NEW DELHI – Wildlife poachers, hindered by India's efforts to protect majestic endangered animals including tigers and rhinos, have begun to think smaller. And activists say scores of the country's lesser-known species are vanishing from the wild as a result.
The Indian pangolin — a scaly critter whose defense mechanism of rolling up into a ball is no help against humans — and the star tortoise — a popular pet that maxes out at a foot in length — are just two of the species that are being killed or smuggled in increasing numbers while conservation efforts focus on such iconic animals such as tigers and elephants.
"The problem is that we were turning a blind eye to all lesser-known species and suddenly this very lucrative trade has been allowed to explode," said Belinda Wright, director of the Wildlife Protection Society of India, an advocacy group.
Wildlife specialists say the growing affluence of China, Vietnam and other Southeast Asian countries has helped drive the demand for exotic animals. Some are kept as pets, while others are eaten for their purported but questionable medicinal or aphrodisiacal properties.
Pangolins are killed for their meat, which is considered a delicacy, and their scales, which are used in traditional Chinese medicine. The scales are made of keratin, the same protein that forms hair and fingernails, and have no documented medicinal value.
The pangolin trade was once obscure in India, with an average of only about three a year reportedly killed by poachers between 1990 and 2008. Wright said that soared to an average of more than 320 per year from 2009 to 2013.
That only covers confirmed seizures. Customs officials and wildlife experts estimate that seizures form only 10 percent of the total illegal trade. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature estimated in a report last month that more than a million pangolins have been poached from habitats in Asia and Africa.
Star tortoise seizures by airport and port customs officials also have increased dramatically, from an average of less than 800 per year from 1990 to 1999 to more than 3,000 per year from 2002 to 2013, according to the protection society.
Similarly, the growing demand for lizard skin, meat and bones has led to the near-disappearance of the monitor lizard in the Indian countryside, said Tito Joseph, a program manager for the society. Monitor lizard meat, especially the tongue and liver, is mistakenly believed to have aphrodisiacal properties, while lizard skin finds use in high-end bags and belts.
Such animals became more attractive to poachers as the Indian government strengthened the tiger conservation program it began nearly four decades ago. Vast swathes of forests and hills have been turned into tiger reserves and national parks.
Indian officials deny neglecting lesser-known species. Creating the tiger reserves also helps protect smaller species in these areas, they say.
"The focus on tigers does not mean that other species are not taken care of," said S.B. Negi of the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau, a government agency.
But the bureau has only just begun efforts to collect data on many smaller species now in peril, including the pangolin, reflecting the scant attention they have received so far. Kamal Datta, a director at the bureau, said the agency has asked wildlife departments in India's 29 states to collect the data, but some have yet to begin.
"The trade in lesser known species cannot be ignored, else entire species, such as the Indian pangolin, are in danger of being wiped out," said Wright.
Pangolins, often described as "walking artichokes" on account of their coats of overlapping scales, were once found across India.
When threatened by predators, the animal protects itself by curling up into a scaly ball, but that makes it easy for poachers to bundle them into sacks for transportation.
Most of the illegal trade in pangolins and other species takes place across the porous border that India shares with Nepal, Myanmar and Bangladesh, experts said.
Activists say efforts to stop the illegal trade are hampered by a lack of knowledge among customs officials and border guards about the species they are supposed to protect.
"We're talking here of the threat of pangolins being wiped out. But most often the officials set to catch the poachers don't even know what the animal looks like, let alone who are the people involved in catching them, or those involved in the trade," said Shekhar Niraj, India director of TRAFFIC, a wildlife trade monitoring network.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List, generally considered to be the most comprehensive of its kind, lists 374 species in India that are vulnerable and 274 others that are endangered, or critically endangered, and at risk of becoming extinct.
"This is a huge tragedy in the making," Wright said. "We must act before it is too late, or many of these spectacular animals will disappear."