Of the nine years Jawaharlal Nehru spent in prison, 14 ½ months were spent in Dehradun gaol. Forlorn under the moth-eaten rafters of his cell, Nehru became familiar with the prison’s fauna, such that he no longer felt alone in the company of wasps, lizards and birds.
One day, however, on one of his permitted strolls around the premises, Nehru saw a creature he could not recognise. He was confused by this “uncouth animal” being carried by a tribal man across the gaol’s gate, and described it as “something between a lizard and a crocodile”.
The forest-dweller told Nehru that he would cook bujji of the animal, which he called “bo”. The animal remained alien to Nehru until he read the British naturalist and conservationist F.W. Champion’s The Jungle in Sunlight and Shadow (1933), and realised he had seen an Indian pangolin (Manis crassicaudata).
Unfortunately, the puzzlement around pangolins has only persisted in India. Most people are likely to have seen a pangolin for the first time after it caught the media’s attention as a possible intermediate host for the novel coronavirus. While there is no conclusive proof that pangolins carry the virus, the possibility invites a fresh analysis of the animal’s relationship with and status within India.
In the time of the coronavirus, many imagine the introverted and nocturnal pangolin as a ‘Chinese’ mammal. Pangolins are the world’s most trafficked mammal and have long maintained a presence in Wuhan’s wet markets.
China is the leading buyer of illegal pangolin scales and meat. Many in India took to the Internet to condemn China for its culture of non-vegetarianism and its unscientific use of wild animal parts in traditional medicine. But our own history with pangolins is more like that of our Chinese neighbours than we might care to admit.
“South of the Himalayas, pangolins live almost everywhere in India,” Vikram Aditya, a postdoctoral research associate at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment, Bengaluru, told The Wire Science. “But their population is now so low that they are nearly impossible to find because individual specimens [live] too far apart.”
Indian pangolins are listed under Schedule 1 of the Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972, and as ‘endangered’ on the IUCN Red List. But there is no census data available on pangolins in India, which makes it difficult to keep track of the population, and the impact of illegal trade.
Due to excessive hunting, the animal has become so rare that younger members of tribes that traditionally hunted the creature are no longer acquainted with it. Aditya, who is currently conducting research in the northern Eastern Ghats of Andhra Pradesh, confirmed that tribes now hunt pangolins only opportunistically. “These days, a group of hunters will encounter pangolin tracks and only then decide to hunt the animal. Pangolins are too difficult to find otherwise. The meat is widely liked and rings are made out of its scales to ward off evil spirits.”
The superstitions about pangolin scales that many Indians have thought to be of Chinese origin are in fact found in India’s jungles, and sometimes in its villages and cities as well. “Pangolins are illegally trapped in forests by poachers,” Saket Badola, the country head of TRAFFIC, a global wildlife trade-monitoring network, said. “Middlemen will purchase one from them and sell it to those looking to protect themselves from bad omens on the word of a tantric.”
Known as banrohu in some regions, literally “jungle-carp” because of its fish-like scales, the pangolin is also called bajrkita, “lightning-protected insect”. Even in the wild, a pangolin will make use of its hard scales by rolling into a ball to ward off dangerous predators. The same logic is applied by occultists, who believe pangolin scales can shield them from misfortune.
In 2018, TRAFFIC reported that 5,772 pangolins had been relieved from illegal trade in India between 2009 and 2017. The organisation also said its estimate was conservative since only a fraction of illegal trade is ever noticed, indicating that the number of pangolins poached in India was much higher.
Badola also said a majority of Indian pangolins do not make their way into China since there is enough demand in India itself. “Considering the size of the pangolin scales market in East and South Asian countries, the contribution of Indian species seems to be small. The majority of products in these global markets are contributed by Africa.”
Indeed, in February this year, Nigerian customs officials in Lagos seized 9.5 tonnes of pangolin scales (corresponding roughly to 9,500 pangolins).
Both Badola and Aditya said it would be hard to find an Indian pangolin in a Chinese wet market. TRAFFIC’s findings show that the trend of seizures in India has shifted from northeastern states (such as Manipur) to central and southern states (Madhya Pradesh and Tamil Nadu), suggesting it might have become more difficult to smuggle pangolins across the border into China.
The already endangered Indian pangolin, protected only by the feeble enforcement of conservation laws, could also be exposed to unnecessary danger if we imagine it as a Chinese mammal host to the coronavirus. Though scientists have stressed that the invasion of wild habitats is to blame for virus outbreaks – and not animals themselves – popular demand to exterminate bats around the world has only been increasing (because bats are natural reservoirs of coronaviruses).
In the event researchers are able to confirm that pangolins do carry the new coronavirus, Aditya said it shouldn’t “mean that pangolins are treated as pests”, and that though the coronavirus won’t endanger these creatures further, there is a chance how we think of the animal could influence what policies we do – or don’t – enact to conserve them.
In 1933, F.W. Champion wrote that the Indian pangolin “seems to have stepped right out of some story book of ancient days.” With their fondness for burrowing deep into the ground, pangolins have successfully evaded public consciousness for centuries. Today, we must urgently acquaint ourselves with this mammal and understand its struggle for survival in our country. We have been a far greater threat to pangolins, than they could ever be to us.
Sidharth Singh is part of the faculty of critical thinking at Ashoka University and an independent journalist.