September 18, 2022
A sting operation involving wildlife activists from Pakistan and Kenya has recently led to not only the busting of an organized gang connected with the inter-continental Pangolin trade being operated from this South Asian country, but has also exposed several dark facets of this high-scale illegal activity.
The story of this unexpectedly successful operation began a few months ago with an email, which initially was considered “spam”. Aemanu (name changed due to security reason), an African wildlife activist, who is also associated with a famous conservation network received an email from an unknown person in Pakistan, asking her if she was interested in procurement of pangolins. She, initially, took that as a spam email, like another hundreds she received every day. However, her own interest in the wildlife, and the unique subject of the email ignited her curiosity, prompting her to have a glance on the content.
Perusing of the first few paras instantly made her understand that it was neither a junk email nor had it been sent mistakenly. It was a well-pegged letter, covering even minor details of the sizes and kinds of the anteaters the gang could provide. She immediately made up her mind. The young activist contacted one of her friends Shiraz (another alias) who worked for a Lahore-based conservation organization. Shiraz contacted the purported smuggler, showing interest in purchasing the pangolins. He was stunned when the suspect informed him that he could immediately provide four kilogrammes of pangolin scales worth over $900,000.
Following a brief consultation with his African colleague, Shiraz brought the issue to the knowledge of the wildlife authorities of northeastern Punjab province, which chalked out a strategy to bust the gang. A wildlife department official, masquerading himself as a customer, contacted the alleged smuggler, inviting him to a deserted portion of a highway near Lahore to finalize the deal. To cut the story short, the suspect fell prey to the plan, and was caught red-handed along with 1.5 kilogrammes of pangolin scales. His arrest led to detention of several others allegedly involved in the illegal trade. They were later jailed for different terms, along with modest fines.
This was one success story; undoubtedly encouraging but simultaneously not suffice to contain the increasing trade of pangolins. The greedy traffickers have even come up with modern techniques, including online sale and purchase of pangolins or their scales, aside from live trade, across Pakistan. Punjab’s Chakwal district, which otherwise is famous for its presence in the country’s powerful army, is notorious for the pangolin trade, followed by the desert and mountainous areas of southern Sindh and southwestern Balochistan provinces, and parts of Pakistan-administered Kashmir valley.
A delicate ecological balance
Pangolin is the only carnivorous animal which is covered with hard scales on its body that are made up of keratin. It is also known as the live pine cone. Globally, pangolin has eight subspecies and it exists in Asia and Africa. The Indian pangolin, scientifically called Manis crassicaudata, is also found in Pakistan. This species is confronting a host of challenges, the key threats include hunting and smuggling of the animal. According to the IUCN Red List, the conservation status of the animal is ‘endangered’. It is warned by IUCN that 50 percent decline may occur in anteater population within next twenty years. Due to its endangered status, it is listed in the Appendix-I of the Convention on the International Trade in the Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Being a signatory to this convention, trading or hunting of this animal in any form is illegal in Pakistan.
According to Wali Muhammad, Deputy Conservator Sindh Wildlife Department, Pangolins have an extremely important ecological role of regulating insect populations. One single pangolin can consume around 70 million ants and termites per year. If pangolins go extinct, there would be a cascading impact on the environment. “Pangolins save us millions of dollars a year in pest Control. The excavated burrows, till and aerate the soil, including turnover of organic matter.
Pakistan and the global black market
Smuggling of pangolin meat and scales is carried out not only in Pakistan but also internationally. According to reports, pangolins are thought to be the most trafficked wild mammals in the world. The illegal wildlife trade (IWT) is a multibillion dollar industry worth between USD7–23billion annually and leaves a long-lasting impact on both humankind and the environment (UNODC, 2016). It is considered to be one of the fastest growing illegal trades, (although its underground nature) due to high corruption, weak legislation/ controls, lax law enforcement and high returns, make estimating its true scale downright impossible.
Using different illegal means, pangolin trade is carried out in Pakistan. According to Muhammad Wasim, Manager Conservation at WWF-Pakistan, illegal sale and purchase of the pangolins has been reported in major cities across the country. They include Rawalpindi, Lahore and Karachi where more than 239 shops deal in pangolin and its parts. Mentioning WWF-Pakistan’s recent study titled Scale of illegal killing and trade of Indian Pangolin, Wasim further said that these shops and markets also have other animals which are listed in the CITES. He also referred to Empress Market in Karachi where wildlife traffickers could easily be found selling such animals.
25-year old Ramesh works at a shop in the Empress Market where he mostly deals in parrots and other birds. However, he shared that the owner of the shop also sells live pangolins or their meat and scales. He also revealed that no one openly uses the word pangolin, instead the people involved in the trade use a codename ‘Sharmeli’ in local parlance to evade wildlife department or other government agencies. He also went on to say that they have certain customers who regularly get pangolins. However, the live animals are never kept at the shop as it could create a problem for them.
Wasim also confirmed that shopkeepers are well aware that sale of these animals is illegal so normally they do not keep them in the marketplace. However, they arrange the animal from some remote place and deliver to the customer at his doorstep.
Ramesh disclosed that the animals brought to their shop were mostly captured from Thar desert and Sunn in Jamshoro district of Sindh. The animal is sold as per its weight in kilogrammes. If the animal weighs 14 kg, then the approximate price is 600 USD. This price is comparatively low as reported in the international market. He also informed that the pangolin is largely purchased by Chinese nationals living in Pakistan.
Javed Mahar, Conservator, Sindh Wildlife Department endorsing the claim of Ramesh shared that it is a fact that pangolin population has significantly decreased in Sindh. He maintained that the animal had a significant population in the past as it was largely found in the forest areas. Over the last fifty years, 80 percent of the forest cover has been cut down to acquire land for the purpose of agriculture. He also informed that only 5 per cent of pangolin lives in Sindh while the remaining population exists in Punjab and Azad Kashmir.
According to Ramesh, people dwelling in the villages and settlements around Khirthar National Park provide them pangolins. After the details shared by Ramesh, the writer visited the national park, which is a mountainous area and signs of pangolins claws could easily be observed there. However, residents did not confirm the presence or sale of the animal in the area. People realized that the commercial trade of pangolin is illegal and they could be punished if anyone was found to be involved in such activity. That is why local community member did not say anything about pangolin. However, when a few photos of pangolin were shown to some children, they acknowledged having seen anteaters in the area. Some community members shared that they witnessed nomads with tracker dogs looking for pangolins in the hilly areas mostly during the night time.
Poached by nomads
It was reported by the local people that nomads are very much involved in poaching and hunting of the pangolins. Muhammad Wasim confirmed that wandering nomad groups carry out poaching activities of the pangolins and they are part of the wildlife trafficking network. As they wander from one area to another, they keep an eye on the burrows of pangolins and at night when animal come out, they catch it. Nomads sell these animals to middlemen who later supply them to buyers in big cities especially Karachi. Wasim further said that as these people do not have a permanent home, therefore their identity cards have temporary address mentioned on them. It is because of this issue; relevant agencies have difficulty in locating these people. He further shared that these people have very strong network and coordination mechanism. Wasim shared that during the WWF-Pakistan research study, we met a middleman named Javed who came from the nomad community but had close contacts with suppliers and buyers. He was also arrested and fined for illegal trade of the pangolins.
It was in Bimbhar, Azad Kashmir that WWF-Pakistan team with support of wildlife officials followed the nomad people. As they arrived on the site, they heard weird sounds of the animals, startled them. Later they found that members of the nomad group had put live pangolins into hot water just to remove their scales. It was heart-wrenching for the team to see such cruel act. According to the WWF study, around 375 pangolins have been illegally traded between 2013 to 2018 from various parts of the Potohar and Mirpur district in Azad and Jammu Kashmir.
Talking about the involvement of nomads in pangolin trade, Wali Muhammad, Deputy Conservator Sindh Wildlife Department said that he was not 100 percent sure about that, as dozens of villages are located in the Khirthar National Park and local communities do not allow them to hunt this animal. They come there just for begging, however, wildlife staff asks them to go away. He further said that there has not been any trade of pangolins in the Khirthar Park for last many decades.
Wasim pointed out that the people engaged in the wildlife trafficking are very influential. They bring these pangolins in boxes from remote places such as Chakwal or Mianwali through buses or trucks or in vehicles which carry stuff for armed forces. These boxes have the names of captains along with other details and are well received in Karachi. The armed forces denied such reports though.
Fakhar Abbas, Director, Federal Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre shared that in 2017-18, illegal trade of pangolins was very high which has been controlled by the wildlife departments. However, it is still carried out secretly in some areas. Although, there is lack of data about authentic population figures of pangolin, but according to the reports by local communities, animal number has significantly declined. He informed that Chakwal district in Punjab, Pakistan is home to these animals where they are sold at the rate of 500-550 USD per animal. In past the export of the meat of pangolin was not possible, however, scales were transported by mixing them up with the waste material, for instance iron industry. As strict monitoring and vigilance is in place at Karachi airport, therefore pangolin scales are smuggled via road such as Khunjrab. Again there is lack of authentic information to confirm this claim. Associate Prof. Dr. Tariq Mahmood from Department of Zoology, Wildlife and Fisheries, Arid Agriculture University, Rawalpindi who is also member of the IUCN Species Survival Commission (SSC) Pangolin Specialist Group, said that it is not due to enforcement of wildlife laws and regulations in country that illegal trade of pangolins has decreased but the population is disappearing due to different challenges. He shared that there used to be hundreds of pangolins in Punjab and Kashmir but now no pangolins are seen in the same areas.
According to the data shared by Dr. Mahmood, 1,922 pangolins have been killed from 2011 to 2018 in Pakistan. These figures do not include the figures from Sindh and Balochistan. He informed that pangolins are largely killed for their scales which are used in medicines mainly in China and other Southeast Asian countries. There is also a limited use of these scales in Pakistan. He shared that a few years ago, authorities found around 45 dead bodies of the pangolin from a railway tunnel in Chakwal district, Punjab. These dead pangolins had no scales on them. He was of the view that pangolin scales consist of a hard stuff called keratin and that is why, these are also used in bullet-proof jackets. However, no authentic data is available about these aspects in Pakistan. This is probable that these scales might have been used in manufacture of such items due to challenge of terrorism in Pakistan in the last couple of years.
Some sources privy to the writer at Sindh Wildlife Department also shared that whenever a large quantity of pangolin scales are confiscated by the department, most of them go missing later. Back in October 2018, teams of Sindh Wildlife Department raided some place in the port city of Karachi and took custody of 16 bags full of pangolin scales. It was later revealed that 90 per cent of those scales could never reach the department as they were lost somewhere on the way. The remaining scales were stolen from the premises of the department. There was no further inquiry into this incidence nor was any one held responsible. The department shared that due to paucity of the fund no inquiry was conducted by the department.
Dr. Mahmood further shared that there is no reliable information about black market in Pakistan where severity of the illegal wildlife trade could be assessed. This illegal network involves local facilitators, middlemen and smugglers working on international level. He also said that trafficking of the live pangolins or their parts does not occur at Karachi, Lahore or Islamabad airports but it is mostly reported on borders shared by Pakistan with Afghanistan and China. As there is no proper monitoring of these borders severity of this issue could not be assessed. The high demand in China is posing serious threat to this animal. Some sources state that now a days, the meat of the pangolin is consumed locally by the Chinese living in Pakistan after CPEC Project. However, no investigation has been conducted in this regard to produce authentic evidence.
Fahad Malik, who works as CEO in Mission Awareness Foundation, has been handling the cases related to pangolin killing or hunting in Pakistan. He was of the view that after CPEC, wildlife smugglers do not transport pangolin meat or scales to China or other countries, but they try to sell them to Chinese in Pakistan. He said that millions of Chinese have been residing in Pakistan now who are supplied with pangolin meat. Pangolin soup is said to be a favorite drink for these people. He revealed that a few months ago three live pangolins were provided to Chinese living in a house in Phase III of Defense Housing Authority (DHA), Lahore. One of the pangolin managed to come out of that house and residents reported to the relevant authorities about it. Many cases like that have been reported which indicate that a local market for pangolin sale and purchase has been established in Pakistan.
According to WWF-Pakistan’s survey, there are 239 shops which include bird sellers and herbalists in major cities of Pakistan namely Karachi, Lahore, Muzzafarabad and Rawalpindi where animals and birds are available for sale. Some of those animals and birds are also listed in the CITES. The traditional physicians known as Hakeem in local parlance, also sell the medicines by road sides in the form of powder or ointments, which according to them can help relieve the pain in the backbone or other parts of the body. Most of these medicines are also said to be aphrodisiac. It also stated that according to China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation, there are around 200 pharmaceutical companies in China which use powder of pangolin scales in the medicines.
Hunters and the web
Speaking to the writer, Dr. Mahmood said that is it easy to find a buyer in this digital era where social media and other platforms of communication are used. People advertise such things on social media platforms and have dedicated pages or websites. Sometimes these wildlife smugglers are arrested but in most cases purchase and sell is done online. In one case, it happened that the seller shared his phone number in an advertisement on his digital page, but neither phone number or FB account could be traced.
While, Hamera Aisha, Manager Wildlife at WWF-Pakistan said that it is correct that with boom on access to social media and cyber space in our country the illegal wildlife trade has substantially shifted to more active social media platforms, causing an overall rise in online sales of live pangolins, their parts, derivatives and products. She said that one can easily find protected and highly endangered species being offered for sale online on social media sites by poachers and traders. The scale of this online trade is huge and it involved wildlife of all kind including pangolins.
Talking about digital platforms, Fahad Malik said that on one hand these platforms are used for sale and purchase of the pangolins and on the other hand, same digital platforms are united to deal with such cases of illegal trade. In 2018, social media giants including Facebook, Instagram, Google, Tiktok, Pinterest and others joined hands to fight, illegal wildlife trade through the Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking Online. From the initial 21 companies, the coalition has grown to include 40 corporate partners with more than 9 billion user accounts worldwide that have reported blocking or removing more than 4 million listings that violate prohibited wildlife policies.
Saving the pangolin
Hamera Aisha shared that her organization has been working on the in-situ conservation of Indian pangolin focusing to address key threats to the survival of the species. She shared that our work included research on the assessment of the population status of the species and the scale of poaching, and illegal wildlife trade helped to validate the grim situation of the pangolin’s survival in Pakistan. The work also supports in the identification of priority sites for the initiation of pangolin conservation efforts engaging local communities through setting-up pangolin protection zones. We were able to establish six community-based pangolin protection zones (PPZs) in collaboration with provincial government wildlife departments in the priority population hotspots where pangolin poaching and hunting pressure were high. Community guards were engaged and equipped with proper field equipment and training for patrolling these zones. WWF-Pakistan project also contributed to filling the existing knowledge gaps regarding pangolin trafficking patterns, as well as the drivers which lead to their poaching, through community interactions.
According to Dr. Tariq Mahmood, Pakistan is signatory to CITES and pangolin is listed in the Appendix-I which bans their hunting or trade in any form. Pangolin is also included in the schedule-III of the provincial wildlife laws and has a ‘protected’ status. In Pakistan, this species is protected under the Islamabad Wildlife (Protection, Preservation, Conservation, and Management Ordinance, 1979).
According to Muhammad Wasim, WWF-Pakistan has sensitized the Airport Security Force and Customs officials about the smuggling of endangered species and means to control it. Waseem said that they have launched proper management plans for saving the pangolins of Pakistan and that every year; the World Pangolin Day was marked to create awareness amongst local communities about the importance of the animal and to protect against its smuggling.
Myths and misunderstandings
There are different misunderstandings about the pangolin in Pakistan. It is generally said that this animal digs graves and eats away the dead bodies. In this connection, WWF-Pakistan team conducted interviews of 268 people in Azad Kashmir. The results revealed that 86 per cent of people believed that this is true about pangolin. That is why most of the people kill this animal when they see it either in the wild or near their residence.
There is no truth in this story and is not confirmed scientifically. This is a carnivorous animal which feeds on small insects including termites and that is why it is found near old trees in the graveyard.
A few years ago, a Sindhi language newspaper reported that a dangerous animal was caught by the local people and a pangolin could be seen in the picture published in the paper.
Dr. Mahmood called for a need to sensitize public about ecological role of the pangolin so that people should protect it instead of killing or hunting it in the wild. This will help address the threat to this harmless mammal.
Shabina Faraz is a freelance writer. All information and facts provided are the sole responsibility of the writer.