Tulshi Laxmi Suwal of Nepal’s Small Mammal Conservation and Research Centre (SMCRF) has evaluated 20 years of pangolin trafficking in Nepal. She has seen the market grow several fold in the last decade, but says that Covid-19 has only added to the challenges of protecting the shy creatures.
“One would think that the global pandemic would curb wildlife trade, particularly that of pangolins. But the opposite seems to be true. Traffickers have used it as an opportunity to be more active,” she adds. “Many migrant workers returned home from the Gulf, Malaysia and India during the pandemic. Jobless, they took to opportunistic killings for easy money.”
Indeed, a migrant worker who had returned to his home village in Gorkha district due to the coronavirus crisis had posted a ‘pangolin for sale’ notice on Facebook last year. The Central Investigation Bureau (CIB) was alerted and an investigation launched, but details of the case were lost before the trafficker could be caught.
Nepal’s location between the source of most pangolins in India and the market in China makes it strategic for smugglers. Nepal is a source of pangolins as well as a transit for the illegal trade in pangolins. The popularity of the traditional route for wildlife trafficking from India to China does not appear to have diminished with the pandemic.
Scales, meat and live pangolins are still in high demand in China, where they are believed to carry medicinal properties. One scaly anteater can fetch up to $8,000 in China, while the scales sell for as high as $3,000 per kg.
From 2012 to 2019, the CIB of the Nepal Police arrested 64 people, involved in 63 pangolin operations. A total of 226kg of scales, 8 pangolin skins, 4 live pangolins and 1 carcass were confiscated.
This is despite a Rs1 million fine and/or 15 years in jail for those involved in the killing, poaching, transporting, selling or buying of the protected species.
“Researchers have worked tirelessly on studies and in raising awareness. We also have some of the most stringent regulations, but smuggling continues unabated,” says Suwal, who says communities need to see the benefit of conservation. “Only then will they protect pangolins instead of killing them.”