Yesterday was World Pangolin Day. Here’s my slightly late offering to mark the day:
I took this photograph in 2004, in Kalakad-Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve in southern India. I was studying the winter ecology of Phylloscopus leaf warblers on Mundanthurai plateau at the time. One day the Mundanthurai Forest Range Office hollered for me and Kaberi (who was just beginning her research on slender lorises at the time) for expert advise: someone in a village on the fringes of the Reserve (in the buffer zone) had caught some strange animal. Would we go pick it up and bring it back for release it into the forest within the reserve?
I went along with several of my field assistants to discover this lovely prehistoric looking beast sitting in a cage: a young Indian Pangolin. We brought it back up to the plateau and released it into the mixed Teak forest near the river. Watched it for a while as it went to explore a nearby termite mound. This being in the days of analog photography, and film being quite expensive and hard to come by out there in the boonies in the middle of a long field season, I could only afford to spare a couple of frames for this beautiful animal. The Fujichrome Velvia came through rather well through my trusty, field-worn Nikon 8008 camera. The above scan doesn’t entirely do justice to the image, but it is the best one I have at the moment.
The Indian Pangolin is classified as Near Threatened on the IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species. Also known as the Scaly Anteater, the major threats to this unique specialist mammal is hunting. People throughout its south Asian range hunt it for meat and for its keratinous scales which are thought to have—what else—aphrodisiac properties!! How is that supposed to work then? I mean, I can sort of see how the visual appearance of a rhino’s horn might make some insecure men think it might work to solve their sexual inadequacies. But the scales of a Pangolin? Is it the keratin that is supposed to be aphrodisiacal?
At least the hunting pressure appears to be largely local, with the meat being used for food and other parts used as well. Apart from the scales powdered down for “medicinal” use, the skin is also turned into leather for boots and bags. So far, though, it appears that there is little international trade in the parts of this animal – although I wonder how much we can be certain of that. While it has gone extinct in many localities throughout its range, leading to its appearance on the Red List as Near Threatened, the Indian Pangolin continues to occur in many protected areas, and patches of forest nearby. They seem like hardy little creatures, and with ants being plentiful in most places, they may be able to hang on for a while, if in low densities, as long as hunting pressures are reduced.
Reflecting on the circumstances of the animal in the above photograph, I am struck by something of a paradox upon which may hinge the survival of this species. It has been hunted by local tribes and villagers throughout its range, suggesting people know where to find this creature and how to catch it. Yet, this fellow had turned up only to startle some villager outside one of India’s largest Tiger Reserve – and wasn’t immediately recognized! Part of that may be because the species is rare. But I also suspect that people had forgotten about this species—it had become rarer in local memory than in reality, possibly because few now depended on its meat.
How much attention do we pay to local wildlife that does not have a direct bearing on our daily lives? This kind of ecological knowledge is an organic thing, which flourishes only when we have reason to care about knowing. Not knowing what this strange creature was when it turned up near a village, not even recognizing it, is an example of another kind of extinction: of memory. Even as many of my academic colleagues lament the decline of taxonomy and natural history knowledge in the curricula of many of our university programs, some of the local traditional knowledge many of us rely upon while doing field work in remote places may be slipping away as lifestyles change and become unmoored from earlier ties to local biodiversity in this globalized world. After all, kids growing up in some of these Indian villages these days may be more familiar with meerkats and other exotic animals they see on their television screens than the fascinating species in their own immediate surroundings. This sort of disconnect, a growing ecological knowledge deficit in our culture, is something we all have to worry about even more as more and more people become urbanized—either by moving into distant cities, or having their own villages grow into cities.
Paradoxically, though, this particular Pangolin may owe its life to the same loss of ecological memory! Luckily though, the people who found it didn’t kill it out of fear (the other all-too-common instinctive response) but remembered to call in the Forest Department. Makes me wonder: how many species—especially those we have tended to kill and consume for misguided or outdated reasons—might we save by simply forgetting about them? Can we erase the notion of animal parts conferring magical aphrodisiac properties, for example, from our collective cultural memory banks? Forget about the poor creatures and let them live out their lives in what little space we have left them in the interstices of our civilization—can that work?
Hope you had a happy Pangolin Day yesterday. Find out more about their status and what can be done to better conserve from the IUCN/SSC Pangolin Specialist Group. It is good to know that creatures such as these continue to find some space within humanity’s massive footprint enveloping the Earth.