India’s humble pangolin scrambles for survival

While pangolin trade is illegal in India wildlife experts say that these scaly ant-eaters are being hunted in enormous numbers. The Wildlife Crime Control Bureau’s data back up this claim.

While pangolin trade is illegal in India wildlife experts say that these scaly ant-eaters are being hunted in enormous numbers. The Wildlife Crime Control Bureau’s data back up this claim.

As the tiger is hunted for its skin and claws, and the elephant for its tusk, the humble pangolin too is a target due to the illegal trade of its scales and meat. Wildlife experts claim it has become the most poached animal in India, and possibly in Asia.

While pangolin trade is illegal in India, under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, wildlife experts say that these scaly ant-eaters are being hunted in enormous numbers. Data obtained from the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB) of the government of India supports this claim.

A day before World Pangolin Day, observed on February 20, TRAFFIC India — a wildlife trade monitoring network — stressed on the threat that this mammal is currently facing.

Although covered in scales like a reptile, pangolins are mammals. And it is primarily because of their scales that their very survival is being threatened, say experts.

Pangolin scales are widely used in Southeast Asian countries to prepare traditional oriental medicines. They are used as aphrodisiacs and also to cure ailments ranging from asthma and psoriasis to cancer.

However as experts from TRAFFIC stated, the medical efficacy of the scales remains unproved to date.

The scales are also used for making rings and charms while the animal’s meat is considered to be a delicacy and is also consumed of its alleged medicinal properties.

While the demand for pangolins stems from countries like China, Thailand and Vietnam, it is India that provides the supply. TRAFFIC states that according to seizure reports from the five years between 2009 and 2013 in the country, around 3,350 pangolins were poached in the country. However, the monitoring body holds this as a “conservative estimate” as a large part of this trade presumably remains undetected.

Data obtained from the WCCB showed that within three years between 2011 and 2013, more than 3,670 kg of pangolin scales were seized from al over the country. This too, officials from the bureau say, is a conservative estimate.

Speaking on this, Tilotama Varma, additional director of WCCB says, “A coordinated approach among Indian enforcement and international agencies, an improved intelligence networking and thorough investigative procedure could be extensively helpful in containing the situation.”

To arrest the increasing instances of pangolin poaching, the WCCB has introduced “Operation Pangolin”. The officials claim that even though the operation is in its nascent stage, they are confident of bringing down the hunting of this mammal by significant numbers.

In a recent incident, on February 9, WCCB officials in Maharashtra busted a gang of six poachers who were caught with pangolin scales weighing 12 kg. This incident was not a minor one.

Even though the scales seized were not too heavy or too many in number, it revealed a nexus among poachers in the state.

M. Maranko, the regional deputy director in charge of the WCCB western region said, “During our investigation, we found out that one of the accused arrested in this case belonged to a region from which another pangolin poacher was arrested a few months ago. There is a possibility of the area being a hotspot for pangolin poaching and further investigation in the matter is underway.”

Mr Maranko refrained from naming the “hotspot” in Maharashtra in order to protect the ongoing probe.

Hunting or trade in pangolins in India is a criminal offence leading to imprisonment for between three and seven years and a fine of not less than '10,000. Their international trade is also prohibited under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Despite this, the animal is proving to be one most traded species from the wild.

Another interesting fact that the WCCB officials and their data revealed is that the eastern part of the country plays a significant role in the smuggling of pangolin scales.

Though the animal is found throughout the country, after being poached, it’s smuggled out of the country mainly through the Northeast.

Of all the 51 cases of seizure of pangolin scales reported between 2011 and 2013, 42 of them were seizures made from North-eastern states.

With 21 seizures, Manipur ranked the highest in the list followed by Mizoram and West Bengal.

An official from the WCCB requesting anonymity said, “Most poachers try to smuggle the scales away via roads as it is difficult to evade customs and other security agencies at airports. Since, the demand for the pangolin scales come from China and Thailand, poachers try to send the scales or even sometimes the animal itself, beyond the border from where it is easier to fly the scales to other destinations.”

Commenting on the matter, Dr Shekhar Kumar Niraj, head of TRAFFIC India says, “Reports in the past have indicated that the poaching and trade in pangolins is blatant mainly owing to little awareness about this mammal among the enforcement agencies and the general public.”

“It is evident that hundreds of pangolins from across India are caught every year from the wild and are smuggled through porous international borders to other countries,” Dr Niraj said.

Pangolins are shy, nocturnal animals. That is one of the reasons why there is little awareness about them in public.

However, this does not discourage the poachers. The pangolins are netted, trapped, shot or snared for local trade where their meat is considered a delicacy. To remove the scales, a pangolin is usually boiled in water after being either beaten to death.

However, some experts claim that it is not unlikely for poachers to insert the live animal into boiling water to minimise their work.

Interesting facts: 1. A pangolin’s tongue is longer than its body

2. Male Indian Pangolins can be up to 90 per cent heavier than their female counterparts.

3. Pangolins have no teeth and feed mainly on ants and termites, which they suck up using their tongue.

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