ISLAMABAD, March 10: Wildlife experts are concerned about the recent increase in illegal hunting and trade of the pangolin or the scaly anteater.
The trend picked up in the last two to three years approximately, said Dr Maqsood Anwar of the Department of Wildlife Management, Arid Agriculture University Rawalpindi.
“There has been a case only last month when the wildlife department concerned arrested an individual carrying bags full of scales of the anteater in the northern areas,” said Dr Anwar, explaining how the smuggler was probably trying to cross into China.
He narrated another case from last year in the Salt Range where the Punjab wildlife officials apprehended about 25 to 26 individuals illegally hunting the pangolin. “They were fined and some of them were sent to jail,” he said.
The pangolin is a rare species found in some parts of Pakistan, desert and arid areas and thorn forests, including the Margalla Hills National Park in Islamabad. The nocturnal mammal is protected under the Punjab Wildlife Protection Acts and Rules 1975 and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.
According to Faraz Akram, a research student at the Arid Agriculture University, the animal is a strong digger and lives in deep burrows. Its body is covered with imbricate scales. It grows to about 1.6 metres with the tail comprising half the body length. Akram, who has been studying the mammal, explained how a pangolin played important role in natural pest control, feeding on ants and termites. A single pangolin can consume as much as 70 million insects per year or 191,780 insects per day.
The study conducted by the Department of Wildlife Management of the university revealed that around 118 pangolins had been killed during 2011 and 2012 in the Pothwar Region.
The body scales of this unique mammal are believed to have medicinal value for treating stomach and liver problems and helps in female fertility cases, said Uzma Khan, the director biodiversity with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). She explained how animal body parts were smuggled to China mostly for manufacturing of traditional medicines.
“Nomads are mainly capturing and killing the pangolin. They offer cash money to locals for capturing the species,” said Dr Anwar. He also said how in April 2012 important information was received from China on a seizure where the suspect had apparently secured the pangolin scales from Pakistan.
“The Chinese passenger was found carrying 12 bags of pangolin scales, weighing 25.4 kilogrammes. The passenger confessed to getting the pangolin scales when he worked in Pakistan and planned to sell them in China. The case was transferred to the anti-smuggling department of Shenzhen Bay Customs for further investigation,” Dr Anwar said, adding: “These recovered scales apparently seem to be the same that were collected from Chakwal by the university in February 2012. This fact shows that trade in the Indian pangolin scales has become transnational.”
According to Uzma Khan, the pressure of illegal hunting has shifted from fresh water turtles to pangolins.
“There are a lot of misconceptions attached to pangolins and that adds to the illegal trade problems. It is not a cute or a cuddly animal, which is why there are no emotions attached to it,” said Khan. She added how in the past few years the WWF had rescued the mammal on several occasions when it came into contact with people.
Although WWF addressed illegal and unsustainable wildlife trade as a priority issue, the organisation has no programmes to control the indiscriminate killing and illegal trading of this species across borders.
“The species has not been given importance. Neither the government of Pakistan nor WWF has projects to protect the pangolins from disappearing,” Ms Khan lamented. “The WWF has only mobilised communities to explain to people the ecological importance of the anteater.”
But conservationists like Ms Khan and Dr Anwar feared that without an active programme for its protection the consistently declining trend in the population of the pangolin would increase the risk of its extinction due to several factors, including illegal hunting for its scales and skin.