Nishan KC | The TrickyScribe: We have heard about the smallest to the largest and the strangest to the strongest in many Guinness World Records titles, but uniquely: Pangolins holds the record as “The Most Trafficked Wild Mammals on the Planet”. Truthfully, this title furnishes the overall pity profile of Pangolins.
Pangolins (Order: Pholidota; Family: Manidae) are shy, elusive and nocturnal. It is a peculiar mammal of the size of a domestic cat or dog. They predominantly feed upon ants and termites and their body is largely covered by hard protective scales. They are also christened as the ‘Scaly anteaters’. They curl up into a tight ball to protect themselves from predators, but this makes it a cakewalk for the poachers to collect it in a sack.
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The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species categories the two Asian species- Chinese and Sunda Pangolin as Critically Endangered, rest two- Indian and Philippine Pangolin as Endangered and all the four African species as Vulnerable. All the eight species are listed in Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), banning all commercial international trade of their wild specimens. In Nepal, they are protected priority species under National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act 2029.
Booming Illegal Trade: The Principal Threat
The trade in pangolins is globally skyrocketing as compared to elephant, rhino and tiger. The latest study by Environmental Investigation Agency, estimates 160,000 individual pangolins have been seized during the past 16 years. The Agency states, if contraband seized constitute only 10 percent of actual illicit trade then the total number of pangolins traded could be around 1.5 million in the said period.
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With dwindling Asian pangolin species due to poaching, the African species are being slaughtered in extensively for meeting the same demand for past few years. TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network, identified Europe as a major transit hub mostly for African pangolins being transported to Asia. Two Asian countries, China and Vietnam, are the sink i.e. the main markets for frozen pangolins and their dry scales.
The growing demand for its meat and scales by Asian countries, can’t escape Nepal’s pangolin. Many cases are filed against pangolin illegal trade in various districts of Nepal. In 2013, Nepal seized around 325 kilos of pangolin scales on the Kathmandu-Kodari Araniko Highway and it was believed that they came from not less than 1,300 pangolins. It was the biggest seizure in Nepal till date. These were only a seized part but many pangolin traders are still at large. Tibet and Indian territories adjoining Nepal are their safe havens.
Myth: The Reason of Concern
China is the largest consumer of pangolin scales. They find use in traditional Chinese medicine with the myths around them claiming cure for many diseases including mental illnesses, cancer and asthma. There, however, is no scientific evidence behind these because pangolins scales are made from Keratin, the same substance that makes our fingernails and rhino horns. Pangolin meat is considered a ‘delicacy’ and is in high demand in many restaurants of China and Vietnam. Asian communities often consume the fresh blood of pangolins as an aphrodisiac. In Nepal, meats and scales are supposed to cure gastrointestinal problems, reproductive disorders, and skin diseases.
The Way Ahead!
If the same poaching trends continue at the same rate, it wouldn’t be a surprise to lose these peculiar mammals forever. Pangolins play a vital role in the ecosystem. They are usually regarded as a natural pest controller as a single pangolin will eat up to 70 million insects annually. So, conservation spotlight is deemed necessary for pangolins before they extirpate. Engaging local communities, promoting public awareness, focused research by deploying parabiologists, and placing effective anti-poaching law enforcement are the best possible solutions to forward for healing the current plights of pangolin.
(Nishan is an enthusiastic kid pursuing his course in Forestry Sciences at Institute of Forestry, Pokhara, Nepal. He has been involved in Ecological & Behavioural study of small mammals and habitat survey of critically endangered Chinese pangolin in Sindhuli, Nepal)