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UMD Conservation Criminologist to Study Plight of World’s Most-Trafficked Mammal

‘Operation Pangolin’ Research Team Aims to Protect Wildlife Threatened by Illicit Human Behavior

By Maryland Today Staff


A pangolin, also known as a scaly anteater, looks for its meal. A multi-institutional team including a UMD geographical sciences researcher will study the illegal trafficking of various species of pangolins in Africa and Asia and provide data that could help halt the trade.

Photo by iStock

A University of Maryland pioneer in the field of conservation criminology is joining a team of researchers and conservationists that has embarked on a bold initiative to save the world's most trafficked wild mammal—the pangolin.

With $4 million in core funding support from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation (some $600,000 of which will support UMD’s role in the project), Operation Pangolin launched in recent days in the African nations of Cameroon and Gabon, and plans call for the project to expand to Nigeria in coming years.

Distinctive for their scaly skin—and sometimes mistaken for reptiles—pangolins are among the least studied animals in the world. Little is known about the natural history or ecology of the world’s various pangolin species, which live in Africa and Asia and are rated from vulnerable to critically endangered by International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Even less is known of their role in a significant criminal economy, where pangolins are trafficked and killed illegally for their scales and meat—an underground trade that goes mostly undetected but is paradoxically conducted “in plain sight,” said Meredith Gore, a UMD associate professor of geographical sciences who focuses on conservation-related crime.

“Everyone on the team has different expertise, and I’ll be leading the human geography element,” she said. “I’ll be trying to understand the parts of the illicit supply chain by talking to local people, often minoritized people, about how they see this trade … . Then I’ll use open access and other forms of data to reconstruct the supply chain.”

Operation Pangolin will generate much-needed data to inform conservation strategies, stakeholder engagement and sustainability policies in central Africa, with global implications for the illicit wildlife trade. The team will then help implement the identified strategies with a plan to expand their efforts into Asia.

“Without urgent conservation action at a global scale, all eight species of pangolins face extinction,” said project lead Matthew H. Shirley, a conservation ecologist at Florida International University and co-chair of the IUCN’s Pangolin Specialist Group. “Operation Pangolin is a chance to alter the conservation landscape for pangolins and other wildlife threatened by illicit human behavior.”

In addition to Gore and Shirley, who will focus on ecological monitoring, the research team includes Alasdair Davies from the Arribada Initiative, focusing on technological innovation; Dan Challender from the University of Oxford, focusing on trade and policy; and Bistra Dilkina from the University of Southern California, focusing on data coalescence and artificial intelligence.

The team is developing toolkits that use advanced technology for pangolin monitoring and data collection. The researchers will work with indigenous peoples, local communities and government agencies to deploy monitoring programs, implement conservation interventions and develop predictive tools for addressing wildlife crime.

The project is supported by the Pangolin Specialist Group, a global network of 189 pangolin technical specialists, as well as national parks officials in Gabon and the Zoological Society of London, which will help lead implementation in Cameroon.

“Accurate, actionable data is the foundation of effective conservation efforts,” said Gabe Miller, director of technology on behalf of the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation. “Operation Pangolin will provide a blueprint for how conservationists can turn data into solutions that address important issues like wildlife trafficking and the biodiversity crisis head-on.”

This article is based on a news release by Florida International University.



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