Protecting pangolins in the pandemic

Newly born pangolin baby at police custody in Bhaktapur, Nepal. The mother pangolin was seized while being illegally transported from Dhading district. Photos: KUMAR PAUDEL/GREENHOOD NEPAL

Pangolins were already the world’s most trafficked mammals, but the scaly anteaters were thrust into the global spotlight when they were found to be the missing link in the transfer of the novel coronavirus from bats to humans.

As scientists continue to investigate the origins and early transmission of SARS-CoV-2, they are finding a strong correlation between emerging zoonotic diseases and biodiversity loss. Studies revealed that the spike protein found in the virus as being present in Malayan pangolins.

In some instances, the endangered species has been viewed negatively because of its close association with the virus that has now infected 110 million and killed 2.2 million people worldwide. But this has not resulted in a decline in wildlife poaching.

“Covid made pangolins a household name but it has not contributed much to its conservation. Our capacity and understanding are still very limited,” says researcher, Kumar Paudel of the group Greenhood Nepal that works in conservation.

Last week, an injured pangolin with its baby was seized from Bhaktapur. After a day in the zoo, the pair was released in the Suryabinayak zoological garden even though the mammals do not do well in captivity.

“When we rescued a baby pangolin, we felt helpless at our inability to protect it,” says Paudel. Pangolins often make it to the news in Nepal, which is a transit country for pangolin smuggling from the Subcontinent to China.

Wooden box used to transport pangolins from the source districts to Kathmandu in Nepal.

Seized live pangolin in Sindhupalchok, Nepal.

Tulshi Laxmi Suwal of Nepal’s Small Mammal Conservation and Research Centre (SMCRF) has evaluated 20 years of pangolin trafficking in Nepal. She has seen the market grow several fold in the last decade, but says that Covid-19 has only added to the challenges of protecting the shy creatures.

“One would think that the global pandemic would curb wildlife trade, particularly that of pangolins. But the opposite seems to be true. Traffickers have used it as an opportunity to be more active,” she adds. “Many migrant workers returned home from the Gulf, Malaysia and India during the pandemic. Jobless, they took to opportunistic killings for easy money.”

Indeed, a migrant worker who had returned to his home village in Gorkha district due to the coronavirus crisis had posted a ‘pangolin for sale’ notice on Facebook last year. The Central Investigation Bureau (CIB) was alerted and an investigation launched, but details of the case were lost before the trafficker could be caught.

Nepal’s location between the source of most pangolins in India and the market in China makes it strategic for smugglers. Nepal is a source of pangolins as well as a transit for the illegal trade in pangolins. The popularity of the traditional route for wildlife trafficking from India to China does not appear to have diminished with the pandemic.

Scales, meat and live pangolins are still in high demand in China, where they are believed to carry medicinal properties. One scaly anteater can fetch up to $8,000 in China, while the scales sell for as high as $3,000 per kg.

From 2012 to 2019, the CIB of the Nepal Police arrested 64 people, involved in 63 pangolin operations. A total of 226kg of scales, 8 pangolin skins, 4 live pangolins and 1 carcass were confiscated.

This is despite a Rs1 million fine and/or 15 years in jail for those involved in the killing, poaching, transporting, selling or buying of the protected species.

“Researchers have worked tirelessly on studies and in raising awareness. We also have some of the most stringent regulations, but smuggling continues unabated,” says Suwal, who says communities need to see the benefit of conservation. “Only then will they protect pangolins instead of killing them.”

Bagh Bhairav Community Forest Users Group and the group SMCRF set up Pangolin Trail on the eve of the World Pangolin Day. Photos: TULSI LAXMI SUWAL/FACEBOOK

On the even of the World Pangolin Day on 20 February this year, Bagh Bhairav Community Forest Users Group is announcing a new walking path dedicated to the mammals, the Salak Padmarga Pangolin Trail. The group is supported by SMCR for the campaign, the first of its kind in the world to raise awareness about pangolin conservation.

The trail traverses a pangolin habitat, and forms a two-hour loop over the mountains surrounding the Kathmandu Valley, starting from Bagh Bhairav to Chandragiri. The hike has been assigned three trained guides for a Rs20 charge per entry.

The campaign doubles up as a promotion for ecotourism, with the trail providing an opportunity for the Tamang community who reside along it to showcase their culture and heritage.

Says Kumar Paudel of Greenhood Nepal: “Different animals have different needs. Pangolins are elusive, so we have to understand their habits and plan conservation models accordingly. This will be best achieved by enhancing the communities’ capacity and knowledge for wildlife protection.”

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