Tilting the scales

Superstition and old beliefs are fuelling smuggling of pangolin scales from Mizoram to Myanmar

Written by Adam Halliday | Published: June 23, 2013 3:37:54 am

One September evening last year,Customs inspector Lalthankunga Hmar stopped a man just off the highway,about 15 km from Aizawl. Lalchungnunga,a taxi driver in Mizoram’s capital,was transporting eight gunny sacks,clumsily camouflaged in branches and leaves.

When Hmar searched the bags,the Customs inspector found 53 polythene packets and two nylon bags choked with Indian pangolin scales weighing more than 380 kg,with an estimated value of more than Rs 2 crore.

Lalchungnunga told authorities that he had received the bags from a man in Shillong,Meghalaya,and that he had been transporting them to a “safer” location from his home on the eastern outskirts of Aizawl. He also said that he had been engaged by another set of people to send the scales to Myanmar.

This haul of pangolin scales remains the largest so far in a string of seizures by the Customs Department,police and wildlife authorities in the tiny border state of Mizoram,where more than 700 kg of pangolin scales,valued at Rs 5 crore,have been seized in the last two years.

All the seized scales have come from outside the state and appear to be heading to Myanmar—arrests made in other pangolin seizures include a man caught with 63 kg from Tahan in Myanmar’s Sagaing division,and a woman from Moreh,Manipur’s most famous trading town on the Myanmar border,caught with 154 kg.

C Behera,Deputy Director of the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau’s Eastern Region headquarters in Kolkata,said that seizures had been made largely in Mizoram and Manipur and added that “the scales are from Indian pangolins hunted in Orissa,Madhya Pradesh,Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu”.

In a presentation made at a recent WCCB meet in Madhya Pradesh,two IFS officers suggested that pangolin scales were used as decorations to accessorise clothing. Its decorative uses aside,“there is a belief among people in Southeast Asia that body parts of pangolins have medicinal value—for curing arthritis or other bone problems,” says Behera.

But there appears to be more than just economics and trade to the trafficking. One official in Mizoram’s Forest Department remembers a middle-aged man who appeared at their office,just after a sizeable seizure had been made.

“He came and begged,literally begged,for one small packet of pangolin scales. He said someone had cast a spell on his brother and he needed the scales to reverse the spell. We were quite shocked,we’d never heard of these scales being used for such purposes,” says the official.

Such superstitions and belief in the medicinal value of animal parts are common in the region.

Bonny Lalrindika,a former police officer who was once posted in Champhai district bordering Myanmar,says he and his colleagues had arrested several people who claimed to practise witchcraft with animal parts.

“They carried bags full of animal bones and scales,saying they used them in witchcraft. But when we challenged them to put spells on us,they always refused,” says Bonny.

Pangolin scales,he adds,are recommended for painful bones and were wrapped in cloth to be tied to the aching limb.

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