By Niranjan Kaggere
They are hunted because their scales fetch a hefty two lakh rupees per kilogram in the international market
For years, tiger and leopard pelts and elephant tusks accounted for most poaching incidents in state forests. But with constant vigil and increased patrolling by the now-aware forest personnel, particularly in national parks, poachers have moved onto a different territory. They have shifted their gaze to other animals. Pangolins have become their latest target because of their scales that fetch a lot of money in the international market.
Found in almost all parts of Karnataka, the shy, nocturnal and solitary animals have turned out to be the most trafficked animals in recent times. Going by the quantity of scales recovered by forest officials, hundreds of pangolins have been hunted across Karnataka. Pangolin poaching is so rampant that several cases have been registered in almost all circles of the forest department across Karnataka. Protected under Schedule I of the Indian Wildlife Act, hunting pangolins attracts three to seven years' imprisonment and fine up to Rs 10,000.
Giridhar Kulkarni, a techie and a conservationist working in Dandeli Wildlife Division, told Bangalore Mirror that there is no barrier for poachers to hunt pangolins.
"Be it evergreen forests, dry deciduous forests or thorny shrub forests, pangolins have become the biggest target of poachers because of their unique scales. Their solitary living and characteristic of rolling into the shape of a ball when countered by threat, makes it easier for one to capture and bundle these passive animals into a bag," Kulkarni explains.
To create awareness among the public and sensitise department personnel at the grassroots level, Kulkarni has been tracking pangolin poaching incidents for almost five years across states, and has documented most of the poaching incidents. According to Kulkarni, what attracts poachers is the unique gold-coloured scales that cover the mammal's skin, apart from the meat.
"There are two different species of pangolins in India, and both are targeted by poachers. The flesh of pangolins is also savoured by many, but only at the local level. So poachers strip the scales and sell the meat in a local market," he says.
Sources in the forest department revealed that in the last five years, more than a quintal of scales have been recovered and several hundred live pangolins recovered from poachers. More than any other region, Dandeli and Belagavi circles have been witnessing incidents of pangolin poaching.
Explaining the modus operandi, Kulkarni said, "Though poachers move around with weapons during the night looking for these creatures, during daytime, they are hunted using dogs. After locating a pangolin burrow, they fill it with water and force it to come out.
As it comes out, they either bundle it into a bag or kill it instantly."
An adult pangolin has 3.5 to 4 kg of scales on its body. "Each scale weighs between 100 and 300 gm depending on the size. The animal measures only 15 to 35 inches in size, but can extend its tongue as long as 40 cm. The scales are made of keratin similar to human fingernails or rhino horns. They constitute 20 to 25 per cent of a pangolin's bodyweight. A kilogramme of scales in the international market fetches as much as Rs 2 lakh, while they are procured from local poachers for as low as Rs 6,000 to Rs 10,000 per kg," revealed a senior police officer from the forest cell of the police department.
"Scales are mostly sent to China, Korea, Hong Kong and Tibet. In some western countries, scales are used as decorative items on clothes and bags. It is also believed that the scales cure skin diseases and cancer, which has created a big market for them. In traditional Chinese medicine, roasted pangolin scales are believed to detoxify and help remove pus from wounds and also stimulate lactation. A few others also market it as an aphrodisiac," Kulkarni added.
Acknowledging that there has been a steady increase in pangolin poaching, Vinay Luthra, principal chief conservator of forests (wildlife) said, "Poaching within national parks and sanctuaries has been reduced to nil due to intense patrolling. But animals are not aware of boundaries and poaching incidents are happening in unprotected areas. Unfortunately, the department is short-staffed and hence effective vigilance in other forest areas is difficult. With the recruitment of more personnel into the department in recent times, we will soon control poaching activities even in reserve areas."