Pangolins: Smuggled into extinction

Updated June 29, 2014


On April 17, 2013, British newspaper The Guardian published a shocking article titled ‘Ship containing 22,000 pounds of dead pangolins crashes into protected reef’.

According to the report, a Chinese boat carrying the remains of thousands of illegally killed pangolins crashed into a protected coral reef at Tuhbbataha National Marine Park, a Unesco designated World Heritage site on the Palawan Island in the Philippines.

Following the crash, Philippines’ authorities arrested 12 crewmen. The paper quoted Adelina Vilenna, a lawyer representing the marine park, as saying, “The fishermen face up to 12 years’ imprisonment and fines of up to $300,000 (£196,000) for the poaching charge alone. For possessing pangolin meat, they can be imprisoned for up to six years and fined.”

Pangolin population in Pakistan drops by more than 84pc in 3 years

In contrast, the punishments facing pangolin poachers in Pakistan are much more lenient. Over the last three years, the Punjab Wildlife and Parks Department (PWPD) has arrested 32 poachers, none of whom have been fined more than Rs10,000 or been faced with incarceration, despite the fact that the pangolin is listed as one of the most endangered species in Pakistan and its poachers can be jailed for up to five years.

Dr Shoaib Akbar, the former Director General (DG) of PWPD, described the pangolin as a mammal with a small head, a scaly body and a long broad tail.

The animal also possesses sharp hearing and a keen sense of scent.

“The pangolin is nocturnal, which means it is active at night, and spends daytime in its burrows,” he told Dawn.

Three out of the animal’s seven species are found in South East Asia, and the Indian pangolin can be found in the Potohar region, as well as some parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK).

“The animals’ preferred habitat has long grass and is sandy and cool,” Dr Akbar explained.

The pangolin is considered one of the most intelligent and extraordinary animals on Earth. It is also called an anteater – because its diet includes ants. The pangolin’s body is covered in overlapping scales that act as an armour – if threatened, the pangolin curls up and uses the hardened scales to protect itself. The Indian pangolin was declared an ‘endangered species’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature in 2012, while many of the pangolin’s other species were declared ‘endangered’ in 2002.

The shy and harmless animal is rapidly disappearing due to relentless poaching, but the Pakistani government seems uninterested in taking serious measures to rescue the rare animal from extinction.

The sharp decrease in the pangolin population in Pakistan is attributed to the hunting and smuggling of these animals to East Asian countries, where there is a demand for the pangolin for its meat and for medicinal uses.

According to the Guardian article, the pangolin has been virtually wiped out from China, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, as its meat is regarded as a delicacy and its scales are considered beneficial to breast-feeding mothers.“It is used in medicines to power growth, as an aphrodisiac, and also in bullet-proof jackets. Its skin is used for shoes and accessories,” Dr Akbar explained.

Due to its large forest area in the Potohar Region, Chakwal was once considered a safe haven for pangolins, however the situation has changed – it has come to light that the trails of most pangolins being smuggled to China go through the Chakwal district.

A recent research study conducted by the Pir Mehr Ali Shah University of Arid Agriculture Rawalpindi brought to light shocking revelations.

“From January 2011 to May 2012, 118 dead pangolins were discovered in different parts of the Potohar Region, 60 of which belonged to the Chakwal district,” Dr Tariq Mehmood, an assistant professor at the Department of Wildlife Management and the head of the research team, revealed.

He added that despite the belief that the pangolin exists in considerable numbers in the Potohar Plateau, the project – conducted over a period of three years, from October 2010 to October 2013 – found that the species is vanishing rapidly from the region.

“At least two seizures of pangolin scales have been reported in China in the past year – One for 25kg of scales, and the other for 1,000kg. Those arrested by the Chinese customs department confessed that the scales were brought from Pakistan,” Dr Mehmood said.

Riaz Hussain, a PhD student at the agriculture university in Rawalpindi and a member of the research team, said: “According to statistics, the pangolin population has declined by more than 84 per cent in the past three years in all four districts of the Potohar region.”

He added that, “other than the employees of the wildlife department in the Chakwal district, the Punjab wildlife department has done nothing to save this species.”

Hussain said pangolin scales are traditionally used in medicines and have ornamental value as well, while the flesh and fats from the body are used in medicines and in food. A mafia specialising in smuggling pangolins to other countries is thriving in Pakistan, and poachers tend to come from nomadic communities. They catch pangolins by installing traps at their burrows. Once caught, the animal is boiled to death, after which the scales are removed from the body.

Although a single pangolin is worth thousands of dollars in the international market, Pakistani poachers sell pangolins to smugglers at an average rate of Rs10,000 to Rs30,000.

“If a poacher is arrested at a wildlife sanctuary, they can face up to five years’ imprisonment and a fine of Rs30,000, and if a poacher is arrested in a normal area, they can face two years’ imprisonment and a fine of up to Rs15,000,” a department official said. Another official added that, “when a poacher is arrested, he is fined Rs10,000 and takes this as a lenient punishment... the price of one pangolin is Rs10,000.” However, a third official says that the punishment is strict enough according to the Wildlife Act, but only needs to be enforced by the courts.

“The animal is in danger, and we are trying our best to save it from extinction,” District Wildlife Officer in Chakwal Malik Junaid said.

But the PWPD is facing many problems, including a shortage of staff and appropriate vehicles, according to one official.

“Wildlife departments around the world are funded sufficiently well by their governments, and in Pakistan it’s the opposite – the government here takes money from the wildlife department,” the official said.

There is also no conservation project for pangolins in Pakistan, and the government is not releasing adequate funding for further research.

According to Hussain, “the major threats to the species are habitat loss, illegal slaughter for trade purposes, the poor implementation of wildlife laws, and the lack of media coverage of threatened species.”

He said that during field research for their project, research team members were faced with threatening behaviour from poachers, and a lack of cooperation from law enforcement agencies, as well as a lack of funding.

He suggested that, “The fines should be increased and poachers sentenced to jail for at least six months. In addition, wildlife laws should be fully enforced, district wildlife departments should possess accurate data on the illegal catching and killing of wild animals, and the customs department should be brought in to prevent wildlife species trafficking.”

Published in Dawn, June 29th, 2014