[Interview] Major transnational wildlife crime could catch India by surprise

  • Mongabay-India speaks to wildlife detective Samuel Wasser on transnational wildlife crime and how it could easily return and catch India by surprise.
  • Wasser is known for his expertise in using animal faeces to track wildlife poachers.
  • In India, he plans to focus on pangolins, believed to be the world’s most trafficked mammal, and has initiated collaborations for work on a pangolin DNA reference library.

Samuel K. Wasser, a conservation biologist at the University of Washington in the U.S., has pioneered ways of using DNA from animal faeces to track wildlife poachers and combat wildlife crime.

The wildlife detective has earned the nickname “the Guru of Doo Doo” for his pioneering work on noninvasive methods to measure the abundance, distribution and physiological condition of wildlife from their faeces, relying on detection dogs to locate these samples over large wilderness areas. His innovative approach to using elephant poop has led to the arrest and conviction of some of Africa’s biggest ivory poachers.

Samuel Wasser at a talk in Kolkata. Photo courtesy U.S. Consulate Kolkata.

Now, turning the spotlight on pangolins, believed to be the world’s most trafficked mammal, Wasser and colleagues plan to initiate collaborations on setting up a lab at the Wildlife Institute of India to build a pangolin DNA reference library. This would be part of a larger project to map the genetic diversity of Asian and African pangolin species across their native ranges.

With this facility, conservationists and law enforcement officials will be able to compare DNA samples from poached pangolins to this genetic reference map and determine where the creatures were poached and funnelled into the black market.

Pangolins are small, solitary and largely nocturnal mammals known for their distinctive, armadillo-like appearance. They are hunted for their scales, meat and other body parts. Four species are native to sub-Saharan Africa, with another four spread across south and southeast Asia. India is home to two of the species, the Indian pangolin (Manis crassicaudata) and Chinese pangolin (Manis pentadactyla).

Read more: Is India becoming a centre for pangolin poaching?

Wasser expressed concern over the species’ fate and plans to deploy dogs to hunt for pangolin scat that could lead to further investigation on trafficking. Lauding India’s effort at curbing major transnational wildlife crime, the wildlife detective also cautioned against the trade in elephant skin which is rearing its ugly head in Asia.

Mongabay-India caught up with Wasser in a tete-a-tete at the American Centre in Kolkata during the first leg of his India tour.

Ahead of the 18th Conference of the Parties to CITES in Geneva, Switzerland, Wasser discussed why CITES negotiations can be frustrating, calling the bluff on southern African nations who reportedly threaten to take an exception to CITES if their petitions are not passed and why major transnational wildlife crime could easily return and catch India by surprise.

Why do you say that India may be harbouring a false sense of security with regards to transnational wildlife trade?

India has done a good job of preventing the regrowth of major transnational wildlife crime since they stopped large scale tiger trafficking in the 1990s. I fear that major transnational wildlife crime could easily return under the right conditions and catch India by surprise. The most likely contraband to be exploited on a major scale here is pangolins.

We know that some big expeditors, skilled at moving freight, are already operating in India. they are moving illegal wildlife contraband from Africa to southeast Asia. However, because the contraband never enters India, they are not breaking Indian law. Those traffickers could easily turn their skills to exporting pangolins if the price is right.

The pangolin trade went from southeast Asia and now it has moved to Africa. Pretty soon they are going to start running out of pangolins there (in Africa) and pressure is going to come on India as the trade picks up. To make matters worse, pangolins may be easy for skilled poachers to find. However, they are very difficult for everyone else to see. That means the trade could take route and wipe out a large part of the population before anyone realises the extent of the problem.

How does a pangolin DNA reference database figure in the scheme of things? Can you share some details?

We are very eager to collaborate with the Indian government and NGOs to create a geographic-based DNA reference map of pangolins. As with elephants, we intend to build this largely from DNA acquired from pangolin dung samples. However, pangolin dung is much harder to find. Samples are small and disintegrate quickly due to their diet of termites and ants. We plan to use detection dogs to find their scat.

So far we have taken detection dogs trained on pangolin scats to Nepal and Vietnam. We hope to bring them here (India) and start building a reference library in Asia and Africa in order to connect all the dots. We don’t know anything about pangolins. Even the pangolin specialist groups know very little about pangolins because they’re so hard to find.

We expect the dogs to locate large numbers of samples, which will reveal pangolin habitat preferences, where they’re most concentrated and how many are still there, allowing us to answer these questions concurrently. It appears that there are a lot more pangolins than people thought, given the large numbers comprising numerous large seizures. It doesn’t make sense.

My colleague in WII, Samrat Mondol, who did his post-doctorate with me, and I, are planning to develop a DNA lab for pangolins at WII in India. We may also be training a doctoral student from Bhutan who is going coming to my lab mid-July to learn how to be a detection dog handler as part of her thesis work. We are hoping that she will be able to assist the Bombay Natural History Society in the use of dogs to find vulture carcasses as well as assist with finding pangolins. At least one NGO in India may also help with this.

I am on this trip partly to build collaborations, create a pangolin genetic lab and implement a detection dog program in India to address these needs. A primary goal of this is scaling up for the country and understanding the differences in the trade and where your vulnerability is.

Pangolins are the most trafficked animals in the world. Photo by A. J. T. Johnsingh, WWF-India and NCF/Wikimedia Commons.

Are there challenges to deploying dogs in the Indian landscape?

Heat acclimation is the biggest challenge, requiring the handler to always keep the dog well hydrated and starting very early in the morning. Our dogs are a variety of breeds, mostly mixed, all obtained from animal shelters. Dogs are chosen for their high play drive. They are rewarded for finding the target by two minutes play with their ball.

Do you think that pangolin trade will be discussed at CITES? In 2016, the CITES decision to recommend full protection for all eight species of pangolins was a huge win for the mammal.

The last CITES meeting listed all 8 species of pangolins in appendix I. That was a big deal. The problem is you have to be able to enforce the laws that prohibit their trade. Listing all 8 species removes any guesswork because now any pangolin shipment seized by authorities is illegal. The vast majority of elephant ivory too is illegal but traffickers are moving 400, 000 tones a year, 10 percent of which is being seized. Even larger volumes of pangolins are now being seized, which is frightening when you consider that pangolins are a lot smaller than elephants.

The pangolin trade will definitely be discussed at CITES but what can CITES do? One of the biggest problems with CITES is that political correctness has become a much bigger driver of CITES decisions compared to biology. My colleagues and I have written a number of papers complaining about that. CITES needs to think about science first and what is the impact on these species. It is a really frustrating situation.

Reports indicate that Zimbabwe may withdraw from CITES that restricts it to sell its $300mn worth of ivory stockpile. Zimbabwe President Emmerson Mnangagwa recently said that Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Park (Kaza) countries – Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe’s position was to lobby for the elephants to remain on Appendix II.

I think Zimbabwe is blowing smoke. At the last CITES meeting, we were so close to passing a decision that would have listed all elephants on Appendix 1. But as the meeting progressed, Zimbabwe and another country threatened to take an exception to CITES if that happened. The majority of delegates and NGOs buckled out of fear, and the decision was defeated. I think we should have called their bluff. Zimbabawe has too much to lose by pulling out.

Samuel Wasser examining seized ivory. Photo by Kate Brooks.

Asian elephants face new threat in skin trade. Over the past decade, Myanmar has seen a significant increase in the number of Asian elephants (Elephas maximus indicus) killed, with conservationists pinning the blame on poachers. The tough skin is ground up for traditional medicine or turned into accessories such as beads or pendants.

What is happening now, which is even more serious, is that the illegal elephant trade in Asia is shifting to skin trade. That means it doesn’t matter if the elephant is a male-female or baby. No sex or age group will be spared. (Only adult Asian male elephants are poached for ivory as the female elephant, unlike African elephants, does not tusk).

And so when you have animals that have such a slow reproductive rate, taking out the breeders and increasing infant mortality can be devastating for the population to sustain itself. The skin is being used to make prayer beads. However, traffickers are also marketing these skins as medicinal. If that takes route, it could be goodbye for Asian elephants.

Why do you say leopards could be the ‘next tiger’ in India’s illegal wildlife trade loop?

Leopards are already being poached. Their bones are fraudulently used as substitutes for tiger bone. They are reclusive and thus easy to poach inconspicuously.

Read more: With tigers getting the spotlight, is poaching of leopards increasing in the blind spot?


Banner image: Samuel Wasser with elephant tusk seizure made in Malaysia. Photo courtesy of Samuel K. Wasser/Animal Welfare Institute.

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