3 May 2009 has a special significance for Tulsi Laxmi Suwal, as it was the day she found a mother pangolin with her new-born pup inside the community forest area in Bhaktapur.
Suwal, who is a researcher of pangolins and a conservation activist, took the shy and harmless little creatures to the Central Zoo in Jawalakhel where she began to study them. Co-incidentally, her own child was five years of age then, and watching the mother pangolin feed, cuddle and take care of her pup, Suwal felt a growing emotional attachment with the pair.
“For 15 days I would go to the zoo every morning,” Suwal recalls. “Then I would observe them all day and return home in the evening.”
This experience, Suwal adds, helped her gain a more holistic knowledge of the scaly mammals. Later the mother and the pup were released back to the Bhaktapur community forest.
Read more: Protecting pangolins from being eaten to extinction, Sonia Awale
Pangolins are small mammals, between 30 to 100cm in size, with large, protective keratin scales covering their skin. There are eight extant species found in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, all of which are currently considered threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). They are the most trafficked mammals in the world because of illicit demand for their meat and scales in China.
Nepal is home to two species: the Chinese and Indian varieties. Both species are in Nepal’s protected list and the killing, poaching, transporting, selling or buying of the scaly anteater is punishable with Rs1 million fine and/or up to 15 years in jail.
However, 100,000 pangolins are smuggled live from Southeast Asia and Africa into China every year where its scales are believed to have therapeutic value and its meat is considered a delicacy. Some ethnic groups in Nepal also consume pangolins for their supposed health benefits.
Save Pangolins, a global organisation that supports conservation actions in Africa and Asia, and raises awareness of pangolins around the world, estimates that one million of the animals have been killed worldwide in the last decade alone.