- 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 but increasingly live pangolins are being trafficked out of India.
- The pangolins and their scales are smuggled through India’s northeastern states to Myanmar and then onto China and other countries.
- Tamil settlements in Tamu along Moreh in Manipur and their relatives in Tamil Nadu, Berhampur in Odisha and elsewhere form a crucial link in this chain.
Pangolins from all over India are being killed for scales which are funnelled through the country’s northeastern states to Myanmar, and then on to China’s Yunnan province. But, increasingly, live pangolins are also being smuggled to feed China’s voracious appetite for the mammal.
One ploy is to market the pangolin as a lucky charm by setting up a battery-operated device that shoots out sparks to convince buyers the pangolin is emitting an electric charge. Gullible buyers are lured into paying as much as $40000 for one live animal.
“The buyers don’t usually keep the pangolin with themselves as a pet. The so-called good omen is passed on to the next buyer and keeps changing hands. In this process, everyone in the chain ends up making money,” said RS Sharath a former inspector for India’s Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB) and at present the range officer, Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
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).
The web of illegal trade in pangolin scales spans India, including the northeastern states.
Nearly 6000 pangolins were poached in India between 2009 and 2017, despite a ban, with Manipur and Tamil Nadu emerging as hotspots for pangolin smuggling, according to a 2018 report by wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC.
Those who are involved in carrying the contraband move it from the southern Indian states to India’s border with Myanmar taking advantage of familial and cultural ties linking these two parts of the country.
Tamil settlements in Tamu along Moreh in Manipur and their relatives in Tamil Nadu, Berhampur in Odisha and elsewhere form a crucial link in this chain.
Earlier Chennai in Tamil Nadu state in southern India was the collection hub for pangolin scales from where traders used to transport the contraband to northeast India. Later Berhampur in Odisha emerged as the collection point due to the presence of Myanmarese settlements there.
Pangolins from Karnataka and Madurai are collected in Chennai and taken to the Northeast. En route, traffickers pick up more scales in Odisha.
Stock from Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh is moved to West Bengal and then by train or road to Myanmar via the Moreh border.
The other smuggling route for pangolins and their scales from Jammu, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Haryana is across the open border with Nepal and Bhutan, and then over the Himalayas to China.
Traffickers sneak some of the contraband to Nepal and Bhutan bound for readymade markets in China and Vietnam.
Communities such as Sapera which are traditional snake charmers and the semi-nomadic Bawariyas are said to be involved in catching the pangolins for sale to middlemen.
India’s Wildlife Protection Act 1972 restricted the way of life of these hunting communities. Since they lack other skills and face discrimination, they depend on forest produce for subsistence. The Sapera still venture into forests for food and capture pangolins for meat and money. Being skilled hunters, they can track and kill the reclusive animals. One animal can yield nearly 1kg of scales which they can sell for $70.
The upswing in the trade of pangolin scales, conservationists say, is due to the crackdown on the rhino horn trade. Pangolin scales, like rhino horn, have no proven medicinal value yet are used in traditional Chinese medicine. Both products are made of keratin, the same tissue in the nails and hair.
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.
“Detection is delayed because of the lack of intelligence on traders. The scales are smuggled under the guise of dried fish in cargo and unless one pulls out the items and examines them physically, they can go unnoticed in checks,” said Sharath.
Decoy dealers risk their lives to catch traders by posing as buyers, and they say getting the cover story right is the key.
“You have to know the going price, the size of the animals and other such details. If you slip up then the traders will be suspicious,” a decoy dealer told Mongabay-India on conditions of anonymity.
Undercover agents use a network of informers to go after smugglers. “It may take us from a couple of weeks to months to catch them, they have a specific language. For example, they use specific size ranges for pangolin scales and slang while transacting business. You have to know these codes to gain their trust,” said the dealer.
He added: “They mostly want to see the money first. But we try to keep the dialogue going until we are sure of the moment that we can make a move on them.”
In an interview to Mongabay-India, wildlife detective Samuel 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.
He said he fears 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,” Wasser said.
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, he warned.
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, he said.
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.
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.
[This story is co-published by Mongabay-India in collaboration with Nepali Times and The Pangolin Reports.]
Banner image: A rescued Indian pangolin. Photo by Vickey Chauhan/Wikimedia Commons.