The increasing demand in China for pangolin scales, known for their aphrodisiac and medicinal value, is threatening the existence of the endangered mammals in central India.
According to sources, international smugglers have been targeting pangolins in Madhya Pradesh through conduits – mostly forest dwellers – despite anti-poaching initiatives undertaken by state law enforcement agencies. This has resulted in many illegal hunters ending up in traps set by wildlife officials, enabling the authorities to identify a multilayered poaching network spread across 10 states in the country.
The MP forest department, which created a special task force (STF) in March 2015 to bust the network, has arrested 122 people from 10 states so far. For the first time, it has also pushed Interpol to issue a red-corner notice against an international Pangolin poacher who jumped bail. JaiyTamang, who hails from Lhasa in Tibet, is yet to be re-arrested.
The STF investigation has revealed that the poachers have established three major routes for smuggling pangolins from central India to China – the first through Uttar Pradesh-Nepal-Tibet, the second through Kolkata-Manipur-Mizoram-Myanmar-Laos, and the third (still upcoming route) through Uttarakhand to Tibet.
State STF (wildlife crime) in-charge RiteshSirothia said consignments of pangolin scales that enter Nepal through Bhairawa and Nepalganj are shipped to Xigazę in Tibet, from where they are sent to China. “In the Northeast, smuggling of pangolin scales to China happens through Churachandpur district of Manipur, and Kolasib and Champhai districts of Mizoram. From there, the consignments are smuggled to Mandalay in Myanmar, and finally to the Golden Triangle (the tri-junction of Myanmar, Laos and Thailand),” he said.
Poacher’s salary sheet
According to STF officials, local poachers are paid anywhere between Rs 2,000 and Rs 5,000 for a kg of pangolin scales. While suppliers from the districts get Rs 5,000 to Rs 8,000 for the same amount of contraband, the rate goes up as the load moves forward – with middlemen in Kolkata earning Rs 8,000 to Rs 15,000 and traffickers at the border getting Rs 35,000 to Rs 40,000. Once the scales reach China, they cost around $2,500 a kg (or Rs 1.6 lakh). Incidentally, the price of pangolin scales in China was just $1,000 (Rs 66,000) in 2015. The steep hike in price has been attributed to the sharp increase in demand, but reduction of supply due to a slump in number of pangolins in the wild.
The racket first came to light on September 21, 2014, when five people were caught in Madhya Pradesh’s Balaghat district with three kg of pangolin scales. The next day, a man called Jamal Iqbal was apprehended with 43 kg of Pangolin scales near the Chhindwara-Maharashtra border. It was Jamal who informed STF interrogators about the extent of India’s poaching network. Following this, the state forest department constituted the STF with RiteshSirothia as its head in March 2015.
According to certain observers, Chinese couples keen on having a second baby – thanks to a new government policy of allowing couples to have two children – may also be fuelling the demand for pangolin scales. Besides this, STF officials believe the wildlife product is blended with party drugs for extra potency.
Pangolins found in central India are bigger than their Chinese counterparts.
What experts say
Pangolin expert Rajesh Kumar Mohapatra said that nearly 2,000 pangolins were killed between 2009 and 2014, going by the 5,913 kg of scales seized during that period.
“Our research shows while the number of seizures is increasing, the volume of seized scales is declining. This is a clear indication that the population of Pangolins is decreasing in India,” said Mohapatra, who is also a member of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Pangolin Specialist Group.
Considered as “one of the most trafficked mammals in the world”, the shy solitary animal is listed in schedule 1 of the Wildlife Protection Act-1972.