There could be a pangolin in the backpack of a person standing right next to you, and you would never know.

The size of a housecat, these mammals have no teeth and do not squeak, howl or attack. And when faced with danger, the pangolin curls into a ball.

Such vulnerabilities make the shy and nocturnal ant-eating animal the most trafficked animal in the world, putting it on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) red list of threatened species.

The animal has high demand in international markets for its meat, blood, and scales, which are assumed to have medicinal properties.

However, very little is known about the Indian pangolin, found across the Himalayan region, predominantly in Odisha.

While the state is notorious for pangolin smuggling, in 2019, Sasmita Lenka, a divisional forest officer, busted a racket and an active international network involved in the illegal trade.

The 47-year-old officer arrested 28 people — including eight smugglers, rescued five pangolins, seized one dead one, and recovered five kilos of pangolin scales.

Describing the modus operandi of the traffickers, she says, “An agent or middleman approaches the tribal people in the area and asks them if they know where pangolins could be found.”

These locals usually pick up the animal for the agent in exchange for a few thousand rupees.

“When the animal is exchanged between agents across different states, the value increases to lakhs,” she says.

Sasmita says an adult pangolin can earn up to Rs 10 lakh. Four inches of scale can fetch around Rs 10,000. “The scales are weighed in grams. Imagine what 5 kilos of seizure would cost,” she says.

While she notes that earlier a majority of locals were not aware that pangolins exist in the vicinity, through these operations awareness is increasing.

Recently, the United Nations recognised Sasmita’s efforts and felicitated her with the Asia Environment Enforcement Awards 2020 under the Gender Leadership and Impact categories.

“I’m glad my hard work was noticed. But the work will only stop once the threat to pangolins is mitigated and the animal is saved from extinction,” she says.