It's likely that you may not have heard of the Indian Pangolin.
It isn't as beautiful as the tiger, nor as powerful as the rhinoceroses.
And yet — it tops the list of the most illegally trafficked animals in the world.
The magnitude of hunting pangolins for their scaly skins and tender meat is so intense, that it shook the governments of 182 countries to take some action towards its protection. At the recently concluded Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES), the biggest wildlife trade summit, held in Johannesburg, the 182 governments agreed to a blanket ban on international trade of all eight pangolin species found in the world. This ban gives the pangolin a fighting chance in its battle for survival. India actively pushed for the trade ban with support from the United States, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. Indonesia had opposed the ban with China abstaining to vote.
The pangolin has been uplisted to Appendix 1 list of species among the two other Appendices in the level of protection afforded to any species from over-exploitation. Appendix 1 lists species of animals that are critically endangered or threatened with extinction. Trade of species listed in Appendix 1 is prohibited under CITES. The Convention does not frame legal laws of individual countries but only gives guidelines on which laws can be formulated.
Four species of pangolins are found in Africa; the other four in different countries of Asia. Out of the four Asian pangolin species, two are found in India: the Indian pangolin and the Chinese pangolin. The other two species are the Philippine and the Sunda pangolins. The Indian pangolin is found in most of the Indian peninsula while the Chinese pangolin is found in the North-Eastern states of India. Irrespective of the species, pangolins are mammals about the size of large house cats. Their skin is made of hard, overlapping scales giving them an appearance of a pine cone or an artichoke. These scales are made of keratin, the same material our fingernails are made of. This scaly exterior also acts as armour when pangolins roll up as balls when faced with threat. Pangolins have a long tail and short stubby feet to navigate wood debris where they find their food. The ingenious part of their anatomy is their tongue. It is a sticky, nearly as-long-as-their-body apparatus. This they use to slurp ants, lice larvae and termites from dead, decaying wood. Hence their other name, the Anteater.
So how come this innocuous, solitary animal is under threat? The main culprit has been the demand from China and South-East Asian countries. In these countries, pangolins are sold as meat in soups and stews, as delicacy or for medicinal and traditional remedies. Sumanth Bindumadhav who works on illegal trade in states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu thinks trade in pangolin has been practiced for many decades. Earlier when law enforcement were cracking down on popular items like tiger skins and elephant ivory, the traders managed to slip the pangolins unnoticed. It is easier to carry pangolin skins even in public transport as they weigh far less than ivory. It is also easier to capture pangolins unlike bigger animals, specially in areas outside of protected wildlife reserves. Local hunters simply smoke the burrows that pangolins occupy. During his investigations of apprehended poachers, Bindumadhav found out, the hunters smoke the burrows in the early morning hours. Being active at night, this is the time when pangolins return to their hideouts. Such practices also added to the number of pangolins being illegally traded.
In the last 5-6 years with the law authorities keeping close tabs on tiger and elephant trade, the pangolin trade exploded. Along with the South-East Asian countries, traders were combing Indian forests for pangolins to be added to the supply chain. Initially, they focused their attention on the Chinese pangolins from the North-East. Authorities intercepted 650 kgs of pangolin scales at Kolkatta airport in November 2010, 85 kg in Guwahati in July 2013, 148 kgs in Mizoram in August 2013. With these huges caches of pangolins being caught in the North-East, their numbers eventually started to run low. The traders were relentless in meeting the insatiable Chinese demand. They turned their attention to the Indian pangolin in other parts of India. Wildlife crime officials caught hauls of 25 kg of pangolin scales from Davangere, Karnataka in August 2013, 30 kg in Thiruvallore, Tamil Nadu in September 2013. But the more recent catch of 27 kg from Madhya Pradesh in 2015, set the alarm bells ringing. The authorities started to join the dots to find out pangolins are being extracted from all parts of their range from Uttarakhand to Tamil Nadu to Bengal with Madhya Pradesh emerging as the epicenter of illegal wildlife trade. Kolkata and Chennai serve as main export hubs. By a conservative estimate, 10,000 pangolins are traded every year. Considering only 10 percent of illegal trade is reported, we are staring at a staggering 1,00,000 pangolins caught and traded from the wild.
Uttara Mendiratta, director, Freeland India, that works towards stopping wildlife trafficking reckons such large scale hunting is possible due to a close nexus between local hunters and powerful moneyed traders. Once traders realise pangolin scales fetch high profits, they can be sold as high as 600 USD, they reach out to local hunters. As local hunters start to see higher reward for pangolin scales, they hunt more than they need. Thus when a species becomes lucrative to both hunters and traders, the hunting intensifies to catastrophic results for the animal.
So why the clamour to save the pangolin? What ecological role does this small, seemingly insignificant animal play? Bindumadhav thinks, “ecologically speaking, the pangolin can be considered more important than the tiger. This is because there can be 2-3 other animals that can perform the role of a tiger, but in case of the pangolin is a specialist, no other animal can perform its role.” It typically consumes 30,000-40,000 ants a night. In Sumatra it was recorded that ants started to feed on rubber trees in a plantation which replaced a forest wiping out its pangolins. Imagine a forest being overrun by ants in absence of pangolins. There are very few scientific studies on pangolins to access their roles in an ecosystems. There is virtually no knowledge of where pangolins are found, its breeding cycle, the biology and ecology of pangolins. We are in danger of losing a mysterious animal even before we can fully comprehend its importance.
Ground realities for pangolins on India soil may not change with uplisting it to Appendix 1, as the Wildlife Protection Act is independent of the CITES legislation. But it will hopefully bring higher punishment and greater attention to its illegally traded plight. Pangolins deserve all the attention the world can bestow.