Burrowing to oblivion: The Indian pangolin in the northern Eastern Ghats

By Vikram Aditya

The Indian Pangolin Manis crassicaudata is one of two species of pangolins occurring in India (the other being the critically endangered Chinese Pangolin M. pentadactyla). Although previously widely distributed across the subcontinent, the population of the Indian Pangolin has rapidly declined over the past decade and is currently listed as Endangered by the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature). The pangolin is a highly elusive nocturnal mammal that occurs at low densities in a variety of forest habitats, occupying burrows in the ground. It inhabits a range of habitats ranging from scrub jungles to dry and moist deciduous forests (Figure 1). While being primarily ground dwelling animals, some species of pangolins are also arboreal. Pangolins are insectivorous mammals, feeding entirely on ants and termites which they draw out using their long sticky tongues (Figure 3). Their heads are also small and pointed, allowing them to easily burrow and enter anthills. They are evolutionarily distinct and are classified under their own order Pholidota. Pangolins can be easily identified by their characteristic scaly armour, which makes them virtually impenetrable to most predators.

 

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Figure 1: A scale of a hunted pangolin in the northern Eastern Ghats. Pangolin scales are made of the same substance as human fingernails and antelope horns – keratin – and have no medicinal properties whatsoever. Photo credit: Aristo Mendis

Unfortunately, the pangolin is severely affected by hunting. Illegal trade in pangolin meat and scales, for which there is high demand internationally, is resulting in declining populations throughout India, despite being legally protected under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, and under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna. Like the Indian pangolin, seven other pangolin species distributed across Africa and Asia are currently facing the threat of extinction.

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 Figure 2: Pangolins live in sizeable burrows in the ground or underneath large rocks. Project intern Krishna Pavan exploring a burrow for pangolin signs. Photo credit: Vikram Aditya

My fieldwork in the northern Eastern Ghats landscape, centered around the Papikonda National Park, focused on enumerating mammal diversity patterns across the landscape. In the course of my field work, I also found that hunting is widely practiced by indigenous tribal communities such as the Koyas, Konda Reddies, Bagathas, Savaras and Parajas in this part of the Eastern Ghats, using a variety of traditional methods ranging from bow and arrows to traps (Figure 3). Most hunting is for local consumption of meat; however, there is also significant local trade in wildlife, although this has abated in recent decades because of the reduced presence of wild mammals. Hunting is mainly carried out by local hunting parties with expertise in tracking animals and equipped with bow and arrows, – occasionally, even country made rifles, and almost invariably accompanied by several dogs.

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Figure 3: Pangolins dig out anthills and termite mounds for ants. Some anthills such as this one above can grow very high. Photo credit: Aristo Mendis

Aside from pangolins, other forest mammals such as barking deer, mouse deer, hares and langurs are frequently caught. The use of electric snares is also common in some villages, but primarily to prevent raids by wild boars during harvest season. Small animals that get electrocuted are caught and eaten. These snares are set by dragging a metal wire set at low heights connected to a live power line, typically around a foot from the ground, fixed to the ground by wooden sticks driven in every 20 metres or so. The metal snares run for long distances, typically around a hillside bordering a stream, and animals that move down the hill to access the stream for water are caught in the snares and killed by hunters.

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Figure 4: Local trapper displaying a metal trap for small sized animals and birds. Photo credit: Vikram Aditya

Field surveys initiated over the past year have suggested that pangolins are easily identified and located. They are frequently targeted for their meat, which is considered a delicacy. Locals who have hunted and eaten the pangolin refer to the unusual blood red colour of its meat, which persists even after cooking. In the past, pangolin scales were usually discarded, but a demand for them has arisen in recent decades from plains-dwelling outsiders (non-tribals). The scales fetch a steep price ranging from ten to thirty thousand rupees a kilo, driven by beliefs about the talismanic and prophylactic powers of pangolin scales. One myth is that powdering the scales and drinking the powder with milk can ward off black magic. As a result, some locals have begun hunting pangolins specifically for their scales, to the extent that the pangolin is now virtually undetectable in the northern Eastern Ghats.

The future of the Indian pangolin, evolved to survive alongside tigers and lions, appears bleak across the country unless immediate efforts are initiated for their conservation. However, I am hopeful that partnering with local and forest dwelling communities will provide the pangolins a possibility of survival in the twenty-first century. Informing local communities about the crisis facing the pangolin and involving local youth in identifying pangolin burrows and encouraging them to monitor them could help strengthen our relationship with them and encourage community stewardship for protecting pangolins.

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Figure 5: A wire snare set within a clutch of branches for catching larger prey such as wild boars and barking deer. Photo credit: Vikram Aditya

About the Author

Vikram Aditya joined the ATREE PhD programme in 2011. His PhD research examines patterns of landscape change over the past three decades in the Papikonda National Park, in the Eastern Ghats of Andhra Pradesh, India, and its effects on mammal diversity and distribution patterns in the region. He has a Masters in Zoology and has previously worked with WWF-India from 2006 to 2010 as a Research Associate, and as a National Geographic Young Explorer Grantee exploring the biodiversity of the Godavari valley in 2010. His work on the Indian pangolin in the northern Eastern Ghats has been supported by a small grant from the Wildlife Conservation Trust (WCT), India.

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