Planet of the pangolins

3 May 2009 has a special significance for Tulsi Laxmi Suwal, as it was the day she found a mother pangolin with her new-born pup inside the community forest area in Bhaktapur.

Suwal, who is a researcher of pangolins and a conservation activist, took the shy and harmless little creatures to the Central Zoo in Jawalakhel where she began to study them. Co-incidentally, her own child was five years of age then, and watching the mother pangolin feed, cuddle and take care of her pup, Suwal felt a growing emotional attachment with the pair.

“For 15 days I would go to the zoo every morning,” Suwal recalls. “Then I would observe them all day and return home in the evening.”

This experience, Suwal adds, helped her gain a more holistic knowledge of the scaly mammals. Later the mother and the pup were released back to the Bhaktapur community forest.

Read more: Protecting pangolins from being eaten to extinction, Sonia Awale

Pangolins are small mammals, between 30 to 100cm in size, with large, protective keratin scales covering their skin. There are eight extant species found in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, all of which are currently considered threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). They are the most trafficked mammals in the world because of illicit demand for their meat and scales in China.

Nepal is home to two species: the Chinese and Indian varieties. Both species are in Nepal’s protected list and the killing, poaching, transporting, selling or buying of the scaly anteater is punishable with Rs1 million fine and/or up to 15 years in jail.

However, 100,000 pangolins are smuggled live from Southeast Asia and Africa into China every year where its scales are believed to have therapeutic value and its meat is considered a delicacy. Some ethnic groups in Nepal also consume pangolins for their supposed health benefits.

Save Pangolins, a global organisation that supports conservation actions in Africa and Asia, and raises awareness of pangolins around the world, estimates that one million of the animals have been killed worldwide in the last decade alone.

Suwal was first introduced to pangolins in 2007 when she came upon a picture of the animal in a book. She was at the time a post-graduate student at the Central Zoology department in Tribhuvan University.

Curious, she looked for more information on pangolins and discovered the works of conservationists Juddha Gurung and Daniel Challender. As her interest grew, so did her affection for the animals, which appear to her like new-born babies. Then in 2009, along with her studies, Suwal also began her conservation work, joining Nepal's Small Mammals Conservation and Research Foundation (SMCRF).

For her dissertation on pangolins, Suwal chose to work in Balthali in Kavre district where the private forest is a good habitat for the animals, studying them for months. This was almost 12 years ago when female students of Zoology would usually choose parasitology as their field of study.

Read more: The routes for the world’s most trafficked mammal, Nepali Times

“When we were studying, even botany and environment were more popular choices among girls,” says Suwal. “But I picked zoology and focused on ecology.”

Her passion for pangolins has taken Suwal all over the country, often to identify the different species found in the community and national forests. However, she feels that many people are still unfamiliar with the animal and its significance.

She would inform people, wherever she went, about the role of pangolins in our ecology and biodiversity. She even started a campaign to impart relevant news and information about the animal through the social network.

Gradually the interest took on momentum and more people have come to join the conservation efforts in recent years. Suwal works with the local people, media, community forest groups, security forces, the Ministry of Forests and Environment, the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation, and also conducts discussions and talks in communities, schools, colleges and universities on pangolins to raise awareness.

By 2012, there was already a growing interest among locals as well as post-graduate students. So far, the number of studies done by the university on pangolins is 35, which includes the participation of government institutions involved in conservation and habitat protection. Suwal, who is currently pursuing PhD in Taiwan, is nearing the completion of her research, which will make her the first female zoologist from Nepal with a doctorate on pangolins.

Taiwan has the highest population density of pangolins in the world. “Taiwan is proof that China can also reduce its demand for pangolins through education, stricter laws, transboundary collaboration and enforcement,” adds Suwal.

“I wanted to study,” she says thinking back on her journey. “All of this has been possible because of the support from various people in my life.” Her husband Manoj Bakhunche who is an engineering officer with the Armed Police has been her strongest supporter.

Born in Chochhe of Bhaktapur, Suwal wanted to be a teacher like her father when she was a child. She began to teach at Dipendra Police School in Sankhu when she was 19 after her mother passed away, and continued to teach until she completed her Bachelor eight years later.

Even as she took evening post-graduate Sociology classes at Tri-Chandra College, her true interest was Zoology, and promptly returned to it after taking two year’s unpaid leave of absence from teaching.

Through her expertise and involvement in pangolin conservation, she was made a member of the IUCN’s pangolin specialist group in 2012. She is among seven Nepalis in the group and this network brings her together with 148 experts from 37 countries. Further, her dissertation is aided by Save Pangolins, which recently recognised and honoured her conservation work.

“Pangolins are critically endangered in the world,” says Suwal: “But the growing concern for its conservation is promising. It is important that we all work together to keep the mammal from going extinct.”

An example of such work is the observation of the World Pangolin Day on the third Saturday in February annually across the world. Another is also the ‘pangolin pavement’ in the Bagh Bhairab Community Forest in Kathmandu’s Machhegaun – a first in Nepal. As conservation institutions expand their work, they are also beginning to include pangolins in their scope and programs.

However, Suwal believes that while community and organisations are now taking pangolins seriously, current efforts are not enough. A major concern is that there is no budget allocated especially for pangolin conservation, and nor have regular programs for long-term study and research been decided.

She adds: “Conservation work need to be expanded across the country systemically to save more pangolin lives.” 

Translated from the Himalkhabar Nepali original by Ashish Dhakal.

Read also: Lesser known endangered species, Nepali Times

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