The Routes For World’s Most Trafficked Mammal

By Sahana Ghosh, on September 6, 2019

By Sahana Ghosh
in Kolkata

Pangolin smugglers in India are rigging up the endangered mammals with a battery-operated device that emits sparks from its scales to convince buyers that the animal has magical healing properties. Impressed, some gullible customers pay as much as $40,000 for a live pangolin.

The scaly anteaters used to be killed for their scales, which were smuggled through the country’s Northeastern states to Burma, and then on to China. But increasingly, live pangolins are being trafficked to feed China’s voracious appetite for the meat, which is believed to have medicinal properties.

“The buyers don’t usually keep the pangolin with themselves, they sell it to the customer for a profit, and everyone in the chain ends up making money,” said RS Sharath, a former inspector for India’s Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB) now posted in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

Pangolins rescued by Centre for Wildlife Rehabilitation and Conservation (CARD) located near Kaziranga national park in Assam. Photo: Dauharu Baro WTI/IFAW

Pangolins are small, solitary and largely nocturnal mammals known for their distinctive, armadillo-like appearance. They are hunted for their scales, meat and other body parts. Four species are native to sub-Saharan Africa, with another four spread across south and southeast Asia. India is home to two of the species, the Indian pangolin (Manis crassicaudata) and Chinese pangolin (Manis pentadactyla).

The web of illegal trade in pangolin scales spans India, including its Northeastern states. Traffickers sneak some of the contraband to Nepal and Bhutan bound for readymade markets in China and Vietnam.

RELATED: Better Nepal-China Connectivity Helps Wildlife Smugglers

Earlier, Chennai in Tamil Nadu state was the collection hub for pangolin scales. From there, traders used to transport the contraband to the country’s Northeast. The hub has now shifted to Berhampur in Odisha state due to the presence of Burmese settlers there.

Poached pangolins from southern India are collected in Chennai and taken to the Northeast via Odisha, where more scales are picked up. Stock from Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh is moved to West Bengal and then by train or road to Burma via the Moreh border in Manipur state.

“The scales are smuggled hidden with dried fish and unless one pulls out all the items they can go unnoticed in checks,” said Sharath.

The other smuggling route for pangolins and their scales — from Jammu, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Haryana — is across the open border with Nepal, and then over the new roads being built across the Himalayan mountains to China.

International trafficking routes for pangolins. Credit: Nepali Times

Traditional snake charmer communities like the Sapera and the semi-nomadic Bawariyasin catch the pangolins for sale to middlemen.

India’s Wildlife Protection Act 1972 restricted the way of life of these hunting communities, but they still depend on forest products for subsistence. Being skilled hunters, they can track and kill the reclusive animals.

One animal can yield nearly 1kg of scales which they can sell for $700.

Conservationists say the upswing in the trade of pangolin scales is due to the crackdown on the smuggling of rhino horns. Pangolin scales, like rhino horns, have no proven medicinal value, yet are used in traditional Chinese medicine. Both are made of keratin, the same tissue in nails and hair.

Samuel K Wasser, a conservation biologist at the University of Washington in the US, has pioneered DNA from animal scat to track wildlife poachers and combat wildlife crime. His team plans to set up a lab at the Wildlife Institute of India to build a pangolin DNA reference library to map the genetic diversity of Asian and African pangolin species.

This can help conservationists and law enforcement officials compare the DNA from pangolins to determine where the creatures were poached. Wasser plans to deploy trained dogs to find pangolin scat.

“Some big freight expeditors are moving wildlife contraband from Africa to southeast Asia, but because the cargo never enters India, they are not breaking Indian law. Those traffickers could easily turn their skills to exporting pangolins from India if the price is right,” Wasser said.

One animal can yield nearly 1kg of scales which they can sell for $700.

Undercover dealers risk their lives to catch smugglers by posing as buyers. One agent says getting the cover story right is the key.

“You have to know the going price, the size of the animals and other details. If you slip up then the smugglers will be suspicious,” he said.

Agents use a network of informers to go after smugglers, and it takes him weeks to catch them. The poachers have a specific language for the size ranges for pangolin scales and use slang while transacting business.

“You have to know these code words to gain their trust,” he said. “They  want to see the money first. But we try to keep the dialogue going until we are sure of the moment that we can make a move on them.”

Sahana Ghosh is a science journalist with Mongabay in India.

This coverage is part of a joint cross-border investigation project by Nepali Times, Mongabay and The Pangolin Reports.