On the occasion of World Pangolin Day (February 15), Mridula Vijairaghavan, Legal Advisor with WCS-India, writes about a heart-wrenching incident with a pangolin in distress. She says that despite having the highest level of legal protection for pangolins in India, they continue to be rampantly traded. In fact, they are said to be the highest trafficked species globally. Time to make a change and save the pangolin, she says, in this blog.
Picture for representation purpose only. Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia
The four of us peered into the little box, hoping to see our first pangolin just sitting there, sniffing loudly, being its whimsical self as we’d seen in a million videos before. What we didn’t expect though, was a quivering, shaking, scaly little animal, hiding its face away from us. I swear that if it could have talked, it would probably have begged to be left alone. Sensing its distress, we backed off, mumbling a “thank you” to the caretaker as we quickly beat a retreat.
My team and I walked out of there, and a sickening feeling in the pit of my stomach simply wouldn’t leave me for some hours after. I am not ordinarily someone that is so deeply moved by such interactions, but I couldn’t help thinking of how the pangolin’s reaction was a symbol of what the illegal trade has inflicted on the species.There are days when I have to pinch myself to believe that trade in wildlife is truly an occurrence - it almost feels like one of those obscure dreams that you never thought could actually be true.
One often hears about how the pangolin is the most trafficked species globally. And then on digging a little deeper, the scary truth of how deep-rooted this trade really is brims to the surface. The figures are truly startling. Reports state that an approximate of 20 tonnes of pangolin scales and parts are trafficked each year. In India, nearly 6000 pangolins were poached between 2009 and 2017, according to a report by TRAFFIC.
Though the pangolin has the highest level of protection under Indian Law, there are several considerations that make the situation rather complicated. For starters, the law in China (prior to the temporary ban that was put in place after the Coronavirus outbreak), which is a major consumer of pangolin scales for Traditional Chinese Medicine, regulates the use of pangolin scales, and there is no complete ban in place on these products. Pangolin scales from the existing stockpile is legal, and this is a loophole that can be exploited with ease. The existing stockpiles are not nearly sufficient to meet the existing consumption levels. This makes the situation rather complicated: once a consignment is smuggled into China, it effectively becomes significantly more difficult for law enforcement to take action against it unless they are caught by Customs authorities at ports of entry. This leaves us in an unfortunate position where despite having the highest level of legal protection for pangolins in India, they continue to remain in great danger due to gaps in the law in other countries.
All eight sub species of pangolin were brought within Appendix I of CITES as recently as 2017, after which commercial global trade in pangolins stands banned. In addition, in a country like India, where the pangolin is highly protected, it is a challenge to implement the law considering that it has not been considered a priority species until recently. Organized criminal syndicates have started coming to light only in recent years, and action against them is slowly setting in. One could hope that with research suggesting that pangolins have been at the epicentre of the Coronavirus outbreak, trade and consumption of this animal will abate to some degree.
In the midst of these unsettling figures, it is a challenge not to be disgruntled and disappointed and instead come together to tackle this problem. It is amazing how individuals from varied walks of life with different skill sets can contribute significantly towards tackling this organized crime - biologists, analysts, lawyers, financial experts, artists and most importantly, enforcement agencies.
I only hope that with efforts for tackling illegal trade in pangolins being scaled up, there will come a day when the next time I see a pangolin, it will not have been a victim of the trade, not terrified, scarred and contained in a little enclosure. Instead, I hope it is out in the wild where it truly belongs, performing its ecological functions with no fear of being picked up when it curls into a tight ball.
By Mridula Vijairaghavan