Pangolins are unique toothless mammals. They are the only mammal which has hard keratinous scales on their body. They are myrmecophagus (feeds on ants and termites). Being insectivorous mammals, they feed on eggs, larvae and adults of ants and termites acting as biological pest controlling agents. Their long sticky tongue is used for feeding on insects and devoid of any teeth. They are solitary and remain inactive and hide in their burrows and tree holes during daytime. They roll their body to form a ball-like structure in case they sense the presence of predators in their vicinity. They secrete strong odour through their anal glands that is used in defence.
Pangolins are listed in Schedule I of India’s Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, implying the highest degree of protection, and grouped as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List. The species is also listed under the Appendix I of the International Convention of Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) which prohibits international commercial trade.
Among eight pangolin species globally, four each are found in Asia and Africa. India is home to two species, Chinese pangolin (Manis pentadactyla) and Indian pangolin (Manis crassicaudata). Chinese pangolin is known to occur in northern and northeastern India. Indian pangolin is widely distributed throughout the country except the Himalayan region.
In February 2020, a study by the South China Agricultural University identified pangolins as the potential intermediate host of the novel coronavirus (Covid-19). The study announced the discovery of a 99% genetic match between the new 2019-nCoV virus and a strain of the virus found in pangolins. We thought that after Covid-19, the trade would reduce but unfortunately in all probability it appears to be the same.
The cases of pangolin poaching are regularly being reported from different places of Odisha. To address this, we need inputs from local people (primary data) to understand the trade and its channels. We need to understand whether it is happening at the local level or if there is an organized network (secondary data).
Pangolin scales and parts are ingredients in prescriptions of traditional Chinese medicine. The scales’ uses vary widely, from helping with anorexia, sores, and skin infections to treating infertility in women and promoting lactation. Pangolin scales are composed primarily of keratin, the same substance that makes up hair and fingernails, and no credible scientific evidence exists supporting their efficacy. The pangolin trade is also linked to the narcotics industry. Pangolin scales are purported to contain a substance used to make psychotropic drugs, such as methamphetamine.
Forest officials of Athagarh in Odisha busted a huge gang of pangolin smugglers during 2019 to 2020 and arrested more than 30 members of the organised network from different parts of the State. Investigations revealed that the accused were trading live pangolins and scales online by forming Whatsapp groups in which videos and photos were shared with customers of outside country and details communicated in codes to conceal the transactions.
Trafficking (smuggling) of live pangolins and its scales is a highly lucrative business for organised mafias, who exploit poor and vulnerable forest dwelling communities for their criminal interests. This is pushing endangered species into extinction and simultaneously placing these communities at high risk. Pangolins are illegally hunted and traded within Odisha and India while a subset of these is smuggled abroad by trafficking networks.
While personal contacts and networks of grassroots markets run by middlemen enabled wildlife trade, the cyber revolution has enabled widespread access to digital platforms since the 2000s, and consequently a sizable chunk of wildlife trade happens via social media, and other online communication media. It is fairly easy to find videos and pictures of threatened and protected species of fauna and flora animals online. Middlemen share these videos and pictures of collected pangolins to their colleagues and contacts online, attracting buyers and therefore enabling the trade. Traffickers and criminal networks are explaining e-commerce websites and social media platforms to trade in illicit wildlife products globally.
Based on investigations and interrogations to the arrested poachers/ smugglers and discussion with community, it is found that the most frequently-used methods for hunting pangolins were 1) identifying and digging the burrow; 2) tracking the foot and tail prints; 3) waiting at the burrow for the animal to emerge and then hitting them with sticks on the head; 4) use of dogs in tracking them; 5) setting fire to the burrow entrance to smoke the pangolins out; and 6) tracking them at night (since pangolins are nocturnal) . The pangolins are extremely easy to catch once they are sighted. Once the animal is caught, only picking it up, putting it into a sack and carrying it away remains, because pangolins are defenseless and can’t attack or defend themselves in any way.
Earlier, locals used to kill the animal straight away, eat its meat and burn or discard the scales’. However, people now realise the commercial value of pangolins in the wildlife trade market, and are trying to keep it alive till they find a buyer and sell it. Pangolins fetch steep prices locally as well as in the international market, and this is the greatest incentive for its hunting. Technology, social media and communication tools play an important role here in facilitating wildlife trade through bringing together the nexus of middlemen and buyers based in cities and towns with the hunters who are mostly from villages virtually.
The most important players in combating wildlife trade though remain the grassroots communities particularly forest dwelling people who coexist with these species. Unless they are made the main partners in conserving pangolins through community initiatives, the situation may continue to worsen rapidly for pangolins and other endangered species.
It is necessary to gain support from indigenous people to help control the impact of hunting, thereby reducing the supply. The convergence of various stakeholders, most importantly forest dwelling communities, researchers, government departments and NGOs in devising strategies to break the web of poaching and trade is, therefore, essential to save pangolins from extinction.
(The author is a Deputy Conservator of Forests, Odisha)