Lost And Found: Indian Pangolins In Himachal Pradesh’s Wilds

First published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol. 44 No. 2, February 2024

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.

A Rarity Captured On Camera

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.

Photo: Amit Dutta/Sanctuary Photolibrary.
The Indian pangolin
Classified as Endangered in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, the population of this species is rapidly decreasing throughout its range, including in India. The Indian pangolin is one of two pangolin species found in the Indian subcontinent, the other being the critically endangered Chinese pangolin Manis pentadactyla. The Indian pangolin, also known as the thick-tailed pangolin, is a medium-sized mammal that boasts 11-13 rows of scales covering its dorsal surface. Lacking teeth, the pangolin uses its sticky, saliva-coated tongue to capture insects, ants, and termites in deep crevices. When threatened, it swiftly rolls into a protective ball, with its tail curled over its head, exposing only the scales, which are sturdy enough to fend off most predators.
Its habitat includes southern Asia (excluding the Himalaya and northeast India), including areas from eastern Pakistan to Sri Lanka. Despite its protected status, it faces severe threats from hunting for meat, spiritual and ritualistic purposes, and the illegal trade of its scales for traditional medicines. Pangolins are highly trafficked globally, with nearly 6,000 poached in India between 2009 and 2017, according to a TRAFFIC India study of 2018. A newer analysis released on World Pangolin Day, February 17, 2023, reported that over 1,200 poached or trafficked pangolins were seized in India between 2018-2022. These numbers may just be the tip of the iceberg, with a portion of the trade likely going undetected.

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.

Call For Action

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.

This study was conducted by researchers of the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), as a part of a biodiversity assessment project, under Dr. Salvador Lyngdoh, Scientist – E, WII. His guidance and support throughout the fieldwork as well as writing and compilation of the study was invaluable. We would also like to thank the Director and Dean of the WII for institutional support, the Japan International Cooperation Agency for the funding, and all the officials of the Himachal Pradesh Forest Department for their constant support in all the stages of the work. And last but not the least, we would like to acknowledge and thank our co-author of the research article Urjit Bhatt for helping us in analysis and compilation of this study.
Reference: Singh, N., Bhatt, U., Chaudhary, S., & Lyngdoh, S. (2023). First photographic evidence of Indian Pangolin Manis crassicaudata Geoffroy, 1803 (Mammalia: Pholidota: Manidae), in Colonel Sher Jung National Park, Himachal Pradesh, India. Journal of Threatened Taxa, 15(1), 22505-22509.

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.


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