Plan to map DNA of endangered pangolins here

The pangolin, the world's most illegally trafficked animal, is about to get more help from Singapore to survive.

A project to sequence the DNA of pangolins here is being planned by scientists from Nanyang Technological University (NTU) and the upcoming Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum, together with Wildlife Reserves Singapore (WRS).

There are an estimated 50 Sunda pangolins in the wild here, and seven more in WRS' Night Safari as of last December but no one knows if the animals are genetically similar. If they are, they would be vulnerable to the same diseases and changes in climate, thus increasing the species' risk of extinction.

After the animals' genomes are sequenced, WRS could pair up the more genetically dissimilar pangolins for breeding, so that the animals will have more genetic diversity.

Since 2011, three Sunda pangolins have been born at WRS - quite a feat given that the animals are notoriously difficult to keep in captivity, mainly because their diet consists solely of ants and termites.

Pangolins are listed as critically endangered in the Singapore Red Data Book 2008, which lists threatened wildlife here. They are found mainly in the Central Catchment and Bukit Timah nature reserves but have also been seen in Bukit Batok's forested areas and on Pulau Ubin and Pulau Tekong.

Rapid urbanisation has led to the massive loss of their forest habitat, and the slow-moving animals are often injured or killed by vehicles when they stray onto roads. Injured pangolins and those that wander into residential areas are sometimes taken to WRS.

It microchips them to track them, takes blood samples, nurses them back to health and releases them into the wild.

Dr Stephan Schuster, a research director and professor of environmental genomics at NTU, said the DNA sequencing would be done using blood samples. He said the work could help researchers to see if any of the animals came from other countries, such as Malaysia, and aid the authorities in tracking the illegal pangolin trade.

Globally, around 100,000 pangolins a year are taken from the wild - mostly in Asia and Africa - for the Chinese market, where it is prized as a delicacy.

NTU students and The Pangolin Story, a local group that focuses on pangolin conservation, are organising a public talk on the animals tonight, from 4.45pm to 7.30pm, at NTU's Lecture Theatre 12 in Block NS2.

NTU is also raising funds for the pangolin genome sequencing project.

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