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Pangolins In Trouble

Pangolins In Trouble

B.K. Sharma, of the Indian Police Service presents Sanctuary readers with a dire account of the ongoing, large-scale killing of pangolins and the illegal trade in their scales to feed the demand for traditional medicines in China, Myanmar, Vietnam, Thailand, Hong Kong and other eastern nations.

The Indian pangolin Manis crassicaudata is one of eight species of scaly anteaters found worldwide. Of these four are found in Asia and four in Africa. All are threatened by the lethal wildlife trade. Photo: Ansar Khan.

The small, sleepy town of Vairengte in Kolasib district of Mizoram was rudely shaken on August 28, 2013, when specific intelligence led the police to seize 148 kg. of pangolin scales from a vehicle. A town with less than 8,000 people, otherwise known for its picturesque beauty and blooming orchids, was thus added to the long list of towns and cities of Northeast India, which have emerged as transit centres of international pangolin smuggling to Myanmar and then on to China.

Five people were arrested and Rs. 24 lakhs confiscated, money allegedly used to pay for the scales. Interrogation revealed that the scales were obtained from Shillong and then handed over to a Myanmar national at Aizawl.

This seizure is merely illustrative, and reflects the tip of a lethal iceberg. Pangolin scale seizures are cropping up from different parts of the country, indicating that organised international smuggling rackets feeding the lucrative Chinese and Vietnamese market are involved. In a world where flagship species such as the tiger, elephant and rhinoceros grab the headlines of the illegal wildlife trade, species such as the pangolin rarely receive attention. Yet these rare and endangered animals are poached in their thousands and smuggled through all conceivable routes from virtually all range states to China, Thailand, Hong Kong, Vietnam and other consuming countries.


Also known as the scaly anteater, there are four Asian and four African species of the pangolin. The Asian species are primarily threatened by those hunting for food and the demand for scales by traditional Chinese medicines (TCM). The African species are killed for the use of scales in local cultural and ethno-medicinal preparations such as muti or juju. There is no scientific proof about the efficacy of the scales, either whole or grinded, yet TCM claims to be able to cure infertility, asthma and even some forms of cancer using this ingredient. Surprisingly, some recent evidence has come to light to suggest that some people are using the scales to tout bullet-proof jackets in conflict zones across the world. It is ironic that the scales conferred by nature for protection have turned into a cause for the destruction of pangolins.

The two species found in India, the Indian pangolin Manis crassicaudata and the Chinese pangolin M. pentadactyla are both in serious trouble. While the former occurs sporadically across the country from the Himalaya to Kanyakumari, save for the Northeast, Chinese pangolins are found only in the northeastern states and part of North Bengal. Not surprisingly, the decline of domestic pangolin populations in China at the hands of the lethal TCM trade is what led suppliers to start emptying neighbouring Vietnam and Myanmar and then Nepal and India. The series of seizures in border areas and airports point directly to Chinese links, encouraged no doubt by our low enforcement priority.


The initial links in the chain, as in most poaching cases in India, are nomadic tribal communities such as the Pardhis, Saperas, Bawarias and Mongias, whose traditional hunting skills and knowledge of the topography are legend. Groups camp in fringe areas and under cover of dark, or even during the day in unpatrolled forests, enter the forest to locate pangolin burrows. Once detected, they kill the pangolins using sticks after forcing them out of their secure burrows by pouring water into them. While the meat is consumed or sold in local markets, the scales are delivered to middlemen who have probably advanced money to the poachers. Such middlemen have been identified from Kolkata, Delhi, Chennai and some from border towns such as Siliguri in West Bengal, Moreh and Chandel in Manipur, Shillong in Meghalaya and Aizwal in Mizoram.

From the hinterland and collection centres, all the consignments, destined for international borders, are moved by trains using human couriers. Scales are also sent through ordinary postal packets by rail and air. Interceptions at the Guwahati and Chennai airports confirm that the syndicates move consignments to border areas and then on to Nepal and Myanmar before the contraband reaches its ultimate destination – China.


Of course we are fighting back. Specific criminal intelligence resulted in the seizure of around 650 kg. of pangolin scales at the Kolkata airport in November 2010. Officials of the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI) discovered that the 17 bags seized in the cargo terminal of the Kolkata airport were mislabelled as Ayurvedic medicines. The consignment had been transported as registered cargo to Kolkata by a private airline from Chennai. The packets were then carted to Imphal to be smuggled into China through the Moreh border. No arrests were effected, but the seizure, valued at nearly around Rs. four crores in the international market, revealed the scale at which the organised networks were operating.

Acting on a tip off, in September 2012, customs officials seized 380 kg. of scales concealed in nylon bags from a private taxi in Aizawl. The goods were destined for Myanmar and then to China where the street value was probably around Rs. two crores.

A spate of seizures since then has followed. In February 2013, three persons arrested in the Rajaji National Park had 30 kg. of pangolin scales in their possession. In April 2013, the Special Task Force of the Uttar Pradesh Police arrested a man outside the Kanpur railway station with 11 kg. of scales. In July 2013, customs officials seized 85 kg. of scales and 145 kg. of pseudoephedrine tablets in one consignment from Guwahati, Assam and arrested a Mizoram resident. Again, the scales and tablets were destined for Myanmar and then China. The link between the wildlife and narcotics trades is abundantly clear. Pangolins are now not safe anywhere and they are simply not being protected effectively enough. A haul of 70 kg. of scales from Jalpaiguri in West Bengal in August 2013 confirms that Siliguri is yet another regular smuggling route to China, via Nepal. Specific intelligence led forest officials to seven people, five Indians and two Nepalese. The consignment had been brought from Haryana and was being transported by the Nepalese nationals.

For the first time in south India, local police seized 25 kg. of pangolin scales at Davanagere, Karnataka, in August 2013. The carriers confessed to supplying scales obtained from local sources to middle men in Myanmar. Another 30 kg. seizure in September 2013 from a godown near Vengal village in Thiruvallore district of Tamil Nadu resulted in the arrest of seven people. A veritable war against pangolins is underway.

In May 2013, forest officers from the Bhadra Tiger Reserve arrested two poachers of a gang that killed and supplied pangolins and their parts to the illegal wildlife trade. From the inadequately protected forests, contraband is channelled through couriers towards porous international borders by train, buses and even normal air and sea mail parcels. Photo Courtesy: Freeland Trust of India.


Following a landmark seizure of 555 kg. of pangolin scales together with 20 kg. of tiger body parts from Gopinath Bordoloi Airport in Guwahati in June 2010, the government ordered an investigation by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). Five separate Regular Cases (RCs) were registered, involving five different locations of the seizures. Investigations by a specialised central unit of the CBI, revealed that the consignments were sent using speed post parcels booked from Dimapur in Nagaland and Berhampur in Odisha. The consignors, identified as Peter of Bank Colony, Dimapur, Nagaland, and M/s Saibaba Enterprises of Prem Nagar, Berhampur, Odisha, were obviously fictitious as were the consignees. The collusion of postal authorities was clearly evident and investigations confirmed that a number of speed post consignments were being delivered to strangers either outside the post office or at postal windows. Investigation revealed that one Raghu Parida, originally from Odisha, was routinely sourcing wildlife contraband including pangolin scales from different forest areas of the state and channeling them from Berhampur to his base in Moreh, Manipur. Initially, the scales used to be smuggled in jute bags by road to Imphal, but post 2010, speed post parcels by air and train to Guwahati and Imphal became the order of the day.

Investigations confirm that one Takwa, a Chinese national based in Myanmar and Ms. Vaini and Ms. Nutha, women from Tamu, Myanmar, are major dealers of pangolin scales. The CBI arrested Raghu Parida who revealed that ever since 2006, he had been smuggling hundreds of pangolin scale consignments to Myanmar, from where they reached China. The case against Parida, filed by the CBI in July 2013 in the Court of District and Sessions Judge, Kamrup, Guwahati is currently pending trial.


The year 2013 was catastrophic for pangolins. It is estimated that over 8,000 pangolins were confiscated in 49 instances of illegal trade across 13 countries. Since such seizures normally represent a mere 10 or 20 per cent of the actual illegal trade, one can begin to imagine the magnitude of this criminal trade. Undoubtedly a majority of the scales are sourced from Southeast Asia, but the alternative procurement areas mentioned below suggest that the wildlife trade links are casting their nets far and wide. Many people when they have time, always trying to play gamed. Especially because these friv games are good tools for relieving stress and different kinds of depression. And good thing is that there are actually many available games, that you can choose.

Investigations in mainland China revealed that Pakistan was emerging as a source of pangolin scales. Some supplies are being brought in from Qatar, Nigeria and Equatorial Guinea. But if one hotspot were to be identified, it would be the China-Vietnam border, which accounted for 31 per cent of all seizures made in 2013. The Philippines accounted for another 25 per cent of world-wide seizures. One consignment of scales originating from Cameroon was intercepted by the customs authorities at the Charles de Gaulle Airport, Paris. Scales were also recovered from personal baggage and passengers’ shoes in Belgium. The lucrative and lethal trade is clearly on fire and will require international cooperation to counter it as the demand is now also being fed from African countries including Zimbabwe, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.


CITES lists all eight pangolin species in Appendix-II. This means that the international trade is permitted, but regulated through the issuance of import and export permits, subject to ‘non-detriment’ findings. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species includes two of these eight species. While most of the range states have fairly stringent legislations, the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, includes both the Indian and Chinese pangolin in Schedule-I, making an offence against the species punishable with imprisonment, “which shall not be less than three years but may extend to seven years and also a fine of up to Rs. 10,000.” The severity of statute, however, hardly guarantees deterrence because as of now even the most impressive seizures are often not followed up by meticulous investigation, forensics and robust prosecution. Linkages up and down the chain are hardly investigated to establish the identity of all those in the loop. Often, couriers and middle men are nabbed, while the masterminds get away. Cases are sent to court, but barely pursued to secure conviction. Not surprisingly, pangolins therefore continue to be butchered with impunity to feed the insatiable hunger of the international illegal wildlife market.


In all this doom, there are some slivers of hope. In June-July 2012, Interpol, Lyon, France, initiated the largest-ever coordinated operation against the illegal poaching and trade of pangolins called ‘Operation Libra’ across several countries. This resulted in the arrest of over 40 accused and the recovery of approximately 1,220 pangolins, almost half of which were still alive. China sentenced one Malaysian national to life imprisonment for trafficking 2,090 frozen pangolins plus 1,800 kg. of scales and in 2013, Zimbabwe sent a pangolin trafficker to prison for an unprecedented nine years.

To draw focus on the need to protect the animals, the third Sunday in February each year has been declared as World Pangolin Day. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) organised a landmark meeting focused on pangolin conservation in Singapore in July 2013, which recommended a series of protective measures including augmenting enforcement, improving and protecting habitats and working on community stewardship. In January 2014, the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau, New Delhi, issued an all-India alert to police, forest, customs and postal authorities to educate field functionaries on the extent of the illegal pangolin trade. Things could well look up, if enhanced sensitisation and dissemination of information are effectively pursued. If not, then like so many other species, these insectivorous mammals will head resolutely towards extinction.

First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXIV No. 3, June 2014


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