Tracking Indian pangolins

August 28, 2022 12:00 am | Updated 05:36 am IST

They are one of the most trafficked animals in the world and yet there is little we know about these scaly anteaters

Home on the rangePangolins climb over boulders effortlessly despite their long clawsAditya JoshiAditya Joshi

Home on the rangePangolins climb over boulders effortlessly despite their long clawsAditya JoshiAditya Joshi

If the number of Indian pangolins and the quantities of their scales being seized by the authorities are an indication, you’d think the animals were very common. But even people who tramp through the forests for much of the year rarely encounter these scaly anteaters. That’s why we know little about them.

Trail cameras are the primary means of monitoring wildlife in forests. But pangolins rarely, if ever, trigger these surveillance devices. Neither do they leave footprints on impression pads, the fine sand laid an inch thick on paths. That’s because unlike tigers and other mammals, pangolins don’t frequent well-worn tracks.

Conservation biologist Aditya Joshi and his team from the Wildlife Conservation Trust required an entirely different approach to study pangolins. They enlisted the superior noses of dogs, the camel-beige Belgian Malinois, Hera, and mouse-grey Weimaraner, Moya. Using urine and faeces from captive pangolins at the Nandankanan Zoo, Odisha, the dogs were trained to find them in the forests of Pench and Satpura, Madhya Pradesh. They sat outside burrows when they detected anteaters’ scent. Instead of rewarding them with treats, Joshi gave them their favourite balls and then placed cameras above the dens to record the comings and goings of the residents.

Hidden in their burrows

The dogs, however, couldn’t help the researchers differentiate between individual animals. Since 2019, the team released eight pangolins outfitted with radio transmitters. Of these animals, four were confiscated from poachers. The 40-gram transmitters couldn’t be strapped around the anteaters’ necks or backs since they could get damaged or hinder the animals when they dig. Instead, they were fastened to the keratinised scales at the base of their tails.

For the first three weeks, the team checked on the animals every night, especially the ones that had been in captivity, to make sure they were healthy. But they were careful not to spook them. Even without the trauma of capture, these cautious animals intently listened and sniffed before emerging from their burrows. “It takes them as much as 10 to 15 minutes to come out,” says Joshi.

If they sensed intruders about, they retreated and stayed hungry until the next evening. The researchers began tracking them at 4 a.m., after the animals had adequate time to fill their bellies.

Mental map

Pangolins don’t dig a burrow every night. Excavating six feet of earth to create a sleeping chamber is, after all, labour intensive. “They have a mental map of all the burrows in their home range and move between them,” says Joshi. “When tracking, it’s very evident which one they are making for.”

Over time, the animals became used to the researchers and the Forest Department staff, recognising them by their familiar smell, and went undeterred about their nightly forays. They ripped into termite mounds and ant nests, snorting to clear their nostrils of dirt, and used their long tongues like glue paper to transport the insects into their tubular toothless mouths. “They even know the dogs that regularly visit their burrows,” says Joshi. If an accompanying team member was a new arrival, however, the pangolins became wary and bolted down their lairs.

In the boulder-strewn hillocks of Satpura, the radio signals bounced off rocks, preventing the researchers from pinpointing the entrance to the burrows. Hera and Moya came to the rescue again, sitting where the scent was strongest.

Although these eight animals revealed much about their world, they also took Joshi by surprise. Despite their reputation for being slow and armed with finger-length claws, they scaled boulders effortlessly, leaving their huffing and puffing bipedal followers way behind.

A forest where tigers and leopards prowled was hardly the place to play a game of fetch, especially at night. Instead, the dogs contentedly chewed on their toys for a few minutes before it was time to get on with the serious business of tracking one of the most trafficked animals in the world.

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