Why you should care
Pangolin numbers have gone down by 80 percent in five years in Pakistan. Now, a nascent resistance is brewing.
On a Saturday afternoon in August 2018, 41-year-old Shaukat Akash was relaxing at his home in Taxila in Pakistan’s Punjab province when he heard people talking over each other in raised voices outside, followed by frequent thuds. Akash stepped outside to find a group of men armed with sticks and spades, standing in a circle and bent over a weird-looking scaly creature curled up in a ball in the middle.
Akash told the men to stop beating the animal, and unsure of what the creature was, decided to take it home for its safety. Members of Pakistan Wildlife Foundation (PWF), a nonprofit conservation group, identified the animal as a pangolin over the phone, based on Akash’s description. They took the creature. The next day, after it was observed fit for walking and digging into the earth despite a slight swelling on its right forelimb, it was released in Margalla Hills National Park in Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital. It was a life-saving operation that Pakistan’s conservationists are now increasingly trying to replicate to protect the pangolin, identified by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) as the world’s most trafficked animal.
Pangolins rarely make it out alive from human contact. Their body parts are smuggled to East Asia: the scales are used in Chinese medicine and the meat is considered an exquisite delicacy. Of its three main sub-species, the Chinese pangolin’s population has been in regular decline, down 94 percent over the past 60 years. The animal is described as “critically endangered” in the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List.
The African variety’s risk status is at “vulnerable,” which is concerning but much less critical. But it is the Indian pangolin, native to Pakistan’s Pothohar Plateau and the part of Jammu and Kashmir governed by the country, that is suffering the swiftest decline. The population of this animal is down by 80 percent in just the past five years, according to the WWF.
They said that the animal was worth millions in Pakistani rupee and that I was a fool for not selling it off.
Shaukat Akash, who turned down the prospect of easy money to shield a pangolin.
That crisis is sparking a new resistance from conservation groups, filmmakers, vets and ordinary citizens battling to save the pangolin from extinction in Pakistan, despite little formal organization or support from the government. Since October 2017, the WWF has established six community-based pangolin protection zones, each protected by local guards and watchers. Muhammad Ali Ijaz, a film director, has taken his 2015 documentary, Pangolins in Peril – A Story of Rare Scales, to schools in Lahore to educate children about the creature and its fight for survival. And ordinary citizens like Akash are shunning the lure of quick money to instead turn amateur conservationists.
“They said that the animal was worth millions in Pakistani rupee and that I was a fool for not selling it off,” Akash recalls, talking of his neighbors. “They said I could have passed it on to them.” He didn’t.
The odds are stacked firmly against the conservationists. Though the pangolin is listed as a protected animal by Pakistan under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, the enforcement of the norm is a state subject and is not pursued federally. Each of Pakistan’s four provinces has a different law on wildlife protection, making any coordinated action difficult, say experts. “For years, we have tried to get wildlife officials at international airports to keep a check on the mobility of endangered animals from the country,” says Javed Mahar, a former official in Sindh province’s wildlife department. But the efforts are seen only as “interference in customs officials’ responsibilities,” he adds.
But where the government is lacking, some citizens are stepping up.
Rahim Sheikh was driving at 1 am near Karachi’s popular Zamzama Park in January 2016 when he saw people gathered on the street next to an animal that looked like an armadillo, but it was actually a pangolin. “What’s going on here?” he asked the group as he got out of his car.
A security guard had shot at the animal three or four times, and as the pangolin moved, he pumped another bullet into it. “The guard was telling other people very casually that the animal was about to attack him and that he brought it down,” Sheikh recalls. Others were laughing as though it was “no big deal at all.”
Sheikh told his sister about the incident, and the siblings began calling veterinarians and animal activist groups. Some clinics asked them to bring the animal to them in the morning “if it was still alive.” They knew they couldn’t wait. Over in Gulistan-e-Jauhar, another neighborhood 12 miles away, Dr. Ali Ayaz woke up to a call from an animal activist group at 3 am. He drove to the spot and brought the pangolin back to his clinic. Only 5 percent of its organs had survived. “It appeared to me that under high stress, the pangolin probably flipped over and the bullets penetrated its body,” recalls Ayaz. He put in stitches and got the bleeding to stop, but the animal died two hours later.
If the death of that pangolin was the outcome of ignorance – they are harmless anteaters – and insensitivity, the much greater challenge comes from the organized illegal trafficking industry. In just the past five years, the WWF has calculated that at least 275 Indian pangolins were poached in 47 different locations of Pothohar and Pakistan-controlled Jammu and Kashmir, says Muhammad Waseem, an environmentalist with the agency.
(A preview of Ijaz’s film, Pangolins in Peril.)
The WWF has found at least 239 shops in six different cities of Pakistan that were involved in the sale of pangolin body parts, while local websites list the sale of baby pangolins for 80,000 Pakistani rupees ($570). The WWF notifies authorities about these shops, which disappear for a while, but almost always resurface, underscoring the weak implementation of Pakistan’s animal protection laws.
The effect of the pangolin’s falling numbers has started showing on Pakistan’s green lands. Just take a drive southwest from Islamabad toward the district of Fateh Jang. An area 90 miles long and 35 miles wide that was previously “dense with forestry” is now covered in 25 feet high mud, says Safwan Shahab, a zoologist who runs the PWF. “Termites are fast eating up our forests and with dwindling pangolin numbers, the hazard is only getting grave,” he says.
The absence of any coordinated action for the protection of the pangolin, even within the conservationist community, is a major challenge, suggests Shahab. “There is no unity in the scientific pool of Pakistan and this is why the disaster is looking us in the eye now.”
Still, that isn’t stopping efforts at spreading the movement to protect the pangolin, including by arming young citizens with the first tool they need: education about the animal.
Ijaz, the filmmaker, shot his 14-minute-long film in Kashmir, where he was staying with a local landlord who had formerly worked as a guard protecting pangolins in the region. Fellow villagers had largely ignored the landlord’s pleas to give up poaching — the animal is viewed as bringing misfortune.
Then one day, Ijaz gathered the village men and showed them an earlier documentary he had shot on protecting vultures. The conversation after the film moved from vultures to pangolins.
“A lot of them spoke up saying that their neighbors were involved in hunting and earned up to 10,000 rupees ($70) as middlemen,” says Ijaz. He thinks “they were actually talking about themselves.” But a conversation had been started.
He hopes to go a step further with his screenings of the pangolin documentary, which he has already shown in four schools in Lahore. “Ninety-nine percent” of kids and adults attending the screenings, he finds, don’t know about the pangolin. The animal has traditionally stayed in its rural forest habitats and is only straying into urban surroundings now as a consequence of greater human encroachment into its natural habitat. “Every time when the film ends, I tell them [viewers] it is not to be afraid of,” says Ijaz. “It is … very beneficial for our environment as they keep [the] ants and insects population in control.”
Though education by itself is no silver bullet in the battle to save the pangolin, it can serve as a catalyst for younger Pakistanis to take on the animal’s conservation, experts hope. And in the immediate, it can help save lives.
In Taxila, Akash knew instinctively he should intervene when he saw men beating the animal. But he didn’t know about the pangolin or whether it was dangerous. With the help of others, he tied a rope around the coiled-up animal’s back, dragged it to his place and put it inside a cage. He searched online and called the PWF. “Can you describe the animal for us?” asked the responder on the other end of the call.
“It has a long tail. The body is covered with thick scales and has a small head. It was coiled up when men were beating it, but now it looks relaxed,” Akash described.
The official told Akash that the description sounded like a pangolin. He told him that it wasn’t a dangerous animal. As Akash waited for the wildlife activists to arrive, the pangolin began chewing at the cage, almost chomping its way through. But by then, Akash knew better than to fear the animal. The pangolin lived.