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Odisha plans to satellite-tag pangolins to study them better

State government plans to use transmitters to study pangolin behaviour once they are released from the captive breeding program

A pangolin brought by the villagers to the range office, Kalakad Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve. (A. J. T. Johnsingh, WWF-India and NCF/Wikimedia Commons)

With significant numbers of arrests to curb the illegal wildlife trade in pangolins in Odisha, the state government is now planning to deploy satellite transmitters to scale up its research on pangolins after their release from the captive breeding program centre into forests.

Nandankanan Zoological Park (NKZP), in Odisha’s capital Bhubaneswar, hosts the country’s only pangolin conservation breeding centre. The centre helps different institutions working for the conservation and rehabilitation of pangolins by guiding them on the captive management of seized/rescued pangolins and their release into the wild. Even as the centre readies to release pangolins in the wild, a section of activists has batted for a dedicated action plan on pangolin conservation to protect them. In December 2020, the Maharashtra government announced to bring a dedicated action plan for the conservation of pangolins, the first Indian state to do so.

Poaching for illegal international trade in live animals, meat, and scales primarily destined for Asia, mainly China and Vietnam, are the main threats to the animals. Pangolins are the most trafficked mammals in the world, although international trade in all the eight species found in Africa and Asia is banned under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). India is home to two pangolin species, the endangered Indian pangolin (Manis crassicaudata) and critically endangered Chinese pangolin (Manis pentadactyla).

In India, the scaly mammals are being poached outside protected areas; researchers have called for addressing the knowledge gap in population status, distribution, and ecology of these two species in India, warning of a shrinking distribution and population. Nearly 6000 pangolins were poached in India between 2009 and 2017, despite a ban, according to a 2018 TRAFFIC India report.

Also read: 'Wild And Wilful': An evocative collection of nature writing

Under the captive breeding at NKZP, a total of six pangolins were inducted into the zoo for the programme in 2008 and now the centre has a total of 26 pangolins; nine among them were born of the pangolins introduced at the zoo. The Odisha government is now also planning to procure satellite transmitters from New Zealand before releasing some of these pangolins into the wild to study more about their behaviour in the forests, said zoo biologist and centre-in-charge Rajesh Mohapatra who said the centre’s work has shed light on the poorly-understood mammals.

“Studies in the centre have helped us to understand the behaviour, reproductive biology, haematology, husbandry and healthcare practices including identification of parasites and bacteria associated with Indian pangolins,” Mohapatra told Mongabay-India.

“While contributing research on the lesser-known aspects of the biology of Indian pangolins, our studies have also helped substantially to the assessment for inclusion of the pangolin in the endangered category in the Red Data Book of IUCN in the year 2014 and Appendix I of CITES in the year 2017,” said Mohapatra, who had done his PhD on pangolins.

According to a research paper co-authored by Mohapatra, the biology of Indian pangolins, particularly low reproductive rate and wide distribution make them vulnerable to overexploitation. “Little effort has been devoted to understanding its biology, ecology, and behaviour, perhaps due to nocturnal and secretive habit of the species,” the paper states.

Pangolin rescue records (1973 to 2008) maintained at Nandankanan, show that Indian pangolins are spread through coastal areas of Bay of Bengal to the hilly forest areas of Eastern Ghats in Odisha

In this file photograph from 2002, a Malayan pangolin is seen out of its cage after being confiscated by the Department of Wildlife and Natural Parks in Kuala Lumpur. Pangolins are the most trafficked mammals in the world, although international trade in all the eight species found in Africa and Asia is banned under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.
In this file photograph from 2002, a Malayan pangolin is seen out of its cage after being confiscated by the Department of Wildlife and Natural Parks in Kuala Lumpur. Pangolins are the most trafficked mammals in the world, although international trade in all the eight species found in Africa and Asia is banned under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. (AFP)

Some wildlife experts however are not happy with the state government’s approach to the programme. Activist Biswajit Mohanty said that since the inception in 2008 not a single pangolin has been released into the wild and the zoo authorities are deliberately keeping the wild animals in confinement. Mohanty said that more than 11 lakh have been spent on them from the funding but the non-release of the mammals raise a doubt on the overall exercise.

However, the zoo authorities have a different reason to argue for the same. “We are now ready to release some of the pangolins into the jungle and it would be done soon. We need to first understand the whole concept of the programme before making presumptive remarks. We needed at least 25 founder stocks in a breeding programme before releasing; we have now reached that number. Secondly, we cannot release them without proper planning otherwise they might die in unfavourable conditions which have happened in other areas in the past and have been shown in studies,” said Mohapatra.

Also read: Conserving the caracal, one of India's rarest wild cats

According to Mohapatra, the zoo authorities are now waiting for the satellite tags which would be fitted into the pangolins before releasing them. Earlier the zoo authorities used radio collars in some of the wild animals to track their movement but now they have planned to rope in the more advanced version of tracking devices that have recently been used in gharials.

Shashi Paul, acting Principal Conservator of Forest-Wildlife (PCCF-WF), Odisha, said the birth of the first generation of pangolins in the captive breeding programme is a measure of success. Paul also said lack of information on the species and the absence of population estimates creates hurdle in policymaking. “There is no population estimation of the species in Odisha and I think it has not been done in any other state too,” Paul said. The central government also notes that there are no population estimates of pangolins in the country.

WhatsApp networks strengthen illegal trade; loose ends remain

The Odisha forest department has also shed light on the mode of operation of those involved in the illegal trade in pangolins. Networks of traffickers and customers forged on WhatsApp and other messenger and social media sites form a crucial component in the trade. In early 2020, the Athagarh Forest Division in the Cuttack district of Odisha arrested suspected smugglers involved in the trafficking of pangolins from the area to neighbouring states. The local forest department in their investigation discovered that the perpetrators were exploiting the potential of Whatsapp and other social media and messaging sites to earn fast cash.

The then Athagarh Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) Sasmita Lenka attests to this. Posing as a customer she infiltrated WhatsApp groups administered by traffickers. Between August 2019 and April 2020, Lenka’s team detained some 28 persons and seized three live Indian pangolins, one dead pangolin and 5 kg of pangolin scales. In one case in December 2019, she and her team busted an international pangolin smuggling racket by arresting eight suspects.

“As I was the investigating officer in many of these cases I interrogated several of these smugglers who themselves confessed how they use such online platforms to give an impetus to the trafficking of pangolins,” she said, adding that the trend still continues in different parts of the state. WhatsApp and other social media sites like Facebook, Instagram are used to share pictures of pangolins body parts such as scales and live pangolins. Such smuggling is said to be rampant in Cuttack, Dhenkanal, Ganjam, Malkangiri and Sambalpur districts of the state.

Also read: ‘Illegal wildlife trade hasn’t slowed even after covid-19 outbreak’

Biswajit Mohanty observed that pangolins and elephant ivories are the most trafficked items from Odisha to other places and the most sought after items in the trafficking market. They are sold in lakhs with the involvement of a section of the rural population living close to the forest areas “While pangolin scales and live pangolins are traded in such markets their demand in neighbouring countries like Myanmar and China have given rise to their illegal trafficking from the state,” he said.

In Odisha, the state forest department and the Special Task Force (STF) of the Odisha Police works in tandem to check the trafficking of pangolins outside the state.

Jai Narayan Pankaj, Deputy Inspector General (DIG) of STF, Odisha said that during their raids and seizures, mostly their scales were spotted. The STF was entrusted with the task of tracking the smuggling of wildlife and their parts in 2018 in the state.“During our raids, we have often found scales of pangolins and also live pangolins ready for smuggling. We cannot reveal much about our investigation part but can say that there is a local market too for pangolins besides its trade in other states and countries. In some tribal pockets, scales are found to be used in ornaments and other uses,” he said.

He also added that the state government in 2018 approached the Ministry of External Affairs in a case in which investigating revealed a link from Odisha to Myanmar but there was no solid evidence that could legally establish such a channel to the country. “We had approached the Ministry of External Affairs; they had written to the Myanmar government on the issue but the neighbouring state declined to accept the link and the legal way to establish an international link could not be executed,” he said.

The story first appeared on Mongabay.

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