India can become a centre for pangolin poaching
Samuel K Wasser, a conservation biologist at the University of Washington in the US, has pioneered ways of using DNA from animal faeces to track wildlife poachers and combat wildlife crime. The wildlife detective has earned the nickname “the Guru of Doo Doo” for his pioneering work on noninvasive methods to measure the abundance, distribution and physiological condition of wildlife from their faeces, relying on detection dogs to locate these samples over large wilderness areas. His innovative approach to using elephant poop has led to the arrest and conviction of some of Africa’s biggest ivory poachers. In India, he plans to focus on pangolins, believed to be the world’s most trafficked mammal, and has initiated collaborations for work on a pangolin DNA reference library…
Q: Why do you say that India may be harbouring a false sense of security with regards to transnational wildlife trade?
India has done a good job of preventing the regrowth of major transnational wildlife crime since they stopped large scale tiger trafficking in the 1990s. I fear that major transnational wildlife crime could easily return under the right conditions and catch India by surprise. The most likely contraband to be exploited on a major scale here is pangolins. We know that some big expeditors, skilled at moving freight, are already operating in India. They are moving illegal wildlife contraband from Africa to Southeast Asia. However, because the contraband never enters India, they are not breaking Indian law. Those traffickers could easily turn their skills to exporting pangolins if the price is right. The pangolin trade went from Southeast Asia and now it has moved to Africa. Pretty soon they are going to start running out of pangolins there (in Africa) and pressure is going to come on India as the trade picks up. To make matters worse, pangolins may be easy for skilled poachers to find. However, they are very difficult for everyone else to see. That means the trade could take route and wipe out a large part of the population before anyone realises the extent of the problem.
Q: How does a pangolin DNA reference database figure in the scheme of things? Can you share some details?
Pangolins are small, solitary and largely nocturnal mammals known for their distinctive, armadillo-like appearance. They are hunted for their scales, meat and other body parts. Four species are native to sub-Saharan Africa, with another four spread across south and Southeast Asia. India is home to two of the species, the Indian pangolin (Manis crassicaudata) and Chinese pangolin (Manis pentadactyla). We are very eager to collaborate with the Indian government and NGOs to create a geographic-based DNA reference map of pangolins. As with elephants, we intend to build this largely from DNA acquired from pangolin dung samples. However, pangolin dung is much harder to find. Samples are small and disintegrate quickly due to their diet of termites and ants. We plan to use detection dogs to find their scat. So far we have taken detection dogs trained on pangolin scats to Nepal and Vietnam. We hope to bring them here (India) and start building a reference library in Asia and Africa in order to connect all the dots. We don’t know anything about pangolins. Even the pangolin specialist groups know very little about pangolins because they’re so hard to find. We expect the dogs to locate large numbers of samples, which will reveal pangolin habitat preferences, where they’re most concentrated and how many are still there, allowing us to answer these questions concurrently. It appears that there are a lot more pangolins than people thought, given the large numbers comprising numerous large seizures. It doesn’t make sense. My colleague in WII, Samrat Mondol, who did his post-doctorate with me, and I, are planning to develop a DNA lab for pangolins at WII in India. We may also be training a doctoral student from Bhutan who is going coming to my lab mid-July to learn how to be a detection dog handler as part of her thesis work. We are hoping that she will be able to assist the Bombay Natural History Society in the use of dogs to find vulture carcasses as well as assist with finding pangolins. At least one NGO in India may also help with this.
Q: Are there challenges to deploying dogs in the Indian landscape?
Heat acclimation is the biggest challenge, requiring the handler to always keep the dog well hydrated and starting very early in the morning. Our dogs are a variety of breeds, mostly mixed, all obtained from animal shelters. Dogs are chosen for their high play drive. They are rewarded for finding the target by two minutes play with their ball.
Q: Why do you think Asian elephants are the most threatened lot?
Asian elephants face new threat in skin trade. Over the past decade, Myanmar has seen a significant increase in the number of Asian elephants (Elephas maximus indicus) killed, with conservationists pinning the blame on poachers. The tough skin is ground up for traditional medicine or turned into accessories such as beads or pendants. What is happening now, which is even more serious, is that the illegal elephant trade in Asia is shifting to skin trade. That means it doesn’t matter if the elephant is a male-female or baby. No sex or age group will be spared. (Only adult Asian male elephants are poached for ivory as the female elephant, unlike African elephants, does not tusk). And so when you have animals that have such a slow reproductive rate, taking out the breeders and increasing infant mortality can be devastating for the population to sustain itself. The skin is being used to make prayer beads. However, traffickers are also marketing these skins as medicinal. If that takes route, it could be goodbye for Asian elephants.
Q: Why do you say leopards could be the ‘next tiger’ in India’s illegal wildlife trade loop?
Leopards are already being poached. Their bones are fraudulently used as substitutes for tiger bone. They are reclusive and thus easy to poach inconspicuously.