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July 21, 2010

Stuck on Porcupines

Tom McLaughlin

Matang Wildlife Center, Kuching, Malaysia – Porcupines? Wandering the jungle? I had never heard of such a thing until my occasional visit with my friends at the wildlife center. Two caged animals, quills bristling and snouts to the ground, had been brought to the center by an individual who became aware of Malaysia’s tough laws for keeping threatened species.


Standing over them, syringe in hand, a veterinarian was trying to put them to sleep so blood could be drawn. The first thrust was unsuccessful as the medicine did not go into the animal. The vet had to be very careful so he would not be stuck by the many quills.


Finally after two or three jabs, the animals began to teeter and acted as if he would fall over. But no luck. The porcupine quickly recovered and returned to normal. The problem was that nobody knew how much medicine to give a jungle porcupine to knock him out without killing them. So far, they had been given enough to topple a small orangutan but other than being a bit drowsy, no reaction.


That was enough for the day, everybody reasoned as the amount of medicine was meticulously recorded. Another, more successful attempt was made a few days later. The porcupine can eat poisonous plants and roots and it is thought that its body quickly processed the massive dose of sedative.


The purpose of this exercise was to draw blood and create an assay of a healthy animal. There has been no blood chemistry to compare what factors were normal and what were not. For example, what is the normal white blood count of a Malayan porcupine?


When this information is obtained, then other centers throughout the world can compare their counts with this standard, or an average can be taken. The information is useful to determine if they have a healthy animal, or one that needs medication.


Unfortunately, the porcupine is hunted for Chinese medicines and is now on the United Nations Red List as a threatened mammal. According to the London Medical Dictionary, the material is steeped in water to give a very bitter taste. The Chinese believe it destroys poisons and “reanimating vital powers,” whatever that means.


The Star, one of Malaysia’s English language daily newspapers, reports the material is boiled in water to make a tea and used for curing dengue fever and flu. The illegal substance sells for about $225 for .38grams. The rise of the middle class in China, who can now afford these prices, plus the continued greed of the hunters provides for a very dangerous scenario for the porcupines’ survival.


The porcupines here will be released into the protected rain forest equipped with GPS collars.


The collars will then download information which will be stored in the computer attached to the collars. Then, international volunteers will walk through the forest and – with receivers strapped to their wrists – download the information. This data will then be stored in the central computer for use by other wildlife agencies.


Unfortunately, because of the trees, the GPS devices do not work very well in the rain forest. It is not expected that a great deal of data will be acquired, but, hopefully and over time, a map can be made of the distance traveled.


The Malaysian Porcupine (Hystrix brachyuran) is black with long quills. These spines are white, or have alternating white and black bands. The tails are densely covered in both male and females, and, when shaken, given a rustling, warning sound. They are found throughout Borneo, but their numbers are decreasing. They feed on fallen fruits including oil palm. They can weigh up to 8,000 grams. Based on captive animals in zoos, the life span is thought to be 12-14 years.


Because of the long period of geographic isolation, the Borneo porcupine has evolved into a subspecies of the other “Old World Porcupines.”


…Life is good….


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