Pangolins in peril

Kumar Paudel
February 16, 2014

In 2013 Nepal recorded around 325 kg of pangolin scales seized on the Araniko-trail (Kathmandu-Bahrabise-Kodari) alone. Four pangolins make for a kg of pangolin scales. By this calculation, 1,300 pangolins must have been killed in 2013 alone. But this is just a small portion of a big game. From our childhood, we are taught of the importance of conserving rhinos, tigers, elephants, snow leopards and pandas. But they are an only small fraction of the ecologic enigma. One in four mammals, one in eight birds, one in three amphibians, and one in three conifers are at risk of extinction. The peril faced by other classes of organisms is less analyzed, but fully 40 percent of the examined species of planet earth is at risk. Pangolins are no exception.

A host to two genera of Asian pangolin—Chinese Pangolin (Tame Salak) and Indian Pangolin (Kalo Salak)—Nepal’s eastern districts, Chure range and Sindhupalchok, Kavrepalanchok, Bhaktapur, Dolakha, Makawanpur and Dhading, among others, are prime habitats of pangolins.

Pangolins are one of the most commonly poached mammals in Asia. This is exemplified by the alarming volumes of pangolin products that have been seized in East and Southeast Asia, as reported by the media and law enforcement agencies. But even this news just scratches the surface of the underground wildlife trade. Pangolins derivatives like scales (and items made from them) are sold in South East Asia, China (especially Tibet region), the Arab World, and Europe. China is a major gateway for its exit.

Pangolin is a small mammal that eats insects and lives in burrows and is active around agricultural farmlands. These anteaters have a very prominent role in the ecosystem—it is estimated that one adult pangolin consumes over 70 million insects annually. This feature is directly linked with livelihood because it saves millions of rupees in pest control every year. Burrowing animals are very important to the ecology: their actions create breeding habitat or shelter for many other animals and thus contribute to species diversity. Even more important, they help increase soil fertility and aeration, which results in better growth of seedlings. Thus, pangolins not only keep ecological balance but also help farmers gain better yields.

During the recent law enforcement Operation ‘COBRA II’, 14 people involved in wildlife crimes were arrested from 14 districts of Nepal. The operation had participants from China, the US, Association of South-East Asian Nations, South Asia Wildlife Enforcement Network, CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species), World Customs Organization, and Interpol. However, apart from such large scale law enforcement efforts, it is also important to raise awareness in communities that host pangolins.

To curb poaching, it is important to shift the strategic approach of the conservation by including local communities. The great biological riches of the world are generally in the rural, poorest and least developed areas, and the custodians of such wealth remain unrewarded for protecting these riches for generations, or for their indigenous knowledge. It is imperative that mechanisms be developed to make it worthwhile for them to continue taking care of natural heritage that belongs to the entire world. New ways must be found to share incentives with local people and make them feel a greater sense of ownership of those endangered animals.

Poaching is widely supported by local people because it is an easy means of earning. If the records of District Forest Office, Sindhupalchok are to be believed, out of 100 people arrested in connection with poaching, more than two-thirds are locals. It is believed that “The one who plants one Pipal doesn’t go to hell”. Now, this traditional quote has changed to “The one who sells pangolins goes to a bungalow.”

Poaching is a major threat as it can drive species to local extinction. Local-level poaching occurs for two reasons: consumption and export to nearby markets. The cost of scales varies from place to place. The whole pangolin costs more than just its scales. The minimum price for a live pangolin is Rs 5,000/kg at the local hunter’s. In the supply chain, the price is doubled when it reaches the next trader, and so on. The average retail price of the scale is Rs 40,000-50,000/kg, and sometimes more at the borders.

Illegal trade pressures, political instability, perverse incentives, poor economic situation, poverty, corruption and lack of law enforcement drive this trade up. The major consumer markets of pangolin have seen substantial increases in average incomes. Demand reduction is a key challenge, and probably won’t be easy. Booming economy and purchasing capacity of East Asian consumers are key drivers for international trade. Yet the problem is not the booming economy, but the myths, beliefs and perceptions of people who think pangolin body parts and its derivates can do magic.

In a developing country like Nepal, unemployment, illiteracy, poverty, and resource scarcity have an empirical relationship with poaching, illegal trade and habitat destruction of wild animals. Conservation programs must create visible economic benefits for local people. Only this can save pangolins and other endangered species.

(This was originally Published in Republica National Daily

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