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Tailored conservation action needed for pangolins

Tailored conservation action needed for pangolins

Pangolins, also known as ‘scaly anteaters’ are unique mammals, owing to their specialized diet (eating ants and termites) and  external “armor” of overlapping epidermal scales. These creatures are threatened to extinction primarily due to anthropogenic influences. Limited reproductive capacity and lack of sufficient intervention along with growing anthropogenic influence imply that the mammal needs interventions to avoid its extinction.

Pangolin are represented by nine species distributed along tropical and subtropical Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa. All the species of pangolin are listed under appendix I of CITES, indicating the level of threats they are experiencing, primarily due to illegal international trade. Pangolins represent the most trafficked mammals in the world with more than 20 tons of pangolin and their parts trafficked annually.

In Nepal, two species of pangolin are found: ‘Chinese’ and ‘Indian’. Both the species are threatened to extinction as Chinese pangolin is listed as critically endangered while Indian pangolin is listed as endangered on the IUCN red list. A study on the distribution of pangolins shows that the species have been recorded in 61 districts. 

Despite a significant presence of the species in Nepal, what is alarming is the fact that illegal trade in pangolin reportedly grew eight-fold between 2009 and 2015.

A national-level survey of pangolins has been conducted and Pangolin Conservation Action Plan 2018-2022 drafted for the species’ conservation in Nepal.  The action plan has set out four objectives: To enhance the understanding and knowledge on conservation status, ecology and habitat dynamics of pangolin; Curb poaching and control illegal trade in pangolin; Identify and manage priority sites to improve habitat quality for pangolin conservation; and Develop local stewardship for conservation of pangolin. Despite a lack of information to assess effectiveness of the action plan, it would be safe to say that many targets and objectives of the plan have remained unachieved. 

The national survey conducted field verification in the remaining 16 districts, with confirmation made on the basis of the Key Informant Interview and other methods primarily due to limitation of resources. There is a need for field verification of the information thus received. Additionally, as macro-level information is of limited importance at the implementation level, understanding the fine scale conservation biology of species is essential, something which the concerned agencies are yet to realize. Despite growing attention toward pangolins in Nepal, information about the population status of the species is lacking, hindering our ability to carry out conservation interventions such as identification of hotspots for conservation, something which the action plan has stipulated as its third objective.  

Second objective is to curb poaching and control illegal trade in pangolins. Limited information regarding the illegal trade in the species means significant interventions are yet to be made toward the species’ conservation. According to a study conducted by Bishal Sharma, a researcher at the Environment Protection and Study Center (ENPROSC), based on seizure records from district forest offices, a large fraction of confiscation of pangolins and their parts have been made in Kathmandu. This may be an indication of the lack of sufficient personnel to limit trade in other parts of the country primarily due to limited staffing. 

Notably, during a field survey, we made observations of pangolins’ burrows in areas close to the foot trails within the forest and mostly in areas with a moderate level of canopy. Other studies have also observed similar trends, indicating the vulnerability of the species. 

Pangolins were almost unknown nearly two decades ago. However, in the second decade of the 21st century, with growing global concern about the species, awareness is rising in Nepal as well. An increasing number of researchers and conservation biologists working on pangolin conservation and some level of government intervention and media coverage point toward this. 

But growing concerns have also proved to be a curse rather than a boon for the species. Most of the conservation interventions in Nepal are focused on awareness raising, without due understanding of ways to change human behavior toward wildlife. This will amplify threats to the species.

For instance, while visiting a private forest in Dhankuta in 2018, I found a burrow and during interactions, some locals admitted to poaching pangolins for meat. They admitted that local-level exploitation of pangolin had increased after news related to international trade in pangolin started to appear. Similar findings have been reported from other districts in eastern Nepal, where money outweighs the traditional belief in conservation of pangolin. 

On the front of developing local stewardship, limited progress has been made. For example, community-based conservation intervention has been initiated at the Rani community forest in Hetauda of Makwanpur district. Pangolin parks have been established in Hetauda. In 2021, Smriti Dahal, a student at the Department of Environmental Science, Padma Kanya Multiple Campus, Bagbazaar conducted a survey in the area and found that people living near the pangolin parks had better knowledge of the species. Gauri Jaiswal, a student at the Department of Environmental Science, Tri-Chandra Multiple Campus, studied the Rani community forest and found community-based conservation at the forest to be effective. 

However, conservation practices adopted at the forest in question may not be suitable for other pangolin habitats across the country. Furthermore, we have to think about the sustainability of the scheme as pangolins are nocturnal, with a limited scope for connecting them with livelihood through ecotourism and related measures. 

Nonetheless, pangolins are an important element of the ecosystem as they provide ecosystem services by controlling insect populations and excavating burrows, which likely affect soil processes through turnover of organic matter and aeration. Burrows also provide shelter and thermal refugia for a range of commensal taxa. But these ecosystem services are delimited due to anthropogenic influences. Thus, we need to take underpinning action based on the evidence on the field and by connecting conservation action with the socioeconomic and ecological setting of the pangolin and its habitat.

The author is an assistant professor at the Department of Environmental Science, Padma Kanya Multiple Campus