Multiple instances of pangolin seizures in the recent past indicate the involvement of criminal networks in trapping and smuggling of the endangered animal.
Forest department officials arrested six persons on Sunday, including two from Pune, following the recovery of a pangolin from some of the accused, who were nabbed at Wele village in Wai tehsil of Satara district a day before. All of them have been booked under sections of the Wildlife Protection Act 1972.
They were produced before a court in Satara on Monday.
Range Forest Officer Sachin Dombale, who is investigating the case, said, “The court remanded the six accused to the custody of the forest department for three days. During primary investigation, the accused said they got the pangolin from the side of a canal in Khandala area. The two accused from Pune were looking for a customer who will buy the pangolin. Further investigation is on. There is a possibility of a larger racket being involved.”
“Also, with the permission of the court, we released the pangolin in its natural habitat today,” said Dombale. Meanwhile, an identity card was recovered from one of the accused, which states that he is a member of a Pune-based wildlife and snake rescue organisation.
Rohan Bhate, a member of the Wildlife Crime Control Board of the government of India who was part of the operation, said, “Such self-proclaimed wildlife and snake rescuers are involved in illegal activities. We suspect there is a big racket behind the trapping, hunting and trafficking of pangolins.”
“In December 2019, a pangolin was found in Shukrawar Peth area of Karad town in Satara. It was suspected that some racketeers were trying to sell this pangolin. But they could not be traced during searches. Such cases of pangolin recovery were also reported in different parts of the state,” said Bhate.
Speaking to The Indian Express, Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forest (Wildlife-West), Sunil Limaye, said, “Cases of pangolin trafficking have been on the rise over the last three to four years. These incidents have been reported from various parts of Maharashtra. Along with being hunted for meat, the animal is also trafficked due to various beliefs about its scales, including it being an aphrodisiac… the animal is very vulnerable and easy to catch. Considering these factors, we have been working on building an extensive network of informants on the ground, using secret service funds available to us. The aim is to gather actionable intelligence. After taking action, prosecution in these cases is also crucial.”
He added, “Various initiatives are also being undertaken to create awareness about the animal and its endangered status. On the enforcement front, the forest department is coordinating with the police, Wildlife Crime Control Bureau and other agencies. Putting a check on pangolin trafficking calls for multi-agency cooperation, which is happening.”
In June this year, after seeing an advertisement on social media about the sale of pangolins, the Wildlife Crime Control Board, Mumbai, had initiated action, leading to the arrest of seven persons from Biloli in Nanded district. Two pangolins were rescued from them.
Among other cases, in January 2019, Pune City Police had recovered one pangolin, and seized pangolin scales in a separate case, within a week. Probe had revealed that the animal was to be sold for 70 lakh and the scales for Rs 1.5 lakh per kg. One more pangolin was seized in June 2019.
In October 2019, Pune City Police had arrested three persons, who had a pangolin in thir possession, at Kharadi bypass .
Investigation by Pune Rural Police in September 2019, into the brutal killing of two persons in a forest area near Tamhini Ghat in July that year, had revealed that the murders were the fallout of a dispute among pangolin racketeers. The suspects arrested for murder had been booked over a pangolin smuggling racket in Raigad and Thane.
Officials suspect that multiple rackets might be active in some part of the state, in which one chain catches pangolins from forests and sells them to middlemen in other cities, who then sell them to smugglers.
Why is a pangolin so expensive?
Pangolin, also known as scaly anteater, is an insectivorous mammal which has hard scales of keratin on its body. According to experts, it is probably the most trafficked animal across the globe. Two of eight subspecies of the animal are found in India.
The animal has been given a protected status, as per Schedule I of the Wildlife Protection Act in the country. Pangolin scales are used in traditional oriental medicines, and also to make luxury items, which are sold illegally.
Pangolin meat is sold at a very high price in illegal markets. There have been cases of the animal being kept in houses in India, as there is a superstition that it brings prosperity.
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