Last week, when Ratnagiri police raided a house in the town located on the Konkan coast following a tip-off about an illegal gun being kept there, they stumbled upon a stash of pangolin scales. The seizure is the latest revelation of illegal wildlife trade in body parts of the insectivorous mammal, which is in demand for its supposed therapeutic value in Oriental medicine.
Activists and forest officials claim that these seizures — three in Ratnagiri since last year — may be a pointer to a larger racket involved in trafficking of these body parts to foreign shores. The lack of a population estimate of the scaly anteater makes it difficult to predict the extent of its poaching.
The latest seizure
“Acting on a tip-off, we raided a house in Ratnagiri and seized 750 gm of pangolin scales and 40 wild boar tusks of different sizes,” said police sub-inspector Raviraj Phadnis, adding that the accused, Jeevankumar Mane of Pali in Raigad, has been arrested. A double-bore gun and 38 live cartridges have also been seized.
Police and forest department officials said this was the third such seizure in the district. In July 2015, a stash of 44kg pangolin scales was recovered near Chiplun while in February this year 12kg was recovered at Dapoli.
Poachers love pangolins
“The recent seizures could be the tip of the iceberg, and there is no denying that it’s the most widely trafficked wild animal,” noted Bhau Katdare, president, Sahyadri Nisarga Mitra (SNM), which is involved in an awareness campaign.
“These animals are hunted in the Western Ghats region,” admitted a senior state forest department official. Another official said that apart from the scales, even the blood and flesh of the animal was in demand due to its supposed aphrodisiac properties.
Vikas Jagtap, divisional forest officer (DFO), noted that the illegal hunting of the endangered pangolin may have been on for years in the region. The poachers, who further supplied these body parts to traffickers for transportation to countries like China and Vietnam, took help from local tribals and communities who knew where the reclusive, nocturnal animal could be located. Hence, the forest department had roped in NGOs to sensitise local tribals and communities on pangolin conservation.
Pangolins can go extinct
“The rate at which pangolins are being poached, it wont be a surprise if they go extinct from India in the next two years. The government must wake up and decide to take action,” warned Dr Shekhar Kumar Niraj, head of TRAFFIC India — a wildlife trade monitoring network. He added that the bigger problem was that pangolins were slow breeders and hence their population is further threatened.
“The demand for pangolins is on such a rise that there has been a jump of 1,000 per cent in the cost and this is the biggest reason for poachers now shifting to this species, which is easier to poach and there is hardly any awareness among authourities themselves,” he shared.
“Not many people know about the existence of such a creature. As a result, awareness about poaching and trafficking of pangolins and need for their conservation are also severely lacking,” shared Wildlife SOS co-founder Kartick Satyanarayan, who added that the pangolins unfortunately do not share the fame, publicity and allure of more typically ‘charismatic’ species like the tiger, elephant or rhino, and hence, concern about their trafficking status and conservation is still quite lacking.
Pangolins are smoked or dug out of their burrows and dipped into boiling water to extract the scales. Poachers, who are contacted by traffickers, lure local tribals to locate the animal about which there is little public knowledge. “This seems to be pretty organised,” said Katdare, adding that the traffickers used code names like “football” for the pangolin.
“Conservation can be undertaken only through the provision of a livelihood. Otherwise, it is not practical,” he stated, adding that they were working on generating livelihood opportunities for tribals and mainstreaming them.
Authourities deny poaching angle
MK Rao, chief conservator of forests (CCF), Kolhapur (territorial), denied that there was an organised racket in the region and added that some tribal families in Ratnagiri were involved in killing the insectivore due to poverty and landlessness. These tribals hunted the pangolin for its meat. “We are contacting each and every such family in Ratnagiri and trying to use them as our flag bearers. We will provide them with livelihood so that this problem is controlled,” he added.
Rao noted that pangolins, which ate insects like termites, helped farmers by getting rid of pests.