Photograph by Yashpal Rathore, Minden Pictures
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The endangered Indian pangolin, pictured here, and the critically endangered Chinese pangolin both live in India, where they’re hunted for the illegal trade to supply consumers primarily in China and Vietnam.

Photograph by Yashpal Rathore, Minden Pictures

Hunters target endangered pangolins in India

Pangolin scales have become so lucrative in India that some traditional hunting communities are now actively targeting the animals.

A study published November 3 in the journal Nature Conservation by researchers at University of Oxford’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU) and the nonprofit World Animal Protection sheds new light on pangolin hunting in India, a country known to be a source of pangolins entering the illegal trade but that’s been little studied.

Pangolins are scaly, ant-eating mammals that live in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Their scales are in high demand in the illegal wildlife trade, valued for use in traditional Chinese medicine. Two species—Indian pangolin and the Chinese pangolin—live in the northeastern Indian state of Assam, where the research was carried out.

Researchers interviewed 141 hunters from the Biate, Karbi, and Dimasa tribes in the rural district of Dima Hasao, with the goal of understanding how, why, and to what extent they hunt pangolins. People from these tribes mostly rely on subsistence farming and hunting, and pangolin meat is an established—though not favored—source of protein.

Across India, nearly 6,000 pangolins were seized between 2009 and 2017, according to a 2018 estimate by Traffic, the wildlife trade monitoring organization. That's likely just a fraction of the actual trade. Traffic also counted 90 seizures of illegal pangolin products over that period, with more than a third taking place in the northeastern state of Manipur, near Assam. From northeastern India, the scales typically travel to China via Nepal and Myanmar, according to a 2015 paper.

Because pangolins are widely distributed, nocturnal, and solitary, little is known about their numbers in India; however, all eight species in Africa and Asia of pangolins are considered endangered or critically endangered.

This new study finds that most traditional hunters in Assam no longer take pangolins only opportunistically, for personal use, while out on a hunt for any edible animal. Instead, they’re hunting the animals intentionally, for commercial purposes. That’s because substantial money can be made by selling the scales to urban middlemen.

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Hunters boil pangolins to remove the scales, which they then sell to middle men who smuggle them to China.

“If you’re a hunter, and you’re hunting for a bit of protein, in the past if you’d seen pangolin tracks, you’d say, ‘I’m not going to waste my time,’” says lead author Neil d’Cruze, of World Animal Protection and WildCRU. “But there’s more widespread engagement now that the word has spread there’s financial value.” Hunting these animals is labor intensive, he says, and can involve trekking through the forest, following tracks in the mud, and many hours of chopping at a pangolin’s nest in a tree or digging into its burrow in the ground, he says.

Although the survey says that selling pangolin scales is not the primary source of income for these hunters, a single transaction could be a life-changing amount of cash for them. If the hunter is part of a group, each person might take home a month’s salary or more by selling the scales. For a single hunter, the scales could be sold for as much money as he earns in a whole year.

“Finding a pangolin is in a way like winning a small lottery prize,” d’Cruze says.

HUNTERS ARE AT THE BOTTOM OF THE LADDER

“It’s important to see this in the context of a much longer standing history of exclusion and marginalization of tribal peoples in Indian society,” says Rosaleen Duffy, a professor at the University of Sheffield, in the U.K., and the leader of the BIOSEC project, which examines the links between wildlife crime and security. “If people have no other opportunities or options, then they’ll engage in illegal hunting.”

“Direct law enforcement [against poachers] is not always the answer,” says Jose Louies, the head of enforcement at the nonprofit Wildlife Trust of India, a conservation organization.

That’s because in India, Duffy points out, there’s a history of heavy-handed law enforcement toward tribal communities.

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A hunter handles a young pangolin in northeastern India.

“The key is to work with the community and gain their support in conservation—which is a major task as many of these communities consider hunting a birthright and not a crime,” Louies says.

D’Cruze says it’s important to look at the big picture when figuring out how to reduce illegal hunting. Poverty reduction efforts at the local level must be combined with efforts to reduce demand for pangolin in China and Vietnam and with efforts to disrupt the transnational supply chains at higher levels, he says.

“Whilst interventions to reduce poverty are no doubt required, we argue that such interventions alone are unlikely to be effective in reducing pangolin hunting,” the paper says.

It appears that these rural hunters are being exploited by the middlemen and traders higher up the chain. Most of the 141 hunters interviewed said they either “strongly liked” or “quite liked” pangolins, and, d’Cruze says, he often heard that it was good luck if a pangolin came across your path or entered your home. That, combined with the fact that they all ranked pangolin meat toward the bottom of their taste preferences, suggests that most wouldn’t have an interest in targeting pangolins at the scale they’re now being hunted, all other things being equal.

Pangolins: The Most Trafficked Mammal You've Never Heard Of

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But in an impoverished community, the potential windfall can be too great for some to pass up. How can you criticize someone “when they tell you the money from that pangolin paid for their child’s medical treatment that saved their life?” d’Cruze asks.

Furthermore, the survey found that most hunters seem to have no idea that the scales they sell are part of a giant, international illegal trade. That many of the hunters have little or no understanding of why people would buy the scales “adds weight to concerns that more wealthy urban actors are exploiting rural hunters,” the paper says. In fact, most hunters thought the middlemen were buying the scales for themselves, either for traditional medicine (especially to treat hemorrhoids) or for protection against termites, for good luck charms and amulets, or even to unclog toilets. (“It’s a bit of spin,” d’Cruze says—a rumor he thinks could have been started by a trader trying to deflect from the fact that scales increase astronomically in price as they move up the ladder.)

Nearly all the Assamese hunters said it’s harder to find pangolins now than it was five years ago, even though the level of successful hunting seems low: Only about half of them said they’d caught a pangolin during the past year.

But the anecdotal evidence of rural people seeing fewer pangolins, combined with the number of seizures, suggests that the hunting of pangolins in India—elsewhere in Asia and in Africa—is unsustainable.

Wildlife Watch is an investigative reporting project between National Geographic Society and National Geographic Partners focusing on wildlife crime and exploitation. Read more Wildlife Watch stories here, and learn more about National Geographic Society’s nonprofit mission at nationalgeographic.org. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to ngwildlife@natgeo.com.