Excess Baggage: How wildlife is trafficked by air in and out of India

  • India is among the top 20 countries for the illegal wildlife trade and its fast expanding airport sector is often used by wildlife traffickers to smuggle high-end, high-value species and products.
  • Wildlife trade poses the second-biggest direct threat to the survival of species after habitat destruction.
  • Over 31% of trafficked items were in checked luggage in India (43% globally) followed by air cargo at 20%, seizure data shows.

The global illegal trade in wildlife is worth upto US$ 19 billion annually, and is the fourth largest illicit market after drugs, counterfeit, and human trafficking.

On June 21, 2020, Kolkata airport officials arrested a man with exotic macaws and parrots, native to South America and New Guinea. The birds were smuggled from Bangladesh, and headed for Bengaluru, local media reported.

This isn’t an isolated incident. Wildlife traffickers routinely use the gaps in the rapidly expanding air transport sector to smuggle endangered and exotic live animals, plants, and their parts. Wildlife trade poses the second-biggest direct threat to the survival of species after habitat destruction.

“India’s fast-growing air transport sector can pose a major problem,” said Saket Badola, head of the India office of TRAFFIC, a global wildlife trade monitoring network.

The number of airports in India increased from 50 in 2009 to 127 in 2019, including 23 international airports which handled 66.54 million passengers in 2019-2020.

“Wildlife trafficking by the air is generally of high-end, high-value products,” explained Badola. In comparison, smuggling by seaports or land is large in volume or size.

India is among the top 20 countries for illegal wildlife trade. Chennai and Mumbai airports act as key destinations and origin points for traffickers, according to Runway to Extinction, a report published by C4ADS as part of the USAID ROUTES (Reducing Opportunities for Unlawful Transport of Endangered Species) Partnership in May 2020.

The ROUTES partnership is global and multi-sectoral international with aim to disrupt wildlife trafficking activities. The ROUTES dashboard uses opensource wildlife seizure data to inform wildlife trafficking through airports, between 2009 and 2020.

There is a spike in trafficking instances at other fast-growing international airports in India, such as Bengaluru’s Kempegowda International Airport, which appointed a special wildlife cell in 2017 to handle the growing issue.

Number of seizures of wildlife in airports between 2009 and 2020. India is among the top 20 countries for the illegal wildlife trade. <a href="" target="_blank" rel="noopener">Chart</a> by ROUTES.
The number of seizures of wildlife in airports between 2009 and April 30, 2020. India is among the top 20 countries for the illegal wildlife trade. Chart by ROUTES.

Checked in

Airports are the perfect trade flow bottlenecks as both the smugglers and the goods are in the same location, the International Air Transport Association’s (IATA) training module for airport staff, notes.

Smugglers operating across the country, however, can’t avoid the stringent luggage checks at airports, which offer the opportunity for detection, interception and tracking of wildlife trade networks.

“Flyers smuggle live animals via check-in baggage, hand baggage or air cargo,” M. Maranko, Regional Deputy Director of the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB) Western Region says. Over 31% of trafficked items were in checked luggage in India (43% globally) followed by air cargo at 20%, ROUTES data show.

In 2019-2020 there were 114 violations related to the Wild Life Protection Act of India and EXIM Policy [foreign trade policy]; and Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), said Tilotama Varma, Additional Director, WCCB.  The first two are national laws, while CITES regulates global legal and illegal wildlife trade.

“The customs officers at airports are key to identifying international smuggling of environmental products,” says Atul Bagai, Head, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), India.

“Customs officers use their judgement based on the location, they assess the risks and conduct random checks. The profile certain passengers based on flight routes, behaviour or demographic to track down such cases,” Maranko explains.

India scores 82% in the country enforcement index, with officials having made 71 of the 97 possible seizures at airports, according to a dashboard presented by ROUTES. The data for the dashboard is from C4ADS’ Wildlife Seizure Database that has information on 4,000 global seizures in the last five years, making it possible to trace trends and understand the mechanics.

Some fauna species seized as check-in or hand baggage were star tortoises, exotic birds, red-eared slider turtles, iguana, python, spiders, marmoset and tamarin monkeys, tricolour squirrels, and iguanas and even leopard cubs. Flora included red sanders, sandalwood, and kuth roots among others. Parts or derivatives included shark fins and peacock feathers.

Data from ROUTES.

Customs control of wildlife trade

India is at the epicenter of the south Asian reptile trade. Protected and critically endangered species like the Indian star tortoises and black pond turtles are smuggled out to Thailand and Malaysia, where they are sought after as pets. On the other hand, red-eared slider turtles are brought in from southeast Asia.

While trafficking through air, live animals are packed into handbags or suitcases depending on their size, with additional methods used to hide their presence. For instance, star tortoises are just under 12-15 cm long at the hatchling stage and grow to no more than 20-25 cm, making it easy to hide inside suitcases.

“Tortoises urinate when they are scared or jerked. To avoid dealing with the mess of 200-300 tortoises urinating during a 3-6 hour flight, the smugglers often wrap the inner part of the suitcase with diapers,” Maranko explains. Other creatures like rodents and monkeys are hidden in baskets between chocolate boxes, or sea horses in ziplock bags.

UNEP’s Bagai points out that often the focus of the customs department is on seizing precious metal, weapons, ammunition, and drugs. Airport officials say these are easier to screen and come under the principal mandate of the revenue department.

Badola also notes that there is a lack of capacity among enforcement agencies, airport and airlines staff to deal with wildlife cases. “There need to be orientation programmes to build capacities to combat this trade,” he adds.

Read more: [Interview] Major transnational wildlife crime could catch India by surprise

“We routinely conduct training and capacity building sessions for officers to cover wildlife products, species and derivatives,” explains Manoj Kumar, Joint Director at the National Academy of Customs, Excise and Narcotics where customs officials are trained. He added that customs officers are regularly updated on the several multilateral environmental agreements under the global Green Customs Initiative, which includes CITES.

Turtles confiscated a Mumbai airport in 2016. India is at the epicenter of the south Asian reptile trade. Photo by Kiran Kumar Karlapu.
Turtles confiscated a Mumbai airport in 2016. India is at the epicenter of the south Asian reptile trade. Photo by Kiran Kumar Karlapu.

Tracking the supply chain

The illegal wildlife supply-chain goes beyond the seizures at the airport. Maranko explained that curbing it requires identifying the forward and backward linkages with the cooperation of state forest and police departments, CBI, revenue intelligence, various border security departments, railway and industrial police forces, enforcement directorate, and customs.

The supply-chain originates in forests and natural habitats, and involves several people, from locals and poachers to carriers responsible for transporting the consignments across and out of the country.

To have an idea of the scale of reptile trade — since 2009, 1,11,312 individual tortoises or freshwater turtles (11,000 a year) were illegally traded across India, according to TRAFFIC.

Over 60% of seizures, of tortoises or turtles, emerge from Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal. Officials say a crackdown at the origin and logistics network has resulted in a decrease in star tortoise smuggling.

UNEP’s Bagai noted that, past the customs point, the opportunities to detect smuggled animals and plants are limited to aircraft staff and officials at the destination.

Intelligence generation and sharing with other international organisations is crucial at this stage, notes Kumar of the National Academy of Customs, Excise and Narcotics. In 2017, 97 star tortoises seized at the Singapore airport were repatriated to India. India too routinely deports any seized creatures who survive the journey, back to the airport it originated from.

IATA has the United for Wildlife Taskforce, a customs database, and global partnerships with several airline operators and agencies.

International regulations

Despite the strides made in international regulation and enforcement of legal and illegal wildlife trade, gaps still remain.

Richard Thomas, Head of Communications, TRAFFIC pointed out: “There’s a lot of species CITES doesn’t cover and even for those it does, the permitting system is open to fraud in a variety of ways: from reusing permits to false permits.”

“One major concern is that the species and products listed under CITES aren’t harmonised with the Wildlife Protection Act of India,” Badola explained. India’s protected list of species exclude other non-native, exotic animals and plants. So a species or product may be allowed for trade in the country where the flyer is coming from, but would be illegal in India. Similarly, India’s protected list of species may exclude other non-native, exotic animals and plants.

“Passengers who aren’t aware of the rules and regulations around wildlife may unknowingly purchase or bring prohibited items to India,” said Badola. Awareness campaigns aimed at the public and airport authorities are required to widen the understanding of threatened species, illegal wildlife trade and international conventions.

TRAFFIC’s campaign called “Don’t Buy Trouble”, and the UNEP-WCCB collaboration for “Not All Animals Migrate By Choice” aimed to create awareness amongst flyers, tourists and airport authorities about the prevalence of illegal wildlife trafficking by air, prohibited items, and souvenirs they should avoid.

In the light of the COVID-19 pandemic and focus on zoonotic diseases, Thomas said interest in curbing illegal wildlife trade and strengthening international frameworks is increasing.


Banner image: Enclosed African gray parrot. Photo by ROUTES.

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