The armour-like scales that nature has strapped onto the pangolins would make you associate them with the formidable warriors of yore. However, a cruel irony lies in the fact that they are almost defenceless against a vicious network of illegal trade that is systematically pushing them to the brink of extinction. In spite of being one of the most poached animals, their existence remains obscure outside the circuit of the illicit wildlife trade.
Pangolins, also known as ‘scaly anteaters’, are insectivorous mammals that are mainly nocturnal. In addition to their keratin scales, pangolins have a long tongue designed for eating insects, powerful frontal claws for digging into termite mounds, and an odorous anal gland to ward off predators. They assist in pest control by feeding on termites that are harmful for agricultural crops. Hence, they play a significant role in the ecosystem.
India is home to two pangolin species – the Indian and the Chinese. While the former is found across the Himalayan foothills and southern India, the latter dwells in the north-eastern region of the country. According to the laws of our land, both the Indian and the Chinese pangolin species are protected under Schedule 1 of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. Poaching, trading or any other form of their exploitation would attract a prison term of three to seven years and a fine of not less than INR 10,000. Even internationally, their trade is prohibited under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) which lists the two pangolin species in Appendix II.
Sadly, neither the shield endowed by nature nor the protection guaranteed by law could keep them safe from the onslaught of an illegal trade that is relentlessly pursuing them.
Pangolins are poached in India to cater to a burgeoning market in China and Southeast Asia. While their meat is often consumed locally after they are trapped, it also finds eager consumers in China where it is deemed a delicacy. Their skins are used to manufacture leather goods like boots and shoes. The range of products that gets fashioned out of their keratin scales is wide – from bullet-proof jackets to rings and charms. Traditional Chinese medicine also claims that pangolin scales can cure infertility, asthma and certain forms of cancer. However, the medicinal efficacy of the scales remains unproven.
According to conservative estimates, at least 3000 pangolins were poached in India between 2008 and 2014. The reach of this illicit trade penetrates into the depths of the range areas where pangolins are found. This syndicate often finds accomplices in local community members who use their traditional knowledge of the local topography to trap these animals. The poachers locate pangolin burrows and smoke them out of the security of their tunnels. Once captured, the hapless animals are ruthlessly beaten and then put in boiling water when the scales come out of their bodies smoothly.
From the hinterlands and range areas, pangolin skin and scales are then transited to international borders via middlemen and meat is often consumed by the local communities. The trade routes that are identified tell us that consignments from north India are taken to Sikkim and then to East and Southeast Asia. However, if the consignments have to go from south India, they reach their destination through the Indo-Nepal and Indo-Bangladesh border. Innumerable cities and towns of north-east India have become the transit hubs of this international smuggling network.
A significant seizure of 70kg pangolin scales from Debidanga in July 2013 proved that the Siliguri corridor is a preferred route for the smugglers. "To obtain one kg pangolin scale, you need four pangolins depending on their sizes. For 70kg of scales, the poachers will have to kill at least 280 pangolins," said Dharmadeb Rai, divisional forest officer, Baikunthapur. Through the use of figures, Rai helps us comprehend the magnitude of this illegal trade and the dire threat it poses to the survival of pangolins.
As responsible and ecologically conscious citizens of the world, we cannot remain indifferent to the plight of the pangolins. We need to raise awareness about their endangered status and disseminate information about their usefulness to the ecosystem among local communities. The protection against their illegal trade should also be heightened and effectively enforced. Concerted efforts are being made by various national and international bodies towards these ends. In order to draw focus on the need to protect this species, the third Sunday of every February has been declared as World Pangolin Day. In July 2013, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) organized an important meeting that focussed on pangolin conservation and recommended a series of measures that included protecting the natural habitat of the pangolins and community stewardship. A meeting on the ‘Consultation on Illegal Trade in Lesser Known Species’ was jointly organized by TRAFFIC, WWF-India, the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB) and the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI) in June 2014. Various wildlife experts; policy makers; scientists; research scholars; conservationists; and senior officials from the state forest departments, Ministry of Environment and Forests, enforcement agencies, Wildlife Institute of India (WII), WCCB, and wildlife NGOs formulated steps that are needed to protect the future of lesser known species like the pangolins.
With effective implementation, all of the above mentioned measures would help scale up the pangolin population and steer them away from the edges of extinction. This will certainly work toward balancing the ecosystem and strengthen its conservation.