By Nidhi Singh and Saurav Chaudhary
In a study published in 2009 on the faunal diversity of the Simbalbara National Park (now known as Col. Sher Jung National Park in the Paonta Valley in Himachal Pradesh) by the Zoological Survey of India (ZSI), the authors D.K. Sharma and Uttam Saikia reported the presence of Indian pangolin Manis crassicaudata in the park. However, there was a twist to this tale – these findings were not based on a sighting of the animal, but on scales of a deceased individual collected in June 2005, without any subsequent sightings or corroborating evidence. The species was reported from the Kalesar National Park (KNP) in Haryana, which shares its boundary with Col. Sher Jung National Park, but no other signs of the animal were found anywhere in this landscape in Himachal Pradesh. This raised concerns about the potential loss of this species from the national park. It was as if these creatures had vanished, leaving behind only the faintest trace.
With the aid of 64 camera traps strategically placed across the national park, the team was able to capture a rare camera trap image of an Indian pangolin. Photo: JICA Project/Wildlife Institute of India.
In 2021, our team embarked on a journey into the Col. Sherjung National Park. Our aim was to conduct a comprehensive biodiversity assessment of the landscape. Using camera traps, we hoped to gain a better understanding of mammalian life within the park. Drawing on previous studies and insights from Forest Department officials, we anticipated encounters with the region’s primary predator, the common leopard, and its main prey such as chital, barking deer and sambar. Local anecdotes even hinted at a tiger sighting five years prior, adding more excitement to our endeavour. But were we fortunate enough to capture a tiger? It turns out, this landscape held an unexpected and equally thrilling surprise for us, just waiting to be discovered.
As we diligently set up our camera traps, hopes were high for a glimpse of the elusive tiger and the common leopard. With the aid of 64 camera traps strategically placed across the national park, covering approximately 28 sq. km., we meticulously explored the depths of the landscape in 2021 and 2022. Over 1,912 trap nights, the team documented 21 mammal species. Trap nights refer to the total number of nights that a camera trap is active and set up to capture images or videos of the wildlife. And although we did get records of the common leopard, we did not capture the striped predator. However, the other reward was the equally elusive and remarkable Indian pangolin.
The unique find of the Indian pangolin, detailed in a recent scientific research study conducted and published by our team, marks the first-ever photographic evidence of the presence of these rare creatures in this region. In 2021, the first year of our study, we had not found any trace of the Indian pangolin. It was only in 2022 that we struck gold and our cameras finally caught a glimpse of this elusive, scaled mammal. The camera-trap images revealed the presence of the species in the Col. Sher Jung National Park.
The Simbalbara National Park, created in 1958, is also known as the Col. Sher Jung National Park. Photo: Nidhi Singh.
Despite its presence in various regions, and the acknowledgment of the threat to the species on account of the illegal wildlife trade, the Indian pangolin remains a species that has not been extensively studied and has long been shrouded in mystery. Consequently, comprehensive research across its habitat range and specifically in the Shivalik hills is essential to develop effective conservation strategies. Owing to the escalating demand in the illegal trade market, the Indian pangolin faces significant pressure from poaching. Studies and available data indicate that approximately 1,700 kg. of Indian pangolin scales were trafficked internationally between 2011 and 2017. However, considering the substantial amount of unreported trade, the actual number of animals involved is likely higher. It is imperative to take proactive measures to curb hunting and dismantle the illegal trade network threatening Indian pangolins.
Situated at the foothills of the Shivalik Range, the Col. Sher Jung National Park mostly consists of dense sal forests with grassy glades and a perennial stream in the valley. Photo: Saurav Chaudhary.
In the dense forests of Himachal Pradesh, where every rustling leaf tells a story, the Indian pangolin has found its voice through these photographs. It is now our collective responsibility to listen, understand, and act, ensuring that this enigmatic species continues to roam the wilderness, weaving its tale with that of our natural world.
After having worked on high conservation value areas and mammalian diversity of Himachal Pradesh for three years, Nidhi Singh is now a Project Associate II at the Wildlife Institute of India working in conservation education under the National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG) Project. Saurav Chaudhary is a researcher with a passion for herpetology, with a research background in birds, mammals and vegetation. Currently studying the diversity of herpetofauna in Himachal Pradesh, he holds a keen interest to study the herpetofauna of Northeast India.