Small Is Significant – The Hindu

ENDANGERED: Animals listed in a poster designed by the Madurai district forest department. Photo: Special Arrangement

The small members of the wild are lesser known but are an important part of our ecosystem. A move is on to save them.

The mention of Wildlife generally conjures up images of the elephant and the tiger in our minds. But Wildlife includes everything from small reptiles to big mammals. Do we ever pause to give a thought to the less cared for and lesser known animals that happen to live in our immediate surroundings and unfortunately also get poached rampantly?

Take the case of Pangolin, a small-sized scaly ant-eater, found in dry and semi-dry deciduous forest patches.

Last month, the Madurai Forestry seized 400 scales from a poacher in Kalmedu and another 20 scales from a woman trader at the Sunday Market on Tamil Sangam Road.

Called as ‘Alumbu odu’, in Tamil, Pangolin scales are a rich source of Keratin.

The scales are powdered and used as a cure for various ailments. Even rings made out of them are worn to keep diseases away.

“Pangolins are caught and killed gruesomely by boiling them alive in water,” says Sharavanan, a wildlife conservationist from Ooty.

According to him Kolli hill in Namakkal and Thuraiyur in Tiruchi are the hotspots for Pangolin hunting where the meat is rampantly consumed. “The scales are used in traditional medicine and are believed to cure piles,” he adds.

“A unique species, Pangolins prey on termites and small insects. They live in burrows and are nocturnal and docile in behaviour. They are linked to other small mammals and the role they play cannot be replaced. It is also a slow breeding animal,” says Dr. Shekhar Kumar Niraj, the head of TRAFFIC India, the wildlife trade monitoring network.

In India, two kinds of Pangolins – the Indian and the Chinese Pangolins are found. Some areas notorious for Pangolin hunting are the Himalayan Foothills in Uttarakhand, the dry regions of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Central Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, North karnataka, Central and Southern Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Rajahmundry area in Andhra. A conservationist from TRAFFIC, says two decades ago, a Pangolin scale costed Rs. Five or Six but now the demand and price have grown manifolds and One kilo of scales come for Rs.30,000 now. A juvenile Pangolin may yield up to one kg scales and a fully grown animal may fetch around 6 kg.

In a bid to record the population of the animal, R. Marimuthu of Zoo Outreach Organisation, based in Coimbatore, has started a survey of Indian Pangolins in the nine Western Ghats districts of Tamil Nadu.

“The study is funded by Mohamed bin Yayad Species Conservation Fund and is aimed at collection of preliminary data about the Pangolin population and mapping their areas. It will help identify new habitats and understand the hunting issues better,” he says. “We are also looking into the possibility of captive breeding of Pangolins as done in Nandankanan zoological park in Odisha.”

Apart from Pangolins, the surrounding forests of Madurai are home to small animals such as the Black Naped Hare (Muyal), Slender Loris (Devangu), Grey Francolin (Goudhari), Palm Civet (Punugu Poonai) and Jungle Cat (Kaatu Poonai).

In the recent months, the District Forest Department has tightened the noose around poachers of small mammals. Just last week, a wildlife offender from Ilaiyankudi in Ramnad was caught red-handed at the Madurai Airport, while trying to smuggle 247 live star tortoises to Kuala Lumpur. The animals, all of them aged less than three months, were being sold by a Chennai-based trader to a buyer in Malaysia. “Start tortoises are exotic pets in the South Asian Countries, but are banned under the Wildlife Protection Act in India. They are classified under Schedule 4 species and it is illegal to possess one,” says Nihar Ranjan, IFS, District Forest Officer.

Based on tip-offs by wildlife conservationists working undercover, the officials have booked around 30 cases of poaching of Black Naped Hares and Jungle Cats, pangolin scales trading, illegal snake rescues and selling of parakeets and Grey Francolins over the past four months. Around 24 of the cases were fined to the tune of Rs. 7.5 Lakhs and the rest were remanded.

The department conducted surprise raids at markets, meat shops, forest areas and suburban pockets of the district. “These animals get hunted for various reasons. Some of them are used as pets; some get poached for the commercial value of the body parts, skin and scales, while most of them are consumed for the meat,” says Nihar Ranjan. “Many of the offenders are unaware of wildlife laws and don’t realize that keeping a parakeet in a cage or eating the meat of a Francolin are banned. However, the strict action taken by the department is acting as a deterrent. We revisited some poachers and they have taken to different means of livelihood. In order to spread the message and sensitize the general public to wildlife issues, we have been distributing and pasting pamphlets warning poachers at various public places in the city and we hope this would bring down wildlife crimes in a big way.”