By Vikram Aditya
Illegal wildlife trade forms the third largest illicit trade market globally. Trafficking (smuggling) of body parts and products made from rare and threatened wildlife species is a highly lucrative business for organized cartels, who exploit poor and vulnerable forest dwelling communities for their criminal interests. This is pushing endangered species into extinction and simultaneously placing these communities at high risk. A range of species are illegally hunted and traded within India, while a subset of these is smuggled abroad by trafficking networks. Some commonly traded species include reptiles like turtles and tortoises, sand boas, and geckos; birds like parakeets and owls; mammals including the Tibetan antelope, musk deer, civets, large cats; large woody trees such as red sanders and teak and rare medicinal and ornamental plants particularly orchids. While historically, personal contacts and networks of grassroots markets run by middlemen enabled wildlife trade, the cyber revolution has enabled widespread access to digital platforms since the 2000s, and consequently a sizable chunk of wildlife trade happens via social media, and other online communication media. It is fairly easy to find videos and pictures of threatened and protected species of fauna and flora animals online. Middlemen share these videos and pictures of hunted animals to their colleagues and contacts online, attracting buyers and therefore enabling the trade and trafficking of endangered species.
No group of species has been more affected by poaching and illegal wildlife trade than pangolins, a group of medium sized, toothless mammals with horny scales covering their body to protect them from ants and termites, which is their principal diet. Along with the scales, their long tongue and prehensile tail gives them the appearance of a reptile, almost resembling a miniature crocodile. Of the eight species of pangolins distributed across Africa and Asia, two are found in India, the Chinese (Manis pentadactyla) and the Indian pangolins (Manis crassicaudata). They are also unique in belonging to their own order Pholidota and family Manidae, highlighting their unique evolutionary history. All pangolins are under severe threat throughout their range due to the domestic and international demand for their meat, scales and skin. In particular, the four species of Asian pangolins (Indian, Chinese, Sunda and Philippine) are all highly endangered and could face extinction in the next decade.
Based on the surveys and community interviews during the course of our project on the Indian pangolin in the northern Eastern Ghats landscape that we are currently undertaking, we found that the most frequently used methods for hunting pangolins were 1) identifying and digging the burrow; 2) tracking the foot and tail prints; 3) waiting at the burrow for the animal to emerge and then hitting them with sticks on the head; 4) use of dogs in tracking them and identifying the dens; 5) setting fire to the burrow entrance to smoke the pangolins out, and 6) tracking them at night (since pangolins are nocturnal). These methods often overlap and are used in combination. It is reported that the pangolins are extremely easy to catch once they are sighted.
A local who hunted several pangolins before recollects, ‘Pangolins are very easy to catch, the dogs track them to their burrows. If we find them outside, it doesn’t even run away, it turns into a ball. We cannot pick it up directly, as the scales will cut our hands. We hit it on the head with a stick, and it opens up, then we hit the head and it dies. We don’t even know which burrows it stays in, it keeps changing’. Once the animal is caught, only picking it up, putting it into a sack and carrying it away remains, because pangolins are defenseless and can’t attack or defend themselves in any way. Earlier, locals used to kill the animal straight away, eat its meat and burn or discard the scales. An old lady whom we interviewed recalls ‘I have seen this, eaten its meat many times. When my husband was alive he and a few others used to hunt it, they used to dig them out of their burrows with spades’. However, people now realize the commercial value of pangolins in the wildlife trade market, and are trying to keep it alive till they find a buyer and sell it. Pangolins fetch steep prices locally as well as in the international market, and this is the greatest incentive for its hunting. Dr. Rajkamal Goswami, Research Associate at ATREE who studies hunting practices in India’s northeast says, “Since money is the greatest motivator for hunting pangolins, any strategy which seeks to ask communities to forego that lucrative activity should start with identifying other conservation friendly and economically profitable activity”. Technology, social media and communication tools play an important role here in facilitating wildlife trade through bringing together the nexus of middlemen and buyers based in cities and towns with the hunters who are mostly from villages virtually.
Pangolin parts, particularly their highly prized scales (as with most other wildlife parts) are composed of keratin, the same material that makes up human fingernails and hair. Keratin is not known to have any medicinal properties. Breaking the widely held myths about their purported medicinal properties is vital if we wish to give unique species like the pangolins a chance at survival. This is also the case with hunting and poaching in general. Understanding the background beliefs and widely held myths which help create incentives for hunting, and eliminating these incentives is vital if the killing of endangered species is to be curtailed. Rajkamal adds ‘Any conservation plan for the pangolins should start with aiming to stop or control poaching which is the most critical threat to their survival. However, considering the chronic problem of manpower shortage in the forest department on ground, controlling hunting is extremely difficult. Therefore, attitude of the hunters must be understood, based on which strategies could be then devised. It is important to remove the incentives for hunting through stricter enforcement of anti-hunting laws as far as possible so that hunting while lucrative becomes a risky and uncertain activity. Such a situation might make it easier to steer them towards conservation friendly but economically rewarding activities with no or extremely low risk’.
The most important players in combating wildlife trade though, remain the grassroots communities particularly forest dwelling people who coexist with these species. Unless they are made the main partners in conserving pangolins through community initiatives, the situation may continue to worsen rapidly for pangolins and other endangered species. Krishna Pavan, currently a Junior Research Fellow at the Laboratory for Conservation of Endangered Species (LaCONES), Hyderabad, who studied hunting practices in the Northern Eastern Ghats as part of this project adds, “Trade of Indian pangolins in the international markets are well known. However, the major stakeholders at the supply level, the indigenous people, are not being considered in conservation of the species. It is necessary to gain support from indigenous people, to help control the impact of hunting, thereby reducing supply.” The convergence of various stakeholders, most importantly forest dwelling communities, researchers, government departments and NGOs in devising strategies to break the web of poaching and wildlife trade is therefore essential to save pangolins and other threatened species from extinction.
The author has received inputs from Rajkamal Goswami and Krishna Pavan for this article.
About the Author
Vikram Aditya completed his PhD at ATREE in 2019. His PhD research examined 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.