Sunday, July 30, 2006

Protect Goa’s pangolins

by Nandkumar Kamat

WHEN the ‘Goa News’ cable TV channel on Monday beamed the image of a Pangolin (manis crassicaudata) rescued at Colva by an animal activist Julio Quadros, I was instantly alerted. The forest department should reward him suitably for rescuing the animal which otherwise could have been chased, hunted, killed or sold as a pet by the trappers. These animals cannot be paraded as circus animals or be kept in captivity because they are included in IUCN red list of threatened species.

The IUCN Red List is set upon precise criteria to evaluate the extinction risk of thousands of species and subspecies. These criteria are relevant to all species and all regions of the world. The aim of the Red List is to convey the urgency of conservation issues to the public and policy makers, as well as help the international community to try to reduce species extinction.

India is a member of IUCN and it is the duty of every member country to protect all the threatened species in the red list. Violations are viewed very seriously by experts, non-governmental organisations and countries failing to protect and conserve their threatened species can get blacklisted and may invite international sanctions. Immediately, I contacted the state chief wildlife warden Achalendra Reddy. He informed me that the pangolin has been taken into custody and would be then released in the wild where it can feed on its normal diet of ants and termites. I urged him to create awareness among the people and the media about this important and rare mammalian species of Goa.

Pangolins are cute toothless mammals. Taxonomically they belong to phylum chordata, class mammalia, order pholidata, family manidae, genus manis which comprises eight species (Indian, Chinese, Malayan, Pangwan, Giant, Cape, Tree and long tailed) found in South east Asia and Africa. The physical appearance of pangolins is marked by large, hardened, plate-like scales, which are actually mats of hair. The hair is clumped together in such a way that makes them look like scales. The animal walks with difficulty due to its long front claws. Its large tail is advantageous in balancing. Although terrestrial the pangolins can climb the trees in search of ant nests. The pangolins have huge salivary glands which lubricate their large tongues. After breaking the ant nests or the termite hills with its powerful front claws the pangolin removes the ants or termites with its very large, sticky tongue. Ants and termites are totally defenseless before such a predator.

Locally pangolins are known as “tiryo’’ or “khavlae majar”. The origin of the word pangolin is traced from the Malayan ‘pengguling’ which means ‘curling”. Pangolins curl themselves like the “armadillos’ into tight balls and look funny when they do so. This may entertain people but it is stressful for this animal if it is forced to perform the feat repeatedly for purely human entertainment. Pangolins have powerful legs which they use for digging. Pangolins or scaly anteaters were once found in coastal areas of Goa. But people began to kill them for no reason. I am not sure whether pangolin meat was used in Goa but the Chinese slaughter pangolins for medicinal purpose. The Chinese believe scales of pangolin purportedly reduce swelling, promote blood circulation and help breast-feeding women produce milk. These beliefs have no basis in modern medicine.

I had received a report a few years ago that a private party had kept a pangolin in captivity at Calangute and then it died. There are many reports of pangolin sightings from coastal belt of Goa. This points to a certain habitat preference. Perhaps the pangolins prefer the coastal sand dune habitat. They are burrowing mammals. The pangolin found at Colva indicates that there may be a small breeding population in that place. In that case the forest department needs to explore the location in detail with the help of the local village panchayat and verify this fact.

Pangolin females are smaller than the males. They produce at least one but maximum three offsprings. It is difficult to predict the number of surviving pangolins in Goa. But the Colva specimen shows that this species is not yet extinct. Rampant violations of coastal regulation zone, illegal sand mining, destruction of the sand dunes and fragmentation of fragile coastal habitats has already made survival difficult for wild plants and animals.

Pangolins are important members of the ecosystem. They keep the population of ants and termites in check. Certain species of nest building arboreal ants are dangerous for the trees and the humans. The pangolins spot the nests, climb the trees and destroy these nests. Termites are known as ferocious and persistent pests which attack the timber and damage the houses. Pangolins keep a check on their population by reducing their numbers. Nature has provided a system of checks and balances. Very little is known about the specific diet preference or feeding behaviour of local pangolins.

Perhaps the Colva pangolin may not survive in Bondla wilderness unless it can use the termites found in abundance in the mounds. Pangolins are shy and harmless animals. They have a right to exist and survive.

The future of wildlife in Goa outside the forests and the wildlife sanctuaries appears bleak. The capture of a panther which strayed at Miramar has already shown the pressure which the wildlife is facing. There are also shocking reports that another protected species of mammals, the marine dolphins are caught, cut and sold in the Vasco fish market. The forest department needs to warn owners of mechanised fishing vessels about the implications of capturing dolphins. People should also refuse to buy the meat of dolphins. The forest department has to issue a set of guidelines or ethics for all those animal lovers or activists who capture/rescue wild animals. There are stringent and elaborate rules in the western countries on such aspects. Wild animals do not exist for human entertainment. It was ethically wrong to parade the hungry, stressed and scared pangolin in front of crowds. Better sense is likely to prevail as Goans get more educated and enlightened and aim to build a truly compassionate society.

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