If you saw the pangolin, you’d probably find it quite adorable. It’s a shy, stooped creature that ambles close to the ground, looking furtively at the world through beady eyes.
When threatened, this prehistoric mammal curls up into a ball, presenting a hide covered in overlapping scales so tough, they can withstand a tiger attack — or blows from an axe. These scales are also the reason the pangolin is on the endangered list. For one thing, they make it easy to capture, and impossible to kill. So about 3,500 pangolins are boiled alive in India every year (and about 10,000 worldwide, according to 2014 data from the UK-based NGO Environmental Investigation Agency).
Thus separated from the skin, the scales fetch up to Rs 15,000 per kg on the black market, to eventually be used as a ‘tonic’ in traditional Chinese medicine.
All this has made the pangolin the most-poached mammal in India — and the world. And yet there is little data on its decline; only vague estimates of how few are left; just the fact that the young are being poached so extensively to hint at how few adults probably remain.
Chances are, you’ve never even seen a picture of one.
It is, essentially, an orphan in the wild. Poached, seriously endangered and still largely ignored.
And in that sense, if in no other, the pangolin isn’t alone. Its predicament is shared by the slender loris and the red line torpedo barb, which are trapped and sold by the thousands as exotic pets. By the dugong or sea cow, which is hunted for its flesh, and the forest owlet, hunted for its supposedly magical properties. The sea cucumber, similarly, has been wiped out in many parts of the western coast, hunted as a delicacy and an ingredient in traditional Chinese and South-East Asian medicine. And the sea horse faces the same fate on the eastern coast, traded in the thousands as aquarium pets or dried curios, or ‘cures’ for asthma or sexual dysfunction.
At a time when the impact of human activity is contributing to, if not causing, climate change, species around the world are in peril, some still more than others. But within the world of endangered animals, discrimination persists.
Worldwide, the species that pull on heartstrings and purse-strings tend to either be large, powerful animals at the top of a food chain (like the tiger and whale) or charismatic creatures (like the elephant or koala bear).
The hundreds of other critically endangered species are left to make do with the scraps of attention, awareness and budgetary allotment left. Some, like the pangolin, amble into the news when their numbers drop very far or very fast, or both. Others, like the red line torpedo barb, which makes up 60% of India’s decorative fish exports, may make it to the news only when they have disappeared altogether.
“With the bulk of endangered species, the conservation effort ends at moving them from one list to another as their numbers drop and they become more and more endangered. This is just a cosmetic change since it does not reflect any changes of real significance on the ground,” says Shekhar Niraj, head of TRAFFIC India, a joint programme of World Wide Fund for Nature and the World Conservation Union. Since celebrity animals like the tiger or the elephant are considerably higher in the food chain and are international symbols of Indian wildlife, they tend to hog public attention.
And this is bad news for you.
As marine ecologist Deepak Apte puts it: “We may concern ourselves with the flagship species but it is the minutiae that actually balance the ecosystem. Be it the scavenger species, the sea cucumber or the insectivorous slender loris, it is these species that keep the ecosystems healthy and clean.”
SEEING BEYOND STRIPES
Here’s a look at how the numbers play out instead. The union ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) lists 726 areas as protected, because they are rich in biodiversity and are home to endangered species. The union budget allocates funds for conservation efforts and the upkeep of such sanctuaries.
No prizes for guessing where most of the money goes.
In the budget for 2015-16, Rs 168 crore was set aside for 49 tiger reserves; about Rs 70 crore for about 677 other protected areas. “The money apportioned for this financial year has in fact been reduced from last year’s. This reflects the skewed outlook of the government and the public. Tiger conservation attracts substantial funding, mention in the prime minister’s speech and front-page coverage in most newspapers,” says former Wildlife Trust of India chairman MK Ranjitsinh, who had drafted the Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972 (WPA) and was member secretary of the Government of India task force that formulated Project Tiger in the 1970s.
“The idea is not to deride the tiger but to emphasise that the public is ignoring species that are actually at the brink of extinction,” he adds.
Pressure is built only when international attention is directed at a neglected species.
The pangolin, for instance, is now being considered for uplift to Appendix I of CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, also known as the Washington Convention), says Tarun Kathula, project officer with the United Nations Development Programme.
Sharad Singh Negi, additional director-general (forest conservation) at the MoEF, says, “We are looking at the whole ecosystem associated with the tiger when we consider Project Tiger, for instance. From its preys to the plants of its environs, all are taken care of in the highly protected tiger reserves.”
This is a familiar argument in wildlife circles — the idea that protecting the top of the food chain automatically protects the rest of that ecosystem too — but one that is nevertheless considered flawed.
This argument does not make room for the wide array of species that have no overlap with the celebs of the endangered species world.
As Ranjitsinh puts it (incidentally, he was also on the 2012 standing committee of National Board for Wildlife constituted under the WPA): “What about creatures like the dugong and the pangolin that might not inhabit the same habitat as the tiger?”
“We ask the forest officials to keep an eye on such highly targeted species in their environs,” says Negi.
THE PROBLEM WITH THAT...
There are so many problems with that approach.
There is, first, the fact that resources are so scarce — infrastructure, equipment, personnel — that bodies like the state forest departments and the national Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB) are forced to prioritise, and this of course takes them back to the larger species.
“There are only 109 of us. We have 30% vacancies. Even collecting and consolidating intelligence from the states is a challenge, particularly since many still don’t have computerised data,” says Tilotama Varma, additional director of the WCCB.
There is also the issue of tunnel vision. It is an acknowledged fact that while there is special focus to curb the poaching of some species — tigers, elephants, etc — in many areas, poachers and black-marketers are themselves focusing elsewhere.
“While there has been a disproportional focus on the tiger, demand has risen on the international market for other lucrative species like the pangolin, sea horse and sea cucumber, to which authorities have not been paying attention,” says Shekhar Niraj of TRAFFIC India.
The solution lies in more balance.
Awareness is the key, says Ranjitsinh. And if you don’t even know what a pangolin is — or a sea cucumber, or a slender loris — or how it’s being threatened, it’s going to be impossible for you to tell which products to avoid, what animals to never buy as a pet.
“It is public awareness and enthusiasm to preserve the environment that has led to the success of those projects that have been successful — like Project Elephant , or Project Tiger,” he adds.
Adds Belinda Wright, founder and executive director of the Wildlife Protection Society of India: “At the heart of the illegal wildlife trade is human greed. And one thing the general public can definitely help with is to curb demand. Most of the demand for black magic potions and exotic foods containing the meat or animal products from endangered species comes from within our borders. We need to tell people what to say no to.”
ALL AT SEA
Things get even worse when you get to the area of marine conversation. There is no monitoring system and ministry officials describe it is ‘a challenge’ since conservation efforts tend to clash with the livelihood of the fishing community.
As a result, the dugong population, for instance, has dropped from 50,000 to 60,000 in the 1950s and ’60s to an estimated 250 in the Zoological Survey of India report for 2013.
“The Wildlife Protection Act does not respond to the issues of marine and coastal biodiversity. We need a separate marine conservation act,” says Apte. “We basically take the approach used to protect terrestrial species and apply the same logic to marine life. There is no systematic pan-India study of our aquatic biodiversity and the areas that are surveyed are mostly for commercial and fishing purposes.”
The fishing communities that engage with the ecosystem daily are most of the time not included as stakeholders or considered as project affected people in case of coastal development projects.
“And yet crucial changes in the marine ecosystem will have massive repercussions on our land ecosystems, Apte says.
For instance, the dwindling of a species like the sea cucumber accelerates change in the ecosystem. “They are the perfect ambassadors for the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan,” Apte says. “This scavenger species plays a great role in restoring balance to the ecosystem.”
In December 2012, the National Board for Wildlife put before the MoEF the urgency to focus on critically endangered lesser-known species which included the dugong.
“The government has recognised 16 species as endangered. This includes the dugong. Unfortunately, the populations of these species has only declined, in some cases drastically. Sadly, there is little attention or focus on them — and in the case of marine species, we don’t even think of them as rare and are woefully unequipped tackle the threats that confront them, ” says conservationist Prerna Singh Bindra, founder of wildlife conservation trust Bagh and part of the NBW panel in 2012.
Counters Negi of the MoEF: “We are increasing our efforts to conserve protected areas and have introduced voluntary relocation packages for tiger reserves. All our protected areas are intensively managed and the ecosystems within preserved. For trade, there is the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau and the forest department, that are also doing great jobs.”