The Maneka Gandhi column: What's scaly, eats ants, and is the most poached animal in India?

By Maneka Gandhi

Trying to save wild animals is like putting a finger into a dam that is leaking blood. You can stop one species from being decimated for a little while but some other hole opens up somewhere else.

Not one of us ever thought that the Indian pangolin was under threat. I never saw it in markets – unlike the monitor lizard which is brought in to cities and roasted alive. I never heard of it being eaten or made into quack medicines or tourist items.

An Indian Pangolin.

An Indian pangolin.

So it has come as a shock to me that the pangolin (or scaly anteater) is the most poached animal in Asia. It is so endangered that the useless Wildlife Crime Control Bureau has actually woken up after almost ten years of idleness and is partnering with Interpol for “Operation Pangolin”. Of course, they will do nothing. The director doesn’t believe that his bureau should be involved in animal rescue. I set up a system for him four years ago which gave him over 2,000 informants and a readymade anti-poaching army. It took him three months and [former minister of environment and forests] Jayanthi Natarajan to dismantle it. So he has no one to conduct his “operation” – his entire staff is one assistant and a typist.

So it is you and I who will have to save this creature. Over 25,000 pangolin have been killed every year and sent to China through the Kolkata/Chennai route. Kolkata is the hub of the wildlife poaching trade in India. It supplies illegal birds, tortoises and small animals across the country, brought in through containers and passed by bribed customs officials. Animals, like star and fresh water tortoises, go out through the same route. The next biggest poaching hub is the Chennai port which sends sea creatures, like seahorses, sea cucumbers, mollusks, and shark fins in the lakhs to Singapore, China and Hong Kong.

What is the pangolin? Most of you have never seen it. It is the only mammal covered in scales; it is a little larger than a cat; it is shy, harmless and easy to make friends with. The Indian Pangolin is a scaly, toothless anteater found in the plains and hills of India, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bhutan. An extremely useful insectivore that feeds on ants and termites, the pangolin is a defenceless, solitary, slow-moving mammal. All it can do is to roll into a ball when it senses an attack. It is 4 feet long when on its feet. It shambles along on the knuckles of the forefeet and the flat soles of its hind feet. It digs its prey out of mounds and logs using its stout limbs and long claws. You do not see it because it is entirely nocturnal. It lives near anthills in dug up burrows.

The pangolin has a cone-shaped head with small, dark eyes and a long muzzle. It has a long, sticky tongue, to catch ants and termites. When fully extended it is longer than the animal’s body. At rest the tongue retracts into a sheath in its chest cavity. The most noticeable characteristic of the pangolin is its scaled armour, which covers its upper face and body, but not its belly and inner side of the legs. It has 160-200 scales. These scales, for which they are hunted, can reach 6.5–7 cm long, 8.5 cm wide, and weigh 7-10 grams. The colour of its scales varies depending on the colour of the earth in its surroundings.

In Telugu it is alawa, polusu pandi or nela chepa. In Kerala, eenampechi. In Tamil, alangu. In Oriya, bajrakapta. In Kannada alavi or chippu handi. In Bengali Bojrokit, Bajra kit, Bajra kapta, Suraj mukhi, Silu, Sal sala, Chitikhor, Sakunphor (Haryana, Rajasthan, Chattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar); Kishaur (Jammu &Kashmir); Chalo, Bhimgaroo, Pingaroo, Shalma, Mirun (Gujarat and parts of Maharashtra) and Hochik, Salak in Assam and North Eastern states. In Sinhala, it is called kaballewa.

Over the past 20 years, the pangolin has been hunted by poachers for its skin, which is used to make leather shoes and fashion accessories, and its fat and scales which are smuggled to China and Vietnam to make traditional “medicine” for cancer, psoriasis, weight loss and asthma, and lactation. In fact, rhino horn and pangolin scales (like our hair and nails) are composed of keratin. Keratin has no curative properties. Stuffed pangolins are sold as souvenirs. In spite of pangolin meat being illegal, it is on the menu complete with a picture in Chinese and Vietnamese restaurants, for the increasingly prosperous middle class. Pangolin foetuses are delicacies. Owning ivory and eating pangolin are symbols of status.

The Indian pangolin has become the most heavily-trafficked mammal in India, and the species the most heavily trafficked on earth. The people who are killing them in India are nomads and trained local hunters. They dig out the animal from its burrow and put it into boiling water to remove its scales which are sold. The live pangolin is sold at a rate of Rs 10,000 to Rs 15,000 per animal.

Its scales are used to make traditional medicine by tribes in Tamil Nadu, Odisha and Kerala, who believe that the scales reduce swelling, promote blood circulation and cure skin related ailments, even though not a single scientific research backs these claims. The scales are used as an aphrodisiac or made into rings and charms.

China is a member of CITES, which bans inter-country smuggling of animals, but permits pangolin consumption. As a result, the Chinese and Sunda pangolin are now classified as 'Critically Endangered'. As the populations of the four Asian pangolin species plummet, traders are now turning to Africa to meet the growing demand. A recent study by Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, the Chinese Public Security Bureau, and the Chinese Academy of Sciences, reports that 22,000 had been killed by just one criminal gang in 21 months.

In addition to smuggling animals, traffickers use the postal system to transport contraband. Beijing customs officials have found over one tonne of scales in postal parcels - 1,660 individual animals.

In 2013, 8,125 pangolin were confiscated in 49 instances of illegal trade across 13 countries. Because seizures represent just 10 percent or less of the actual illegal trade volume, this suggests that 81,250 pangolin or more were killed in just one year. Investigations in China revealed that more than one ton of pangolin scales were trafficked into the country from Pakistan during 2013. Smugglers also brought pangolin scales into China from Qatar, Nigeria, and Equatorial Guinea. Two seizures of scales in Hong Kong — totalling just over three tons — came from African pangolin.

Fifty kg of pangolin scales from Cameroon for Vietnam were intercepted by customs authorities at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris. At Vietnam’s Hai Phong Port, 16 tons of pangolin and one ton of scales were intercepted, while 261 kg of pangolin were seized in Quang Ninh Province near the China border. Chinese media outlets reported that four seizures totalling 187 pangolin occurred in or near Fangchenggang, which borders Vietnam; a smuggler arrested in China with 73 pangolin claimed that the animals came from Vietnam. A Chinese fishing vessel, which ran aground in Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park, was found to be smuggling pangolin. Vietnam police officers arrested six individuals with 204 kg of pangolin concealed in their backpacks. This means 29-41 pangolin. Seizure reports from 2009-2013 in India reveal that around 3,350 pangolin were poached in the country during that period. At least 49,662 pangolin have been smuggled from Indonesia since 2002, and border officials in Thailand had seized 7,734 pangolin from 2003-2008.

With one pangolin being killed every hour, this elusive creature has become the most commonly smuggled mammal in Southeast Asia. Experts say the animals will be extinct within ten years, if China and Vietnam do not stop killing them.

India is believed to be a major ‘supply’ country, and crime syndicates use railway mail, plane cargo and couriers. Seizures of pangolin scales have been reported from Mizoram, Karnataka, West Bengal, Uttarakhand, Orissa, Assam, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. In August 2014, 70 kg 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. Eighty kilo of Pangolin scales was seized from cargo of Kolkata airport. These were all going to Chennai from where they are smuggled to China.

Since the pangolin produces only one offspring a year, it is no surprise that its almost on the brink of extinction.

Another thing that puts them at a high risk is that they cannot be bred in captivity, unlike rhinos and tigers, so it is impossible for them to be saved and reintroduced to the wild. According to the latest update of the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, all eight species of the pangolin are threatened with extinction.

Pangolin poaching or trade in India can lead to imprisonment between three to seven years, and a large fine. However, violators rarely face punishment, and the trade continues because all our forest and wildlife officials are either lazy, or stupid, or ignorant and greedy.

Pangolin act as a natural insecticide and pest control as they feed on termites, ants, beetles and cockroaches, which are a serious threat to agricultural crops and buildings. By eradicating them, we are destroying a creature that could keep pests and diseases down to an acceptable level.

Updated Date: Feb 01, 2016 18:30 PM

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