A recent study, published in the journal Cell, had placed pangolins as a natural reservoir of coronaviruses similar to SARS-CoV-2, the one behind the COVID-19 pandemic.
Another recent study had identified the presence of SARS-CoV-2 like viruses in Malayan pangolins smuggled into China to be sold in wet markets.
In these markets, pangolins find demand both in food and traditional medicine, making them the most-commonly trafficked mammal.
"The discovery of multiple lineages of pangolin coronavirus and their similarity to SARS-CoV-2 suggests that pangolins should be considered as possible hosts in the emergence of novel coronaviruses and should be removed from wet markets to prevent zoonotic transmission," said Ved Kumar, a former wildlife conservationist with Wildlife Institute of India (WII), and founder of Maaty Biodiversity Conservation & Societal Research Organization in Uttarakhand.
Kumar told PTI that over the last decade, the demand for pangolin biological parts in China and other Southern Asian markets has increased due to their perceived medicinal properties, and value as a delicacy.
"So the poaching graph of this species continuously increases," he said.
In their study, published in the journal Forensic Science International: Reports, Kumar and his team described the hotspots for pangolin trafficking in India.
Based on their research, Kumar said between 2003 and 2014, states in Northeast India like Assam, Manipur, and Meghalaya were the hotspots for pangolin poaching in the country, adding that trafficking of the animals is also increasing in other places.
"Now the trends change as poachers move towards Southern and Northern India. In the current scenario, Tamil Nadu and Uttarakhand are the hotspots of poaching," he said, adding that dense forests with open boundaries and low forest staffs are factors linked to increased poaching in a region.
Based on earlier studies from 2011 to 2013, analysing 51 pangolin seizures reported all over India, the scientists said 42 of them were made from the North-eastern states of India.
Assessing another report of more than 91 pangolin seizures, reported between 20092017, they said the states of Manipur and Tamilnadu have had the highest number of documented confiscations.
The latest study by Kumar and his team indicated that between 2014 and 2018 most of the cases were reported from central, northern, and eastern Indian states where Maharashtra and Uttarakhand report the second highest position with 12 per cent of overall seizures.
This study assessed the status of illegal trade of pangolin based on seizures reported from 2009 to 2018 in India using available data from print and electronic media.
"Over the last decade 119 pangolin seizures were recorded and it is estimated that 7500 individuals perished in a decade. It is concluded that in India its north-eastern part is the hub of trade of pangolins," Kumar and his team noted in the study.
According to the scientists, the poached animals are transported by traffickers into China and Myanmar through road and postal services.
"Road transport, local taxi and postal service are the modes of trafficking. If we talking about Southern India, the traders purchase the pangolin body part from the local poachers, transport via road in trucks and other heavy vehicles by West Bengal to Assam, Nagaland, and transport into China via Myanmar," Kumar explained in an email.
Asked about the reasons for the demand for the "shy and nocturnal" mammal, he said these are largely driven by myths about their healing properties.
"People have myths that the pangolin's various body parts, especially their scales, and also its fetuses, blood, bones and claws have healing properties in traditional medicines," the wildlife conservationist said.
Kumar clarified that there is no scientific proof for these beliefs, adding that some people also consume the animal as meat.
"Their meat is considered a delicacy and high source of protein in restaurants, where its consumption is also a symbol of status," he added.
As the "secretive and slow-moving" mammal continues to be killed and transported illegally, Kumar said the places from which they are removed may see changes in their ecology.
"Ecologically pangolins are so important. In natural ecosystem it plays as a biological pest controller and soil caretakers. Due to their food preferences pangolin control the population of termites and ants in natural ecosystem," he said.
Each year, Kumar said, a pangolin consumes about 70 million insects from the forest, making it safe for plant species.
"Apart from that, their large and elongated claws make them capable of burrowing underground for shelter and to excavate termites and insects for food. In doing so the soil is mixed and aerated, improving the quality of the nutrients in the soil," he added.
Since the major threat for the survival of pangolin is from local communities, Kumar said, an understanding of public perceptions and awareness on conservation of the mammal is important.