and scales. During the webinar, Dr. Emerson Sy of conservation network TRAFFIC also presented their findings on the global demand that is fueling local poaching in Palawan.