The routes for the world’s most trafficked mammal

Sahana Ghosh in Kolkata

Pangolin smugglers in India are rigging up the endangered mammals with a battery-operated device that emits sparks from its scales to convince buyers that the animal has magical healing properties. Impressed, some gullible customers pay as much as $40,000 for a live pangolin.

The scaly anteaters used to be killed for their scales, which were smuggled through the country’s Northeastern states to Burma, and then on to China. But increasingly, live pangolins are being trafficked to feed China’s voracious appetite for the meat, which is believed to have medicinal properties.

Read also: Better Nepal-China connectivity helps wildlife smugglers, Sonia Awale

“The buyers don’t usually keep the pangolin with themselves, they sell it to the customer for a profit, and everyone in the chain ends up making money,” said RS Sharath, a former inspector for India’s Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB) now posted in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

Pangolins are small, solitary and largely nocturnal mammals known for their distinctive, armadillo-like appearance. They are hunted for their scales, meat and other body parts. Four species are native to sub-Saharan Africa, with another four spread across south and southeast Asia. India is home to two of the species, the Indian pangolin (Manis crassicaudata) and Chinese pangolin (Manis pentadactyla).


The web of illegal trade in pangolin scales spans India, including its Northeastern states. Traffickers sneak some of the contraband to Nepal and Bhutan bound for readymade markets in China and Vietnam.

Earlier, Chennai in Tamil Nadu state was the collection hub for pangolin scales. From there, traders used to transport the contraband to the country's Northeast. The hub has now shifted to Berhampur in Odisha state due to the presence of Burmese settlers there.

Read also:

Protecting pangolins from being eaten to extinction, Sonia Awale

Lesser known endangered species

Poached pangolins from southern India are collected in Chennai and taken to the Northeast via Odisha, where more scales are picked up. Stock from Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh is moved to West Bengal and then by train or road to Burma via the Moreh border in Manipur state. (See map below)

“The scales are smuggled hidden with dried fish and unless one pulls out all the items they can go unnoticed in checks,” said Sharath.

The other smuggling route for pangolins and their scales — from Jammu, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Haryana — is across the open border with Nepal, and then over the new roads being built across the Himalayan mountains to China.

Traditional snake charmer communities like the Sapera and the semi-nomadic Bawariyasin catch the pangolins for sale to middlemen.

India’s Wildlife Protection Act 1972 restricted the way of life of these hunting communities, but they still depend on forest products for subsistence. Being skilled hunters, they can track and kill the reclusive animals. One animal can yield nearly 1kg of scales which they can sell for $700.

Conservationists say the upswing in the trade of pangolin scales is due to the crackdown on the smuggling of rhino horns. Pangolin scales, like rhino horns, have no proven medicinal value, yet are used in traditional Chinese medicine. Both are made of keratin, the same tissue in nails and hair.

Samuel K Wasser, a conservation biologist at the University of Washington in the US, has pioneered DNA from animal scat to track wildlife poachers and combat wildlife crime. His team plans to set up a lab at the Wildlife Institute of India to build a pangolin DNA reference library to map the genetic diversity of Asian and African pangolin species.

This can help conservationists and law enforcement officials compare the DNA from pangolins to determine where the creatures were poached. Wasser plans to deploy trained dogs to find pangolin scat.

“Some big freight expeditors are moving wildlife contraband from Africa to southeast Asia, but because the cargo never enters India, they are not breaking Indian law. Those traffickers could easily turn their skills to exporting pangolins from India if the price is right,” Wasser said.

Undercover dealers risk their lives to catch smugglers by posing as buyers. One agent says getting the cover story right is the key.

“You have to know the going price, the size of the animals and other details. If you slip up then the smugglers will be suspicious,” he said.

Agents use a network of informers to go after smugglers, and it takes him weeks to catch them. The poachers have a specific language for the size ranges for pangolin scales and use slang while transacting business.

“You have to know these code words to gain their trust,” he said. “They  want to see the money first. But we try to keep the dialogue going until we are sure of the moment that we can make a move on them.”

Sahana Ghosh is a science journalist with Mongabay  in India.

Pangolin smuggling to China thrives as rhino poaching declines in Assam

Anup Sharma in Guwahati

Pangolin rescued by Centre for Wildlife Rehabilitation and Conservation (CARD) located near Kaziranga National Park in Assam. Photo: Dauharu Baro WTI/IFAW

T he global focus on the smuggling of rhino horns and tiger parts from India to China has led to a drop in smuggling, but that has been replaced by a surge in trafficking of smaller species like pangolins and geckos.

Pangolins caught dead or alive here and in other parts of India are being trafficked to China’s Yunnan province via Burma, which shares a porous 1,600km border with northeast Indian states like Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram.

The Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB) in Assam has seized 10 live pangolins in the last 3 years from northeast Indian states. In the last seizure in June, undercover agents fixed a deal with smugglers to buy a live pangolin for Rs6 crore.

Eleven seized and rescued pangolins were taken to Assam State Zoo between January 2017 and July 2019, according to Tejas Mariswamy, Divisional Forest Officer at the zoo. Ten more pangolins were rescued recently from traffickers, who abandoned them to evade a dragnet by law enforcement agencies.

“We have in recent times been able to stop the poaching of one-horned rhinos and smuggling of its horns, but we have noticed a sudden rise in seizures of pangolins from the region,” says KK Sharma of the WCCB, based in Guwahati.

The Centre for Wildlife Rehabilitation Conservation (CWRC) near Kaziranga National Park in Assam has also seen a sharp rise in rescues of smuggled pangolins, proving the existence of a trafficking network using the India-Burma-China route. Indian pangolins are also smuggled to China via Nepal. (See adjoining story above)

“The recent increase in rescues indicates that there is a racket in smuggling out pangolins,” said Rathin Barman, Joint Director of the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) and Head of the CWRC here. “Last month we found one dead pangolin in an abandoned bag at a bus stop in Upper Assam.”

Traffickers buy pangolin scales from farmers for up to Rs70,000 and take them to Manipur state, from where they are smuggled across the border to Burma and on to China.

Pangolin scales are used in Chinese traditional medicines, much like rhino horns and tiger parts. Enhanced security and an international spotlight on the trafficking of rhinos and tigers has forced smugglers to shift to small mammals like pangolins.

Besides pangolins, the Tockay gecko is also being smuggled into China, following the same route used by traffickers of rhino horns — through Manipur and Burma to Yunnan province of China. Fluid extracted from the geckos is used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat cancer.

The demand for rhino horns rose after rumours spread during the last decade that a Vietnamese minister was cured of cancer after taking traditional medicine that included rhino horn powder. Rhinos in Kaziranga park came under pressure after that.

The state government then set up a special investigation team (SIT) to stop rhino poaching, conducting special operations between 2008-2014, leading to the arrest and killing of several poachers and seizures of rhino horns. Captured poachers told investigators the smuggling hub was based in Churachandpur district of India’s Manipur state.

One SIT agent told us: “The buyers normally come to Churachandpur or Dimapur in Nagaland. The poachers include sharp shooters of Manipur-based militants who hand over the wildlife parts for cash. This network was established for smuggling rhino horns, but it has diversified to pangolins, geckos and other wildlife.”

Although a sleepy town along the Indo-Myanmar border, Churachandpur has been a hot favourite for buyers and sellers of animal parts. “There is hardly anything that you don’t get in Churachandpur, from rhino horn to pangolin scales, geckos to arms and ammunition — everything gets traded in Churachandpur due to its proximity with Myanmar and the porous border,” said a WCCB field officer based in Manipur on condition of anonymity.

Added a retired Manipur police official: “Sometimes drugs are also traded with animal parts. Drugs are pushed in through these routes to the Indian side with the help of militant outfits that frequent these routes. Animal parts such as rhino horns, geckos and live pangolins are smuggled out,” he said.

Assam-based conservation activist BaibhavTalukder is worried that the lack of awareness among farmers in India is leading to the decimation of pangolins in India. Even though the animals are also protected, rhinos and tigers get all the attention, he says. There has been no systematic research on pangolins in Assam, but seizure data indicate a growing problem.

“There are similar punishments for poaching rhinos or pangolins, but our law enforcement agencies were not much concerned about the killing of pangolins till recently,” says Talukder. “Wildlife trafficking should be seen as a national security threat and not merely smuggling of animals.”

Anup Sharma is a journalist based in India’s Northeast.

This coverage is part of a joint crossborder investigation project by  Nepali Times, Mongabay and The Pangolin Reports.

  • Most read