Poaching and illegal trafficking have almost decimated pangolins

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Dedicatedly, with powerful strokes, a man tries to hack a tree trunk for inside it hides a scaly treasure, a pangolin. Traumatized and scared, the pangolin refuses to come out of its safe abode. Seeing that his attempts are slowly turning futile, the man changes his strategy and fogs the tree trunk with smoke from a freshly lit wooden log. Suffocated and drowsy, the helpless pangolin falls out of the trunk and curves itself into a defensive ball. This defense is useless however, as it makes it easy for the man and his accomplice to stuff the pangolin into a sack and take it to an unknown location. Here, another level of cruelty is unleashed: the pangolin is mercilessly struck on its head with a metal weapon, till it becomes immobilized. It is then carefully submerged into a pot of boiling water. This gruesome process makes the extraction of a pangolin’s scaly armor easy, which fetch a handsome price in the black market for wildlife and its parts.

While this video, recorded by World Animal Protection (2018), captures one-such incident occurring in the North East India, it has been recorded that nearly a million pangolins faced a similar fate worldwide in the last decade (Challender, Waterman & Baillie, 2014). Pangolins are the only truly scaled mammals. Illegal trade in pangolins and their scales is so rampant that they have been dubbed as the most heavily trafficked mammals in the world, (Heinrich et al, 2017b). Today, all of the eight species of pangolins—four found in Asia and four found in Africa—are existentially threatened due to the unsustainable levels of poaching to supply to markets in East Asia), and non-Asian markets (especially the United States of America and Europe) (Heinrich et al, 2017b).  A large-scale market exists for pangolins and its derivatives—primarily, its scales—where they are extensively used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), eaten as a delicacy by the wealthy and to make wearable goods (Heinrich et al, 2016a).

Scales of pangolin, made of keratin, are believed to cure myriad ailments (WildAid, 2016; Bale, 2019). Powdered pangolin scales are also believed to improve blood circulation, stimulate lactation in breast-feeding mothers and cure hangovers (WildAid, 2016, Mongabay, 2019a) There is no scientific backing for these claims (Challender, 2011) and in fact, adverse effects on health have been recorded wherein people have been reported to have developed a high fever and jaundice after the use of pangolin scales (WildAid, 2016). Along with traditional beliefs, increasing basic wealth too acts a major driver of illicit pangolin trade (WildAid, 2016; Challender, 2011). Eating pangolin meat is considered to be a marker of wealth and status symbol. Several Asian restaurants offer pangolin dishes, often the most expensive dish, as a part of their menus (WildAid, 2016).

Reports and undercover operations have shown that one can even order to see the live pangolin before it is descaled and ultimately cooked. The descaled pangolin skin too has a market in the West where it is used to make leather goods like boots, belts, etc. (Guynup, 2018). Jewellery made using pangolin scales are also surfacing up in the market (Hamley, 2019), where they act as a wearable symbol of wealth and add to the prestige of the wearer. The rarer pangolins, the higher the price for pangolin products.

Warnings about overexploitation of pangolin and its derivatives scales in TCM arose as early as 1938 (Chinese Medicine and the Pangolin, 1938). Over the years, in many East Asian and South East Asian countries, pangolins were driven to commercial extinction (Challender, Waterman & Baillie, 2014) and pressure on other range countries grew subsequently (Challender, 2011). Since 1995, all species of pangolins had been listed in Appendix II of Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which essentially meant that regulated trade in pangolins and its derivatives was allowed. A zero export quota was established for wild-caught Asian pangolins in 2000. However, by then the damage had already been done, and as the populations of Asian pangolins depleted, the supply has shifted to the continent of Africa (Challender, Waterman & Baillie, 2014) In 2019, Singapore reported two big seizures of pangolin scales, 11.9 tonnes and 8.8 tonnes, coming from Democratic Republic of Congo (BBC News, 2019) and Nigeria (May, 2019) respectively. A blanket ban on pangolin trade came into effect in 2016 during CITES Conference of Parties 17 wherein all species of pangolins were listed as Appendix I and a blanket ban on pangolin trading and its parts was enforced. However, despite the ban, pangolins continue to be hunted.

India’s populations of Indian pangolin (Manis crassicuadata) and Chinese pangolin (Manis pentadactyla) too have been facing the brunt of the growing illegal trade in pangolins and its parts. Hunters in North-East India have reported that pangolins are becoming harder to find, unlike in the past (D’ Cruze, Singh, Mookerjee, Harrington & Macdonald, 2018). Recently, a pangolin smuggling racket was unearthed in Odisha, where a gang of seventeen poachers was arrested (Times of India, 2019). It was later revealed by the offenders that more than fifty such gangs operate in India that cater to buyers from countries such as China, Vietnam and Myanmar (The New Indian Express, 2019). Both species of pangolins found in India are protected under the Wild Life Protection Act, 1972 as Schedule I animals. As such the hunting and trading of pangolins is prohibited under the law and any violation can lead up to 7-years (not less than 3-years) of imprisonment and a monetary penalty of INR 10,000. In the last two months itself separate incidents of pangolin seizures were reported from locations such as Abhyapuri (Pratidin Time, 2019), Bongaigaon (News Live TV, 2019), Vashi (Hindustan Times, 2019)  and Goalpara (NorthEast Now, 2020).

While it has been established that halting all trade in pangolins is essential to the survival of the species (Challender, Waterman & Baillie, 2014), much remains shrouded in mystery about pangolins to effectively conserve them in their habitats. There are no population estimates of pangolins to serve as a baseline due to their shy nature and predominantly nocturnal activity (Challender, Waterman & Baillie, 2014; Bale, 2019). As they live in underground burrows or on trees during the daytime, it is difficult to survey them (Dasgupta, 2019). As pangolins eat a highly specialized diet of certain species of ants and termites, and stress out easily, keeping them in captivity is a challenge with their chances of their survival is bleak. Furthermore, the slow breeding nature of pangolins—producing one or two offspring in a year (WildAid, 2016)—makes it all the more important to conserve the remaining population.

Recently, it was suggested by researchers from South China Agricultural University, that it is highly plausible that novel coronavirus (COVID19), that has led a global health emergency, might have had pangolins as an intermediary host (Cyranoski, 2020). This development, yet again, puts into foreground the perils of illegal wildlife trade that negatively affects life on earth. The story of pangolins, as the poster child of illegal wildlife trade, underline this critical tipping point even more.

Written by Gargi Sharma



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