Few of us know about this animal called the pangolin, or scaly anteater, found in the tropical forests of Africa and Asia, including India. It’s an odd creature, donning an armour – not unlike a knight of the medieval ages. It has a very narrow, long tongue that extends over 15 inches, coated with a gluey substance to enable it to probe nests, mounds and suchlike for ants, termites, etc. that make for its unique insectivorous diet. The pangolin has impressive digging powers, can live deep underground, is a capable swimmer, yet may be found up a tree, as it’s an agile climber as well. In fact, India’s pioneering naturalist and officer of the Imperial Forestry Service FW Champion said of the pangolin, “this astonishing survivor of the past ages may well be the most remarkable animal found in the Indian jungles.” Pangolins are nocturnal, shy, and when threatened they curl up into a tight ball—which offers excellent protection, even from predators like lions and tigers.
But not from man.
An ugly truth about the pangolin is that currently it is the ‘hottest’ item in the illegal wildlife market, so much so that it is now considered the ‘new rhino’ – a species traditionally in demand and slaughtered ruthlessly for its horns, pushing one species of rhino (the Javan) in Asia to virtual extinction with less than 50 remaining in the wild. The Vietnamese subspecies of the Javan rhino has been pronounced extinct after the last rhino was found dead with its horn removed. In Africa too, the Western black rhinoceros is now extinct, while other rhino species are being massacred at unprecedented scales. The slaughter of the pangolin is on similar scale, only its plight has failed to grab headlines or attention. All eight sub-species of the pangolin, across their range in Asia and Africa are in trade, and in dramatic decline, including the Indian pangolin.
The pangolin’s scaly armour, given by nature as a protective cover, has become its curse. The scales are made of keratin, the same substance as a rhino horn or human nails, and are ground into traditional medicine—believed to ‘cure’ various diseases, including headaches, asthma, certain cancers– and boost the virility of impotent souls. The meat of the pangolin is a delicacy too and commands a lucrative price, primarily in southeast Asia, and is served on the plates of the rich as a status symbol, particularly in China.
Investigators and wildlife crime experts say that this rarely seen creature is surprisingly easy prey for the poacher. Pangolin burrows are easy to locate from their tracks and poachers use dogs or lay traps around them. When approached, pangolins simply curl into a tight ball, which poachers pick up and dump into sacks. They are usually caught and transported alive, as scales from freshly killed pangolins command a higher price. In many restaurants the animal is served live to the diner — then killed and eaten. Stewed pangolin fetus is another pricey delicacy.
A recent meeting of global pangolin experts noted that at least 2,18,000 pangolins had been seized from trade between 2000 and 2012. Given that most of the trade goes unrecorded, this figure is likely to represent only a fraction of the actual numbers smuggled. Ninety per cent of the seizures were from China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam and Thailand. If anything, the trade seems to have peaked this year. For example, in August, customs officers in northern Hai Phong in Vietnam seized 6.2 tons of live pangolins, hidden in a container shipped from Indonesia—followed by another haul of 49 live pangolins making their way to a restaurant in the boot of a car.
According to the wildlife trade monitoring network, TRAFFIC pangolins are the most “frequently encountered mammals seized from illegal traders in Asia.” Its 2009 report on the pangolin trade documents seizures of 24 tons of frozen pangolins from Sumatra, Indonesia, seized in Vietnam in March, followed by a haul of 14 tonnes of frozen animals seized in Sumatra the next month.
India is believed to be a major ‘supply’ country, and seizures of pangolin scales have been reported from across the country including in Mizoram, Karnataka, West Bengal, Uttarakhand, Orissa, Assam, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh. If you take just the month of August this year, 70 kilograms pangolin scales were seized from Debidanga, Jaipalguri in north Bengal, the Mizoram forest department recovered 80 kg of pangolin scales from Aizawl, while in Karnataka the police intercepted a haul of 25 kg of pangolin scales. The accused was taking them in a Scorpio to Chennai, one of the main hubs of the trade along with Mumbai, their ports providing an easy route out.
The volumes are unprecedented, and the crime is an organised one, on the lines of the illegal trade in tiger derivatives, rhino horns and ivory. Traders advance money to their local contacts who hire poachers. Scales are then transported usually in lorries and trucks, or even public transport, as ‘goods’ to the exit points – some known routes include the Indo-Bangladesh and Indo-Nepal border.
The trade in pangolins is illegal and it is banned by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). In India, the pangolin is listed as a Schedule I species, giving it the protective cover of a tiger, or a rhino. Yet, woefully under equipped enforcement agencies and officials on the ground are grappling to deal with this threat. Enforcement is negligible, and most of the trade goes unchecked, with awareness of such ‘lesser’ fauna – even within enforcement agencies is minimal. It may be pointed out here that the illegal trade in pangolins is a part—if a very significant part – of the booming illegal wildlife trade. While we are aware of the trade in tiger parts or rhino horns, virtually the entire gamut of wildlife—otters, owls, butterflies, beetles, tortoises, sharks, munias, parakeets, primates, musk deer, sea horses, turtles –are in this illegal trade, severely depleting our wildlife and biodiversity. Globally, the illegal wildlife trade is second only to arms and narcotics-is an organised crime, and very lucrative. Its links to terrorism are well-established, yet we have failed to take its gravity on board.
Pangolins occupy a very unique niche in the ecosystems they live in, and provide a vital service as natural pest controllers. They are a rare insectivorous mammal and an ancient species that has bypassed the evolutionary advancements attained by most other mammals––they are little studied, little understood. Yet, our forests are being emptied of the pangolin…as we remain a silent witness, watching, as they are massacred, toward extinction.