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KARACHI, Pakistan, Oct 10 2012 (IPS) - Conservationists see the decimation of pangolins (scaly anteaters) in Pakistan as a sign of the callousness with which this country’s rich biodiversity is being traded away for commercial gain.
Tariq Mahmood, assistant professor at the University of Arid Agriculture, Rawalpindi, tells IPS that if the illegal trade in pangolins – prized for their scales and meat – is not stemmed, the animal may well go extinct within the next few decades.
Between December 2011 and March 2012, Mahmood’s team of researchers recovered 50 pangolin carcasses in the Potohar district of Punjab province alone.
International trade in Asian pangolin species is banned under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, but with each animal fetching about 125 dollars, poachers supplying markets in China and Southeast Asia are ready to take the risk.
In China, the main market for pangolins, the meat of the animal is considered a delicacy with the scales, blood and other parts used as ingredients in traditional medicine.
“People in Pakistan know pangolins only as a harmless animal and are unaware that the animal also saves crops and plants from insect pests,” says Ejaz Ahmad of the World Wide Fund-Pakistan (WWF-Pakistan). “With their super strong sense of smell, they can detect termites and ants from hundreds of metres away.”
“They are natural pest controllers,” Rhishja Cota-Larson of Project Pangolin (PP) told IPS. “One pangolin can consume an estimated 70 million insects per year.
“If pangolins disappear, you would need to increase the use of pesticides in order to control the insect population. This, in turn, would have adverse affects on the environment and on people,” she said.
“We know of pangolins being killed for their scales in Pakistan and their seizures occur on a regular basis in India and Nepal,” Cota-Larson added. The PP has noted similar incidents in Zimbabwe, Kenya, Mozambique and Uganda.
The insatiable demand may have wiped out around 50,000 pangolins worldwide in 2011, according to PP.
“In Pakistan, pangolins are bought for as much as 105 dollars per individual at some five-star hotel for use in their Chinese restaurants,” said Mahmood.
Last year, Mahmood said, ‘Pangolins-wanted’ pamphlets were dropped by helicopter over rural areas around the Jhelum river giving details of people to contact if anyone had a captured animal for sale.
There are no reliable estimates for the pangolin population in Pakistan as they are elusive, nocturnal animals. “We have no idea how many remain in the wild,” said Ahmad.
But pangolins are not the only animals under threat in Pakistan, and scientists have identified 100 species that are endangered. Taken together with the massive denudation of pine forests in areas such as Swat and the Khyber Paktunkhwa province, the damage to Pakistan’s biodiversity may already be irreversible, experts fear.
Already gharial, a crocodile species found in Pakistan till late 1970s, has vanished, says environmentalist Munaf Qaimkhani. “This knowledge alone should prompt us to take steps to save those species facing extinction,” he told IPS.
Similarly, the blind dolphin of River Indus, which lost its habitat due to the damming of the river, is now breathing its last, caught in nets, starved of fish and forced to live in increasingly toxic waters.
In 2006, the WWF-Pakistan estimated that there were just 1,200 dolphins left in the Indus. “Each year almost two dozen dolphins get trapped in the irrigation channels,” said Nasir Panhwar, executive director of the Centre for Environment and Development, a non-governmental organisation based in Hyderabad in Sindh province.
Qaimkhani lists the snow leopard, white-backed vulture, falcons, houbara bustards, Chiltan markhor, Marco polo sheep, woolly flying squirrel and musk deer among animals in Pakistan that have become highly endangered.
Conservationists worry that there are cases where the government is not just apathetic about biodiversity loss but also collusive in its destruction for political or diplomatic reasons.
Raja Zahoor, a customs official, said many animals and birds are hunted for sport by foreign nationals with special permission granted by a government eager to “foster good relations” among influential countries in the Middle East. “Rare species of falcons and the houbara bustard are being taken away to Arab states on dubious documentation.”
Arab falconers hunt the internationally protected houbara bustard on special permits issued by the ministry of foreign affairs. They often bring in their own hunting falcons, but take back endangered Pakistani species using re-export permits. “It is very easy to swap the falcons,” said Panhwar.
“We know this is illegal, but our hands are tied. Customs officers who have tried to stop local falcons from being smuggled out of the country in this way have been taken to task,” Zahoor said.
“In case a bird or animal is seized by customs, there are no facilities to keep it safely until the courts call for its exhibit or until the case is disposed of – often the animal or bird dies in custody,” Zahoor added.
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