Bhubaneswar 4 Feb 2023: The Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI) held a press conference in which the growing menace of Pangolin poaching and the inefficiency of the authorities to control it was highlighted.
Speaking on the occasion, Dr. Biswajit Mohanty, Project Director of the WPSI said that the Pangolin had been declared the world’s most trafficked mammal, their meat is considered a delicacy, while their scales are said to ‘cure’ illnesses in traditional Asian medicine, mostly in China, Vietnam, and other South Eastern Countries.
Pangolins are found across all districts of Odisha, yet their population is unknown as they are very elusive creatures. They were earlier hunted for their scales while the meat was eaten by tribals. However, for the last 6 years, the demand for live Pangolins has gone up sharply. Poachers employ nomadic tribals like Sabaras, Kolhos, Mankadias, Sauras, Matia Kelas etc., who are expert hunters. Due to escalating demand, traders of forest produce and wildlife parts smugglers engage them to catch Pangolins and sell them to inter-state smugglers at a high cost. Being as lucrative or more lucrative than Ivory or Drug trade, off late organized Mafia gangs have entered this illegal business which appears comparatively easier for them.
According to Anil Dhir, until three years ago the Forest Department was unaware about threats to Pangolins. Forest guards used to ignore the hunting or catching of Pangolins, Porcupines, Turtles, Monkeys and Birds like Parakeets and Mynas, though they are all protected species.The efforts made to make people aware about the need to protect Elephants and Tigers is completely missing for Pangolins.
The Forest Department has not made any efforts to gather intelligence on this illegal trade. While the STF-CB of Police has used intelligence to seize and arrest, the Forest Department has continued to depend on chance encounters.
On 18th June,2018 when notorious wildlife smuggler Shamsuddin Khan was caught by the Department staff, the department had no clue about his past. Thankfully the STF-CB of Police stepped in and arrested six more accomplishes including two international smugglers from North East India.
The Forest department is yet to understand the enormity of the Pangolin smuggling rackets in Odisha and how its lucrativeness has attracted organized gangs. During 2019-20, Athagarh Forest Division arrested about 30 men, some of them possessing Pangolin Scales, live Pangolins and a dead formalin-soaked Pangolin. These acts won awards for the DFO but to date not a single accused has been convicted and the kingpin was never identified.
The Wildlife Society of Orissa has repeatedly urged the Forest Department to hand over the cases to the STF-CB of Police, but the requests were ignored raising doubts about the authenticity of those seizures & arrests.
A Pangolin Research & Breeding Center was established in 2007 at the Nandan Kanan Zoo with the objective of breeding and augmenting the dwindling wild population but not a single Pangolin has been released in the wild. One case failed miserably.
Of the 49 Live Pangolin Seizures in 48 seizure cases till now, 24 seizure cases were carried out by the Police Department, primarily by the STF-CB of Police. Of the 114 men arrested in the 48 cases, 64 were arrested by the Forest Department and 50 by the Police but all of them were prime accused. In two cases the Department could not arrest anyone.
In the absence of specific nation-wide data, one cannot claim with certainty but it can be said that Odisha may have recorded more cases of Live Pangolin seizures than other States in the last four years.
Dr, Mohanty said that Pangolins deserve equal status of protection as the Royal Bengal Tiger and Elephant. Massive awareness campaigns need to be initiated to make people aware about the need to protect the Pangolins, their role in the conservation of forests. In all vulnerable areas, tribal hunters & gatherers must be periodically checked and camps surveyed to ensure that they do not indulge in poaching. The Government of Odisha must declare special status to Pangolins and initiate Project Pangolin on the lines of Project Tiger and Project Elephant.
An exclusive specialist Task Force comprising of a crack team of the Forest Department and the Crime Branch of Police needs to be formed to control smuggling of live Pangolins and Pangolin Scales.
Seized and rescued live Pangolins must be released back in the wild to ensure breeding in the wild continues in order to have a sustainable population.