Pango-Cam offers amazing and unique view of pangolin behavior

Widely sought for its scales and flesh, which are channeled into the illegal trade to buyers in Asia, pangolins are said to be the world’s most trafficked animal. They face an uncertain future despite a complete ban on trade in any of the eight pangolin species, agreed to in 2017 under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

Also known as scaly anteaters, pangolins are unique mammals covered in hard scales made of keratin. Predominantly nocturnal and elusive, these secretive mammals remain understudied and poorly understood.

Two things that can turn the tide for these creatures are further study and greater awareness of their plight, so filmmaker Katie Schuler teamed up with pangolin researcher Matthew Shirley of the Tropical Conservation Institute at Florida International University to create a new way to observe their behavior: the Pango-Cam. A camera attached temporarily to a pangolin’s back to provide first-of-its-kind footage, Pango-Cam clips are featured in Schuler’s new film being screened at Jackson Wild, a conservation event in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, from Sept. 21-27, where she will also be speaking.

In partnership with NGS Exploration Technology Lab and Crittercam engineer Kyler Abernathy, Matt and I (along with advice from expert wildlife filmmaker John Benam) took to designing the world’s first Pango-Cam. In order for the camera to mount properly without undue stress on the animal or inhibiting normal day-to-day behavior, it had to be lightweight (under 100 grams [3.5 ounces] for a black-bellied pangolin), and streamlined along the body.

The attachment needed to remain flexible to accommodate one of the pangolin’s best-known behaviors, its ability to roll into a ball. And the camera needed to be oriented so we could see over the top of the animal’s head to get that “first pangolin” (first person) perspective. It also had to be waterproof, should it rain or in case the pangolin decided to swim across the river! I didn’t realize pangolins could swim but Matt and his team have evidence from their tracking data.

One more expensive but necessary modification was to mount a very small VHF radio transmitter directly on the camera in a scenario where the camera became dislodged from the animal. We had to make sure this transmitter had its own unique radio frequency so it did not interfere with the other tagged pangolins in the area.

To solve these challenges, we took a modified spy camera, cemented it in a water-tight housing, and added a “T” of straps to maintain the position on the body. Matt and other researchers have had success attaching radio transmitters to the scales, which are made of keratin just like our fingernails. Similar to when we trim our fingernails, a pangolin won’t feel pain by having something attached to his scales. Finally, we modified it to accommodate a larger battery so that we could program a longer record time: 24-hours of raw animal behavior.

Finally, we’d have a glimpse into “a day-in-the-life-of” a pangolin. I was privileged to follow Dr. Matt Shirley and his Ivorian Ph.D. student, Mathieu Assovi, during their fieldwork in Côte d’Ivoire. With the permission of the village chief, they gained access to a remote swamp forest using inflatable kayaks to navigate the river. They set out to find, tag, and collect data on black-bellied pangolins with the help of a former pangolin hunter turned research assistant and conservationist — Konan Kouassi — who later would end up being one of the main characters in my film.

Konan possessed what I can only describe as a “super-power” for finding pangolins. Not too many months earlier, he was known by locals as the “Master Pangolin Hunter.” If a pangolin was hiding in a nearby tree, he can make out the subtle difference in the sound it made from a bird or a squirrel. If the pangolin was feeding, Konan could smell the formic acid produced by the ants. In Konan’s interview, he boasts that when he went out to catch pangolins, he would come back with 4 or 5 in one day, more than he could eat. But through his work with Matt’s team, he now says that his God-given superpower was meant for a different purpose: conservation.

Read the full article and interview with Katie Schuler on Mongabay