When any of the big, glamorous animals get poached — tiger, elephant or rhino — the story gets splashed all over the media to the accompaniment of many protests that something must be done. But, out there in our jungles, there are many smaller, more introverted creatures getting butchered and no one really knows or gives a damn about these low-profile animals. Some of these are now entering perilous territory as far as their survival prospects go. Even if their stories are told, no one really bothers much. After all, they’re just small fry — turtles, tortoises, mongooses, or, that really one of a kind creature: the scaly ant-eater or pangolin. This quaint-looking mammal, in fact, leads the field as the most trafficked mammal in the world today.
There are two species of pangolin in India out of eight in the world. The Indian — found nearly everywhere though you’ll have to look hard for it, and the Chinese — found in the northeast, and not very common. About two to 2.5-feet long, with a 1.5-foot long tail, it is sloping in profile, with a pine cone-like face, long muzzle and tail — all of which are covered with a plating of scales which look like an armour (a suit made of gilded pangolin scales was once presented to King George III in 1820). That, indeed, is what forms the animal’s main defence system. The pangolin can also spray you with a noxious smelling liquid from its rear if you hound it too much. The scales are highly modified spines — enlarged, flattened and sharpened, and are made of the same stuff as fingernails: keratin. If an enemy approaches, this peace-loving creature simply rolls itself up into a tight ball with the scales protruding outwards, almost like blades, and dares you to open it up. Lions and tigers too have been bested by this strategy. But, with us, it’s a different matter altogether. We just pick up the balled-up pangolin and drop it alive into a pot of boiling water. Nice!
It is these very “scales” that are the pangolin’s undoing. Like rhino horn (also made of keratin) we’ve given them remarkable medicinal attributes and qualities — none of which they actually possess. Concoctions made up of ground-up scales are meant to turn men into Casanovas; and they supposedly cure anything from liver disease to asthma. The chief “villain”, as usual, is Chinese traditional medicine — responsible for the downfall of many other innocent animals, from tigers to beetles. That apart, pangolin meat (and foetus soup!) is regarded as a delicacy in China and Vietnam. As a result, the animals have been massacred wholesale — not only in India, but the world over. Four of the eight species in the world are found in Asia, the other four in Africa — and they’ve suffered just as badly.
It is really pathetic that this animal, which can only defend itself by rolling itself up into a ball, is subject to such a wholesale massacre. The pangolin is a shy, nocturnal animal with limited needs. Give it ants, termites, their eggs and larvae, and that’s really all it wants out of life. Their sense of smell is extraordinary (vision and hearing are poor) and once they find a termite mound, they will broach it with a few hefty swipes from their long curving front claws. Their long, sticky tongues will slither inside and out (French kissing could pose a problem for these guys!), gluing the ants to it. If they hit a mother lode – comprising eggs, larvae and adults in a “comb” inside the mound — they’ll clean it up before resuming excavation. They live in burrows which they dig themselves, and the ladies and gentlemen will only really get together to romance. The baby is looked after by its mom, and, initially, has soft scales which harden with age. The mom will curl her tail right around the baby to protect it. If a predator shows an interest in a burrow, it will be faced by a ball of scales, almost impossible to dislodge.
Pangolins are found nearly everywhere in the plains and low hills of India. But they’re now probably not as common as they once would have been. You can judge the scale of (illegal) operations against them by these devastating figures: there were at least 886 pangolin seizures recorded from Asia between 2000 and 2013. It’s thought that 6,000 animals were poached in India (Manipur and Tamil Nadu emerge as the hot-spots, though other states in the south and northeast also contribute generously) between 2009 and 2017. The actual numbers of poached animals are probably 10 times as high.
With just one baby a year, there’s no chance that the animals will be able to survive if this kind of genocide carries on. They are protected, of course, but because they’re relatively inconspicuous, they are not the first animal species that comes to mind when you are asked about conservation. Yet, as “most poached”, they are number one. And it’s time we rid them of that undesirable rank.
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