Nearly 6,000 pangolins were poached in India between 2009 and 2017, despite a ban, with Manipur and Tamil Nadu emerging as hotspots for pangolin smuggling, says a report released by wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC.
Dubbing the number of pangolins illegally traded in India as “alarming”, experts say the estimated total of 5,772 animals is likely to be an underestimate, as only a fraction of illegal wildlife trade is detected and the actual number is likely to be far higher.
Pangolins, commonly referred to as scaly anteaters, are reported to be among the most trafficked wildlife species globally, the report emphasises. The mammals are mostly poached for their meat and scales.
“At least 5,772 pangolins were found in illegal wildlife trade in India during the period 2009 to 2017, close to 650 pangolins every year since 2009,” the report said, adding in India, pangolins are targeted mainly for international markets in China and Southeast Asia. In the domestic markets, pangolins are traded mainly for meat as also scales.
Pangolin meat is considered a delicacy and as a “tonic food” because of its alleged medicinal properties. Pangolin scales are used as an ingredient in traditional medicines as they are believed to cure various ailments.
Of the eight species found worldwide (four each in Asia and Africa), two are found in India: the Indian Pangolin (Manis crassicaudata) and Chinese Pangolin (Manis pentadactyla).
They have been driven to the edge of extinction in Asia, with the Chinese pangolin listed as “Critically Endangered” in the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List, while its Indian counterpart is categorised as “Endangered” in the list.
Hunting and trade in both the pangolin species found in India is banned under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, while international trade is prohibited under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora or CITES.
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.
Possible regional shift in poaching and smuggling of pangolins in India
The report notes that as many as 90 cases of pangolin seizures were recorded in India during the nine-year study period, of which the majority (83) were of pangolin scales, clearly indicating that “scales are the main pangolin product trafficked in India.” The highest numbers of pangolin-related seizures were reported from the states of Manipur (36%) and Tamil Nadu (10%).
Between 2009 and 2013, most of the 46 seizures were in eastern or north-eastern parts of India, including Assam, Manipur, Mizoram, and West Bengal. Between 2014 and 2017, the majority of the 44 seizures were from southern and central parts of India, including Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha and Tamil Nadu. This could indicate a regional shift in the poaching and smuggling of pangolins in the country.
According to Saket Badola, Head of TRAFFIC’s India office, this possible shift may be because of the fact that the traders have realized that the enforcement agencies in Manipur are more alert after the initial seizures, and the particular route was no longer safe.
Badola said that field work and data analysis point out clearly that Indian pangolins are “more common in illegal trade” as they are distributed across a much larger area (central India) than the Chinese ones.
“Another reason for the shift in trade could be that the major distribution area of the Indian pangolin is central and north India, so possibly they must have realized that it’s easier to trade it from near the area of its capture,” Badola told Mongabay-India.
“There have not been any systematic studies on the pangolins in India, so far,” said Badola. He reiterates that the populations of all eight species of pangolins are believed to be crashing all over the world, mainly due to illegal trade at a massive scale. Thus it is imperative to have studies estimating pangolin populations in India.
“The large number of pangolins in illegal wildlife trade is alarming,” said Ravi Singh, secretary general and CEO, WWF-India. “A population decline of pangolins could lead to a serious ecological imbalance. Pangolins are considered farmers’ friends as they help to keep a check on populations of ants and termites, and help improve soil quality. Therefore, it is important that efforts are directed to stop poaching and smuggling of pangolins in India.”
Stronger enforcement needed
The TRAFFIC report states that there has been increasing harvest and trade from Africa to offset declines in supply from China and the Southeast Asian pangolin range countries. This makes Indian pangolins more vulnerable to smuggling and thus precautionary measures must be put in place to safeguard remaining wild populations.
The study calls for improved cooperation and coordination among various enforcement agencies including the forest department, customs, police, the Border Security Force, Sashastra Seema Bal, the Railway Protection Force and others.
“An increase in law enforcement effectiveness remains paramount among a range of actions to secure the future of India’s pangolins. Frankly the trade in pangolin (as in other lesser known species) is so out of the scanner of enforcement agencies that not much is known about it,” Badola said.
This apart, the report also advocates enhancing of regional cooperation among South Asian countries to curtail pangolin smuggling across borders.
This article first appeared on Mongabay.