The forgotten mammal

Feb 27, 2016- In the frontlines of Nepal’s battle to keep its bio-diversity intact is an animal that is often forgotten. They may not be as enchanting as tigers or as affable as elephants, but pangolins are in danger of being wiped off completely from the face of the earth, if immediate measures are not taken to preserve their habitats.  

The pangolin got its common name from the Malay word ‘pengguling’, which means ‘to roll up’, in reference to the animal’s defence mechanism of rolling into a tight, near-impenetrable ball when threatened by its natural predators or when sound asleep. The pangolin’s defensive position, albeit lacking in razor sharp claws or spikes, makes for excellent protection in the wild, but makes it easy for their most dangerous predators—humans, to simply pick up their curled up body and throw them into a bag.

Poaching, the illegal trade of wildlife and habitat loss have made these little creatures the most endangered mammals in the world with as many as two of its species listed as “critically endangered” species by the International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the other six as “endangered”. To understand the drive behind the fast-growing trade of pangolins, it is important to understand where the pangolin gets its value from. In traditional Chinese medicine, the pangolin’s scales and body parts are believed to alleviate a range of illnesses despite a lack of scientific evidence to prove such claims. Superstition holds that praying to the pangolin keeps drought at bay and welcomes rain. And if the rainfall invites a thunderstorm, it is believed that any house containing the sacred pangolin’s scales is protected from lightning. In fact, jhakris have been using the pangolin for its supposed medicinal benefits since olden times, but it is only now that a booming trade has developed around the pangolin, commercialising its illegal poaching and threatening extinction.

I so happened to stumble upon the black market of pangolins myself at Ratnapark in 2006. The illegal trade of pangolins is sustained by street vendors whose flexibility makes it easy to transport pangolins in boxes. The pangolin trader I chanced upon told me, “Are you Nepali? If so, I doubt if you can afford a pangolin’s scales—they cost Rs 50-100 per scale.” Even children from pangolin-range areas are knowledgeable of the underground pangolin trade. They know that you can sell a pangolin’s scales for high prices to foreigners and one 14-year-old boy even admitted to experimenting with trying to keep a pangolin alive in captivity, as live pangolins sell for higher prices. However, it died within ten days as its special dietary requirements couldn’t be met on mere biscuit crumbs, which is what the boy confided to have fed the animal.

It saddened me to know that these children were only aware of the pangolin’s monetary value but were wholly unaware of its ecological value. Today, the pangolin is the most heavily trafficked mammal in the world but it hardly receives half as much attention as large do mammals such as the elephant, or the big cats— tigers, leopards, and lions. Furthermore, the pangolin is unknown to the population at large, and is often confused for other species. Its lack of popularity has resulted in very little scientific attention, making it one of the least studied species in Nepal. Since pangolins are nocturnal, solitary creatures, little is known about their population levels or ecology. To make matters worse, poaching remains a significant threat to pangolins in Nepal which are further fuelled by lack of awareness in poverty-stricken rural communities, and an unconcerned, non-functional government.  Every species in the world, regardless of its appearance, taste, aesthetic or usefulness to humans in regional belief systems, plays an important role in the ecosystem.

This intrinsic value of biodiversity is often overlooked or taken for granted. To reverse our collective wrongdoings toward helpless animals such as the pangolin, the easiest thing we can do to support the pangolin is to spread the word and educate locals, especially those living in pangolin range areas.  It is our responsibility as part of a global community to do whatever we can to stop the extinction of an animal of such rarity.  Losing an entire species of any kind would be a devastating loss to the world and its biodiversity.  We must be willing to fight just as fervently for less popular animals such as the pangolin as we would for the tiger or the rhino.  

There is much to learn from successful conservation models in foreign countries. I had the opportunity to visit the Singapore Wildlife Zoo, where visitors can observe how the pangolins live inside burrows with use of technology fitted into their dens. Such technology does not disturb the species, and even enables us to track their movement and watch their activities on a computer. Another commendable conservation effort is by the African organisation, Tikki Hywood Trust, who are experimenting with captive breeding and rearing young pangolins with survival skills, with the ultimate goal of releasing them in the wild. Scientists at the trust are studying the pangolin’s home range and gathering information on its biological needs through radio collar transmitters.  In the local scenario, where we lack appreciation and funding from the government for the protection of the pangolin, the only potential way to help this species is to engage the local people in conservation practices through the establishment of community-based conservation initiatives.

This approach is pragmatic as , at present, more than 30 percent of the forests in Nepal are community forests. Community Conservation Programmes are the most effective means of informing and asserting ecological understanding of the integrity of forest ecosystems and of conservation attitudes in general.  Such conservation models will not only help in spreading awareness but will also encourage people to take a lead in the pangolin’s conservation, as proven by different community forest user groups in Nepal. Another important effort is raising awareness through education programmes targeting not only individuals, but also local communities and officials to ensure that pangolin habitats and populations are protected. 

It is important to note that these approaches have been successful in persuading the stakeholders and community members of Thaudolchhap community forest in Bhaktapur, and Katuwapakha and Baskharka community forests in Kavre district. The execution of these programmes and its success has proved that local people can become supportive, and are willing to participate for the conservation of pangolins. Thus, community-based conservation models for pangolins have proven to be successful in practice, and they require the incentivised support of the government to continue in the long run for species that are in the brink of extinction. It would be not only an issue of local pride for Nepal, but would also prove our country to be a leader in the safeguarding of the elusive pangolin through the commitment and legacy of local communities. 

Did you know

  • Pangolins are very shy, slow, and live alone or in pairs.
  • A pangolin’s lifespan in the wild is unknown; some unofficial reports claim anywhere from 12 to 20 years.
  • The adult pangolin has a long body sporting more than 700 overlapping scales, short legs, a low, small, pointy head, and a long tail.
  • Pangolins have no teeth so they use their amazingly long, muscular, and sticky tongue to reach and lap up ants, termites, and other insects.
  • According to the US National Park Service, a single pangolin can eat up to 200,000 terminates per day (about 70 million per year).

We owe it to pangolins to keep the termite population in check! Within the last two decades, the Pangolin Specialist Group estimates that pangolin populations have fallen by 80 percent.

Within the last decade, over 1,000,000 pangolins have been illegally poached and shipped mostly to China and Vietnam where their meat and scales are sold. Nepal’s forests are home to two species—the Indian Pangolin (Tame Saalak in Nepali) and the Chinese Pangolin (Kalo Salak), both of which are protected by the National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act 2029.

We must be willing to fight just as fervently for less popular animals such as the pangolin as we would for the tiger or the rhino - Prativa Kaspal
 

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