- Pangolins in India are being poached and trafficked outside protected areas.
- Experts call for addressing the gap in population status, distribution, and ecology of the two pangolin species in India.
- At the Nandankanan pangolin conservation breeding centre in Odisha, biologists are working towards conservation and rehabilitation of seized/rescued pangolins.
“I have been working in this area for 14 years as a snake rescuer. I never received calls for pangolins the way I received them in the last five months of the COVID-19 associated lockdown,” exclaimed Prasad Gond. He responded to at least five calls in the last five months on pangolin sightings on the outskirts of Pune city, Maharashtra, in western India.
Gond suspects that communities may be increasingly becoming aware of pangolins, so there are more sighting reports. “It could also be because the lockdown reduced disturbance, the pangolins ventured near villages from the neighbouring reserve forest,” he speculated.
Gond is hopeful that he can ferret out more information on the elusive animal’s occurrence and distribution by surveying local communities. “If we get the required permits, we would like to go for a camera trap survey to understand more about their distribution, which will help us prevent potential poaching with the help of communities.”
Imperiled by rampant poaching for trafficking and habitat degradation, pangolins are small, solitary, and mostly nocturnal mammals known for their distinctive, armadillo-like appearance. Although their scales provide a tough coat for external protection, once cornered poachers can easily grab the slow-moving animals as pangolins roll into a ball in defense.
In India, the scaly mammals are being poached and trafficked outside protected areas even as researchers call for addressing the gap in population status, distribution, and ecology of these two species in India, warning of a shrinking distribution and population. India also has a pangolin conservation breeding centre that works towards captive management of seized and rescued pangolins and their release into the wild.
According to the IUCN Pangolin Specialist Group, poaching for illegal international trade in live animals, meat, and scales primarily destined for Asia, mainly China and Vietnam, are the main threats to the animals. Pangolins are listed under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.
Trade in all eight species of pangolins is illegal. Of the eight known species of the pangolin, one of the world’s most trafficked animals, India is home to two pangolin species, the endangered Indian pangolin (Manis crassicaudata) and critically endangered Chinese pangolin (Manis pentadactyla).
“In India, we have an idea that pangolins are being poached and trafficked mostly outside protected areas (PAs). Most of their habitat is outside PAs,” said Agni Mitra, regional deputy director, Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (East).
Nearly 6000 pangolins were poached in India between 2009 and 2017, despite a ban, according to a 2018 TRAFFIC India report. Saket Badola, Head of TRAFFIC India said historical records tell us about the pangolin distribution in India. “In recent years, seizure data also indicates the distribution, but we do not know their population estimates or trend. What we need to address is the gap in population dynamics research and researchers in India are turning their attention to address the gaps,” Badola told Mongabay-India.
Bhau Katdare founder of conservation organisation Sahyadri Nisarga Mitra (SNM) said secondary data collected from communities indicate an apparent decline in the Indian pangolin population in the Konkan region in Maharashtra. Since 2016 SNM has initiated a camera trap survey for pangolins in the region and works with communities.
“But no one is too sure of the population dynamics. While we have found evidence of Indian pangolin in the survey area, we can say that they are not common. Poaching and trafficking do occur,” said Katdare, adding that due to community awareness, SNM was able to rescue 22 live pangolins in the last 1.5 years.
“There are certain regions in north West Bengal (extending to Valmiki Tiger Reserve in Bihar) where there is an overlapping distribution of both species. We do not have documentation of their populations in protected areas or outside,” noted Zoological Survey of India’s Mukesh Thakur. “One of the reasons is that they are solitary, and they have a low fecundity rate, which means they give birth to one to two offsprings a year. Unless one is familiar, it is challenging to spot even their burrows,” said Thakur.
The Indian pangolin is found throughout the country south of the Himalayas, excluding the north-eastern region, while the Chinese pangolin ranges through Assam and the eastern Himalayas. The animals have been at the centre of the debate surrounding the zoonotic origin of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19).
Spike in hunting for trade
Along the Konkan coast, SNM sets up camera traps based on the guidance provided by local community members. On the other side of peninsular India, in the northern Eastern Ghats (NEG), a combination of camera traps and interviews with communities living in villages around the Papikonda National Park in Andhra Pradesh has thrown up interesting insights on why pangolins are losing ground. The communities hunt pangolins for commercial (scales for trade) and personal (meat, scales for making rings) reasons.
A small percentage of pangolin scales is used for purported medicinal purposes (for the cure of piles and kidney stones) and fashioned into rings to ward off black magic.
“Indian pangolins are known to live in a variety of habitats, but we weren’t sure where to look for them. We know pangolins are hunted in this landscape, but systematic information on their occurrence in this region is lacking,” said Vikram Aditya, a researcher with Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment.
Over 20,000 hours of camera trap surveys set up by Vikram Aditya and colleagues from December 2017 to April 2018 failed to detect pangolins in and around the national park. But in interviews of communities living in the park’s buffer area, 93 percent of the respondents reported a decline in pangolin numbers over the previous decade.
The failure of the pangolins to show up on the 16 camera traps could signal the apparent population decline and species’ secretive nature, said Vikram Aditya, who studies the occurrence and distribution of the Indian pangolin in the NEG landscape.
The population decline in the NEG landscape corresponds with the crash in numbers globally over the last two decades. But the local communities were not aware of this crash in population. “The crash happened because of both meat consumption and trade, so we couldn’t attribute how much happened due to which factor. However, from our study, it is clear that there has been a spike in hunting for trade that wasn’t there earlier,” said Vikram Aditya.
In neighbouring Odisha, rescue records reveal the contribution of habitat destruction to the vulnerability of the shy animals to poaching and socio-economics. Pangolin rescue records (1973 to 2008) maintained at Nandankanan Biological Park, Bhubaneswar, shows that Indian pangolins are spread through coastal areas of Bay of Bengal to the hilly forest areas of Eastern Ghats in Odisha. The Nandankanan zoo hosts India’s only pangolin conservation breeding centre.
An analysis of the records show that as much as 77.5 percent of the individuals were rescued from the coastal and adjacent areas. Only 27.5 percent were saved from sites far from the coast. The reason why more captured pangolins were rescued from the coastal regions could be due to low forest cover in the coastal districts. The other areas where fewer individuals were saved probably had better forest cover, which provides optimum habitat for the pangolins.
Pangolin hunting was mostly opportunistic in northern Eastern Ghats, occurring when hunters come across an active burrow, said Vikram Aditya. Likewise, in Assam’s Dima Hasao, the pangolin is opportunistically hunted, said Aniruddha Mookerjee, consultant wildlife advisor, WildCRU, University of Oxford.
“Pangolin meat is believed to have medicinal properties and is preferred for food. It was always opportunistically hunted. However, the increased commercial value of the scales has pushed up the stakes significantly, and the hunters are constantly on the lookout for the species,” said Mookerjee. He was part of a study that interviewed 141 individuals of three tribal groups in Dima Hasao that revealed that each hunter could earn the equivalent of four months’ average income for capturing one pangolin in a year.
Inching towards pangolin conservation
Links between the global health crisis and the illegal exploitation of wildlife have been in the spotlight since it was suggested that wet markets selling wildlife, in this case, pangolins, could have facilitated the transfer of COVID-19 to humans, notes the World Wildlife Crime Report 2020. With the pandemic, while many believe that CITES should be amended to include public health and animal health criteria into the Convention’s decision-making processes, others have pressed for a broader ban on wildlife trade and augmenting ‘One Health’ approach.
Estimates of how many pangolins have been illegally traded in recent years are difficult to calculate given that seizures represent only a small fraction of the animals killed. However, the magnitude of the illegal trade based on seizure records suggests that wild sourcing is unsustainable.
Attempts to farm pangolins for commercial purposes have failed, and the loss of millions of wild pangolins to illicit markets cannot be sustained. Individual seizures made in recent years have been comprised of the scales of tens of thousands of pangolins, indicative of highly organised criminal operations, according to the World Wildlife Crime Report.
At ZSI, Mukesh Thakur and colleagues have developed a pangolin indexing system that can tell enforcement officials and wildlife managers the specific species to which the scales belong.
“It is difficult to tell the species from the seizures. If we can tell the species, then it will give us a better idea of the extent of trade in the two species. Next, we are planning to collect samples all across the pangolin distribution range in the country and devise a system that will help officials and wildlife managers pinpoint the pangolin’s source habitat,” said Thakur.
In the meanwhile, the Nandankanan Zoo’s pangolin conservation breeding centre that hosts pangolins that have been trafficked, is paving the way for release of pangolins. “We are helping different institutions working for the conservation and rehabilitation of pangolins by guiding them regarding captive management of these seized/rescued pangolins and their release into the wild,” zoo biologist Rajesh Mohapatra told Mongabay-India.
The centre maintains an insurance population for the endangered species (Indian pangolin) and has developed protocols for their proper housing, husbandry, health care and breeding. It acts as a referral point on pangolin husbandry and rehabilitation in India.
“We are also developing the method for rehabilitation of the seized animal. Once we reach a surplus population, we will be releasing them after proper evaluation of suitable release sites. Many visitors, including school children, come to the zoo. We make them aware of pangolins’ conservation needs. We also train zookeepers and field level forest staff regarding the species, it’s biology and basic husbandry protocols in their orientation program to the zoo,” explained Mohapatra.
Researchers associated with the Dima Hasao interviews write that their study serves as a case study which shows the extent to which “unsustainable consumer demand for pangolin scales and associated illegal trade activity can permeate remote rural communities involving many individuals who, most likely, do not fully understand the true ramifications of demand or even why the market exists.”
Any mitigation strategy should focus on rural hunters. While interventions to reduce poverty are no doubt required, such responses alone are unlikely to be effective in lowering pangolin hunting. In particular, implementing a demand reduction strategy targeting urban consumers is urgently needed, according to the Dima Hasao study.
Vikram Aditya and colleagues working in the northern Eastern Ghats recommend a shift from a reactive approach of local authorities (e.g. seizures of scales) to a proactive enforcement strategy (prevention of pangolin hunting). “We need to engage with local communities to understand their socio-economic needs and socio-cultural practices and understand market conditions resulting in pangolins hunting is one way to address hunting,” Aditya added.
Banner image: Pangolins at the breeding centre in Nandankanan Zoological Park, Bhubaneswar. Photo by Nandankanan Zoological Park.