A prayer for the pangolin

To survive in the wild, the pangolin needs to be protected under a conservation plan, including ways to ban demand for its meat and body parts

An Indian pangolin in Keoladeo Ghana National Park in Rajasthan. Photo: Ansar Khan
An Indian pangolin in Keoladeo Ghana National Park in Rajasthan. Photo: Ansar Khan

New Delhi: One night in the early 1990s, a rustle outside a farmhouse near the south-central ridge forest on the outskirts of Delhi woke up the landlord and his family.

As the sound grew louder, the sleepy landlord thought it to be a thief’s attempt to steal transformer cables. But when he went outside to accost the intruder he found a strange small creature digging at a termite mound. This was around midnight and the clamour got the rest of the family together, but no one had any idea about the identity of the scaly animal furiously digging into the termites.

When it was poked with a pole, the animal simply coiled up into a ball and all efforts, including repeated blows with an axe, failed to change its posture. The family, deciding to present the specimen to the zoo in the morning, put a barrel top of it, weighed down with heavy stones to stop it moving about. But the strange little thing escaped: it dug into the ground and managed to tilt the heavy barrel to make its getaway. This was the Indian pangolin and the anecdote is from notes published in the Journal of Bombay Natural History Society.

That night the pangolin was lucky to get away unharmed into the rocky scrub forest of the ridge, for not all members of the species share the same good fortune: the elusive nocturnal has been poached for its meat and to make the so-called traditional medicines since the British colonial period.

Conservationists estimate tens of thousands of pangolins are illegally traded every year. The main markets are China and Vietnam where every part of the animal is used, bringing a gruesome end to a rarely seen and one of the cutest-looking animals on the planet. The pangolin is put in boiling water for the extraction of scales which are used in Chinese traditional medicine; the meat is sold separately as a delicacy.

In India, the pangolin is given the highest legal protection, placed in Schedule I of the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972. There is also a ban on trade of pangolin parts and products under Section 5 of the Foreign Trade (Development and Regulation) Act of 1992. Despite such protective measures, the trapping and killing continue unabated. There are no official records of the number of pangolins left in the wild.

The website annamiticus.com, an advocacy group working to stop the economic exploitation of endangered species, estimates between 40,625 and 81,250 pangolins were killed across Asia and Africa in 2013 for illegal trading. “Pangolin poaching cases are rarely reported unlike mega fauna such as tigers, leopards, rhinos and elephants. One thousand five hundred and ninety- eight pangolins are known to have been killed in India for trade (4,154kg pangolin scales seized at 2.6kg per animal) between 2009 and 2013, but these figures are from seizure records and the actual trade is estimated many times more,” says Tito Joseph, programme manager, Wildlife Protection Society of India, a non-governmental organization combating the illegal wildlife trade.

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN’s) red list of threatened species, the enigmatic pangolin, or scaly anteater, is literally being eaten out of existence.

“It could go extinct before most people realize it exits,” says John D. Sutter, a columnist at CNN in his investigative report, The Most Trafficked Mammal You’ve Never Heard Of, uncovering the illegal trade in pangolins in Vietnam, one of the hubs of the illegal wildlife trade in Southeast Asia.

But what is a pangolin? Natural history literature shows people have thought this prehistoric-looking animal to be, variously, a baby dinosaur, a small crocodile living in the Sunderbans, a monitor lizard, a snake, a walking pine cone with a tail, even a moving artichoke.

Most people were unaware of it. Prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru thought it looked like a cross “between a lizard and a crocodile”, while colonial naturalists glorified it, declaring: “It’s a cross between a knight of the medieval ages in armour plating and a fish covered with scales”— or “nature’s living tank”.

“Even today, there are very few photographic records of the pangolin in the wild. The ones that you see on the Internet or in wildlife magazines are mostly from captivity,” says Dipankar Ghose, director, species and landscape programme, WWF-India.

The pangolin is slightly bigger than a domestic cat, and is the world’s only truly scaly mammal. A burrowing mammal, it feeds on termites and ants. The name pangolin comes from the Malay word peng-guling, meaning something that rolls up into a ball, and this is exactly what it does when it feels threatened.

“In its ball-like position, a pangolin’s vulnerable parts—underbelly, eyes, ears and nose—remain safely in the middle, leaving only a remarkably tough coat of keratin scales to face attack. The sharp edges on these scales discourage all but the most determined aggressors, such as people and tigers. Gnawed on by a hungry tiger or poked at with a stick by an inquisitive human, the pangolin remains adamant and, for the most part, impenetrable. Glancing off the angled surface of the animal’s scales, bullets and axe blows—regrettable tests of strength applied by more than one—have failed to wound a curled pangolin. The brute strength of one or two men is insufficient to pry them open,” Julie Hughes, assistant professor, Vassar College, New York State, said at a lecture at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi, earlier this year.

The pangolin has a conical head, a muscular tail and a tongue that is longer than its body. An adult pangolin is said to eat about 70 million insects per year. Ecologists laud the species as a natural pest controller and soil nourisher. Previously grouped with anteaters, sloths and armadillos, pangolins are now known to be most closely related to carnivores, from which they diverged approximately 80 million years ago.

There are eight species of the pangolin, four each in Asia and Africa, among which the Indian pangolin is found across the subcontinent. In northeast India, the Chinese pangolin also overlaps in range with the Indian pangolin. All eight pangolin species are now listed as threatened by extinction. “What is the most remarkable animal to be found in the Indian jungles to-day? Some, with considerable grounds for their claim, will immediately reply the tiger, with his beauty, his strength, his cunning; others will place the elephant, mightiest of terrestrial mammals, first, basing their choice on the fact that by many he is considered to be the most interesting creature in the world; but I think that few who know the animal will hesitate to give that astonishing survival of past ages, the pangolin, pride of place,” said the well-known British naturalist F.W. Champion in his book The Jungle in Sunlight and Shadow (1934).

According to Hughes, the Indian pangolin appears to have first received official protection in 1935 during the reign of Maharawal Lakshman Singh (1918-89) of Dungarpur, now in southern Rajasthan, and during the reign of Maharawal Prithvi Singh (1914-44) in Banswara, where the pangolin made its appearance in state correspondence in 1928.

In colonial India, a surprising number of pangolins have been privately kept as pets or specimens for observation. Champion mentions that the pangolin is an exceedingly difficult animal to study in the wild, for the animal spends most of its life underground and very rarely appears above the surface in daytime. “In British India, the pangolin played a role in mediating the complex relationships between the colonizers and the colonized. When an Indian prince or British officer donated a pangolin to a museum or a zoo, they enjoyed the status associated with gifting rare specimens to state institutions for the promotion of science and public good. But, when a tribal brought a pangolin to an Englishman, or when an Englishman showed a pangolin to Indian villagers, they shared a moment of mutual fascination,” says Hughes.

It is not clear how pangolins were sourced as they were extremely difficult to procure. Englishmen in colonial South Asia tended to let out the job as do modern day researchers who rely on locals, including farmers, herders, hunters, and poachers familiar with the study area for their specimens.

The earliest record of a captive pangolin is attributed to R.S. Tickell of the Bengal Army in 1838, who was also a well-known ornithologist. Pangolins were not only forest creatures but also lived in close proximity to humans. One story goes that a pangolin burrowed its way to the post office at Purulia, West Bengal, in 1907. And in Etawah, Uttar Pradesh, pangolins entered homes by digging their way through mud walls in search of food. But even in those times, “most captured pangolins were not destined to be pets or zoological specimens but rather served as food or medicine for therapeutic qualities,” says Hughes.

Researchers in 2012 found that villagers in the Chambal ravines of Etawah were killing the animal for food, not for illegal trade. “Some traditional medical practitioners or hakims were processing pangolin scales into traditional aphrodisiac. It has been suggested that non-medical uses for the scales include manufacturing of bullet-proof jackets,” says Hughes.

Even as early as 1916, the employees of an Indian Forest Service officer in Burma claimed they could get Rs.15 from any Chinaman for a live specimen.

“The Indian rhino, the hunting cheetah, the pangolin (scaly ant-eater), the musk deer, the wild buffalo, the wild ass of Kutch, the great bustard, the pink-headed duck, and at least one variety of the hornbill, are all creatures once reasonably common over considerable areas and now rapidly approaching vanishing point,” wrote Colonel Kesri Singh in the book, One Man and a Thousand Tigers (1959).

But as more and more people in Southeast Asia flaunt their newfound wealth on exotic food, the illegal trade of the pangolin continues unabated and unnoticed despite it being a protected species in most countries. It is also listed in Cites (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) along with a trade ban in animal parts.

In July, the IUCN’s Pangolin Specialist Group in its report Scaling up Pangolin Conservation put the scale of this trade to one million pangolins taken from the wild in the last decade. As a result, the pangolin population in Asia has been in precipitous decline and they have been extirpated from vast areas.

The report says that pangolins have been subject to very little conservation or natural history research, and consequently, little is known about their biology, ecology and conservation needs. Today, we need an urgent implementation of a conservation plan, including ways to ban demand for pangolin meat and body parts for food and medicine.

This is the third part in a series in which Mint looks at species that are less talked about and struggling for survival. Read the first part of the series about dholes, and the second part about wolves.

Mint’s wildlife writer Ananda Banerjee received a fellowship from the Forum of Environmental Journalists of India and the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment to study these species.

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