A handful of animals hold public attention when it comes to wildlife conservation in India. The lion, tiger, rhino, and elephant receive overwhelming focus, partly because of the drama attached to their sightings in the wild and partly owing to their tourism potential.
A few birds such as the great Indian bustard and the Indian vulture, too, get talked about.
Yet, India’s—and the world’s—most hunted animal is none of these. It is the pangolin, a toothless, pre-historic mammal that is estimated to have lived on earth for nearly 80 million years. In 2015, pangolins were the most traded species in India.
The sticky-tongued pangolin thrives on ants and termites. When threatened, the generally shy animal rolls itself into a ball protected by a scaly armour—pangolins are the only mammals with scales—so tough that they can withstand even a blow with an axe.
Tragically, their protective shield is the primary cause for their near-extinction.
Poachers simply carry away the scared and rolled up pangolin, boil them to death, and tear up the scales. These scales are then used to make traditional medicines that are said to cure diseases varying from asthma to cancer. They are also said have aphrodisiac qualities. However, none of this is conclusively proven yet.
The animal is traded in huge numbers from India to China, Thailand, Vietnam, and other South-east Asian countries. Their scales are sold for an estimated Rs15,000 per kg. The British daily, The Telegraph, reported in January 2015 that according to some estimates, pangolin ”sales now account for up to 20% of the entire wildlife black market.”
In the last five years, 4.3 tonnes of pangolin scales were seized in India, according to a study by TRAFFIC, an international wildlife crime detection body, jointly run by the World Wide Fund for Nature and the World Conservation Union. In 2011, some 1.8 tonnes of scales were seized in a single instance in Manipur. In fact, 42 out of 51 cases of seizures between 2011 and 2013 were out of India’s northeast, and involved smuggling over the thin borders.
Yet, India does not know the exact count of the animal. And not much is written or said about it. At least not as much as other animals.
“The idea is not to deride the tiger but to emphasise that the public is ignoring species that are actually at the brink of extinction,” M K Ranjitsinh, former chairman of the Wildlife Trust of India, told the Hindustan Times newspaper. “Tiger conservation attracts substantial funding, mention in the prime minister’s speech, and front-page coverage in most newspapers.”
Pangolin trade is illegal in India under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. It can lead to imprisonment for between three and seven years and a fine of not less than Rs10,000. But it doesn’t seem to have helped the animal.
“With the bulk of endangered species, the conservation effort ends at moving them from one list to another as their numbers drop, and they become more and more endangered. This is just a cosmetic change since it does not reflect any changes of real significance on the ground,” Shekhar Niraj, head of TRAFFIC India, told Hindustan Times.
After 80 million years on earth, the pangolin may have finally met its nemesis in a species that is just eight million old.