Poachers often drop live pangolins in boiling water, and take out their scales once they die.

How the worlds most hunted animal is being poached in the Western Ghats and we arent doing much about itImage: By Sandip kumar, via Wikimedia Commons
news Saturday, September 26, 2015 - 18:47

They are the world’s most hunted animal, and not only are they endangered, they are very rare. And yet, the animals are being hunted regularly on the Western Ghats and exported to other states and countries. These mammals, Pangolins, are not widely talked about, and more cases are now emerging from the Ghats.

Recently, forest officials of the Kodihalli range of Bannerghatta National Park division caught a man with one kg of pangolin scales. The accused reportedly smuggled the scales from across the Hosur border. 

“This is the first case of Pangolin scales being smuggled and sold in this division,” Bangalore Mirror reported. According to forest officials, pangolin scales are mostly found near the Western Ghats like Karwar, Chikkamagaluru and its surrounding regions.

Pangolins, also known as “scaly anteaters,” are burrowing mammals covered in scales. They feed on ants and termites with their long sticky tongue. There are eight different pangolin species that can be found across Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. They are also reportedly the world's most hunted animals and one of the most threatened species on the planet. 

"Pangolin comes from ‘penggulung,’ the Malay word for roller – the action a pangolin takes in self-defense," according to the World Wildlife Fund.

In the recent past, there have been several cases of poaching.

May 2015: Two tribals were arrested on the Khawasa border and a kilogram of pangolin scales were recovered from them.

June, 2015: Six bags containing reportedly 216 kg of pangolin scales are seized in a Mizoram village close to the Myanmar border. This was a paricularly interesting case as reported by The Indian Express. In May, forest department officials found that 292 kg of seized pangolin scales, which were locked up inside a godown in Kolasib, had been replaced by fakes."The missing scales made up for more than a third of the 848 kg pangolin scales seized by various law enforcement agencies from smugglers since 2012," the report stated. The scales retrieved from the June 11 seizure were believed to be part of the scales which had been replaced in the department’s godown. 

July, 2015: Over one kg of pangolin scales and nailswere seized after a team of the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau raided several areas in Odisha's Berhampur to expose a racket of illegal trading of scales and nails of pangolins.

August, 2015: 400 pangolin scales were seized by Madurai forest officials from a person at Karuppayurani. In another incident in the same month, three persons including a doctor were arrested in Maharashtra and 8.5 kg pangolin scales were seized from them.

A pangolin defends itself from lions in Gir Forest in Gujarat; By Sandip kumar, via Wikimedia Commons

"Illegal trade in South Asia, however, has now rendered the scaly mammals the most trafficked animal on earth, with some estimates claiming that sales now account for up to 20 per cent of the entire wildlife black market," The Telegraph reported earlier this year. The report added that an estimated "100,000 pangolins are captured every year from across Africa and Asia, with most shipped to China and Vietnam, where their meat and scales are sold," the report adds.

In the last two months, the forest department in Madurai has booked three cases against persons caught smuggling pangolin scales. 

Speaking to The News Minute, Nihar Ranjan, District Forest Officer, Madurai, says that though the illegal trade of pangolin scales is practiced in several regions in the country, the extent and scale of the practice is not clear. "Pangolins are not only endangered but are also a rare species," he says

The use of scales and other body parts of the animal are believed to cure several medical conditions.

In Tamil Nadu, Ranjan explains, many burn pangolin scales and the ashes are used for the treatment of piles. 

"When they burn the scales, what they get is nothing but just a high content of potassium. And potassium is used to treat piles. But potassium is easily available from other sources," he says. 

According to Save Pangolins, an organisation that works towards the protection and conservation of the species, the scaly mammals "are hunted for food, for use in traditional medicine and as fashion accessories, and for a rampant illegal international trade in scales, skins, and meat.”

Pangolin scales are high in demand in several Asian countries including China and Vietnam, and are believed to cure a range of diseases including asthma, rheumatism and arthritis.

The scales of pangolins, which are made of keratin, are tough enough to protect them from most predators including lions. Though armoured in their protective shell, pangolins are very shy creatures. On sensing danger, they coil into a ball like shape. However, poachers take advantage of their this very instinct.

Once they coil, pangolins do not attack. It is then easy to lift them up with bare hands and carry them. “I found out from some poachers that they drop the coiled pangolins in boiling water and once they are dead, they take out the scales,” says Ranjan.

A kilogram of pangolin scales can fetch as much as Rs 10,000 in the local market. A poacher can obtain around half-a-kg of scales from a mature pangolin.  

The World Wildlife Fund states, "Based on reported seizures between 2011 and 2013, an estimated 116,990-233,980 pangolins were killed, which represents only the tip of the trade. Experts believe that seizures represent as little as 10 percent of the actual volume inpangolins in illegal wildlife trade."

Since pangolins are Schedule I species, the minimum punishment for those convicted in the illegal pangolin trade is 3 years of imprisonment.

Ranjan feels that more than punishment, what is required is an awareness at local levels. These are a species which can perfectly exist alongside human beings, which is more reason to rein in their exploitation, which if unbridled can possibly lead to their extinction.

“But more than the poachers, it is the middlemen who need to be nabbed. Poachers are often poor people who are looking to make some money anyhow. It is the dealers and middleman who run and control the market. They can buy a kg of pangolin scales from the poacher for Rs 10,000 and sell it in the international market for Rs 50,000,” says Ranjan.