- India is not only a major source, but also a transit and a destination country for trafficked wildlife and wildlife products.
- International wildlife trafficking into and out of India mainly occurs through either the long international border along the Northeast or through airports. Chennai and Mumbai airports are major hubs for this illegal activity.
- Wildlife trafficking in India is driven by the demand for raw material like red sandalwood and ivory, and animal parts – particularly rhinoceros horn and tiger parts – for traditional medicine, demand for meat, and the attraction towards exotic pets.
- When exotic live animals that have been smuggled into India are seized, they are sent to rescue centres or sanctuaries. Several international and national governmental organisations are teaming up to develop tools and networks that counter wildlife trafficking.
Wildlife trafficking, which is the illegal trade of wild animals and plants, either as dead or live specimens, or their parts, has a huge negative effect on the world’s environments, biodiversity, economies, governance, and health. It is a form of transnational organised crime that spans across many countries and involves poaching, smuggling, and illegal collection or capture, of protected wildlife.
According to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), wildlife trafficking is the fourth largest form of transnational organised crime (after smuggling of drugs, human trafficking, and counterfeiting) worth an estimated £15 billion per annum.
Despite being a part of the CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of wild fauna and flora), India is currently one among the top 20 countries for wildlife trafficking, and among the top 10 for wildlife trafficking by air. Due to its megadiverse nature (India has 8% of the world’s wildlife), and dense human population (which makes tracing illegal goods very difficult once they have entered domestic markets), India serves as both, a source, as well as a transit country for illegal wildlife and wildlife products.
Added to this, several other factors have made the fight against the illegal wildlife trade increasingly difficult. Amongst these are the porous international borders with China, Myanmar, and other Southeast Asian countries, a growing aviation market and the fast-expanding airport sector, and the use of social media as online marketplaces by wildlife traffickers.
Furthermore, smugglers of exotic wildlife species in India have even resorted to misusing the Voluntary Disclosure Scheme issued by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) in 2020. The scheme aimed to regulate the growing market of exotic animals in India – which boomed after the complete ban on trade in Indian species – by allowing Indians to declare the possession of exotic wild species without any documentation before March 15, 2021.
Besides these reasons, there are major lacunae in laws that pertain to the ownership of exotic animals in India. People caught transporting exotic wildlife species can be charged with the crime only if it can be proven that they crossed an international border illegally with those animals. “Once inside India, there are no policies or laws that regulate the ownership of exotic species. The Wildlife Protection Law only applies to Indian wildlife,” says Sanjeev Pednekar, founder of Prani, an education centre and pet sanctuary for rescued birds and animals in the outskirts of Bengaluru.
What species are most commonly trafficked in India?
Since India is not only a major source, but also a transit, and destination country for trafficked wildlife and wildlife products, a large number of species are illegally transported out of and into the country. According to the Smuggling in India report 2020–21, the DRI’s (Directorate of Revenue Intelligence) most common wildlife and wildlife products that were seized from being smuggled out of India are ivory, turtles and tortoises (especially the Indian star tortoise), and red sandalwood (red sanders or lalchandan). Lately, there has been a decline in rhino horn trading from India; however, the country is fast becoming a major hub for pangolin poaching and trafficking. The trade in tiger parts also seems to be continuing unabated.
In addition, ornamental fish such as the Channa barca or snakehead (endemic to the upper Brahmaputra basin) and the zebra loach (in the Western Ghats) are being fished to extinction in their natural habitats to feed the international trade in live aquarium fish. Along with these, wildlife trafficking has expanded to include trade in body parts of golden jackals, Asiatic black bears, leopards (for tantric uses and traditional medicines) and mongooses (for mongoose hair paintbrushes).
According to the Trade Records Analysis of Flora and Fauna in Commerce (TRAFFIC) Runway to Extinction report published in 2020, although the trafficking of Indian star tortoises out of India is declining, the smuggling of red eared slider turtles is on the rise. Instances of exotic animals such as kangaroos, marmosets, tamarins, and birds such as macaws and parrots being transported across India are on the rise. The latest in this string of reports rolled in during March and April 2022, with videos of dehydrated and sick kangaroos rescued in West Bengal.
Apart from the illegal import and export of wildlife and wildlife products, India also has a roaring domestic market for wildlife meat and body parts for traditional medicine, including those of freshwater turtles, lorises, and frogs.
What are the most common routes through which wild species are trafficked in India?
International wildlife trafficking into and out of India mainly occurs through two routes – one, through the long international border along the Northeast, and the other, through airports. The 2018 TRAFFIC report In Plane Sight notes that trafficking in rhino horns, tiger parts, and pangolin scales is especially rampant in the Indo-Nepal, and Indo-Myanmar-China borders, with Northeast Indian cities such as Dimapur, Guwahati and Imphal being used a transit sites. Trafficking of birds and reptiles along the India-Bangladesh border is also rampant. Most recently, the Dooars region in northern West Bengal, specifically, the town of Jalpaiguri, made news as an emerging transit point for trafficking of exotic animals and birds.
The trafficking of reptiles, specifically turtles and tortoises, into and out of India is especially rampant, with Chennai and Mumbai airports being major hubs for this activity. The Indian star tortoise, which is the most trafficked reptile in the world, is supplied from trade hubs in Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, and Tamil Nadu, to Thailand, Singapore, and Malaysia, primarily by air. Seizure data from the website Reducing Opportunities for Unlawful Trade of Endangered Species (ROUTES) shows that more than 54% of the trafficked animals were in checked-in luggage and about 11% in air cargo. The top Indian cities where such airport seizures happen include Chennai, Kolkata, Mumbai, and Delhi, with reptile seizures being especially high in Chennai airport.
What factors drive wildlife trafficking in India? How does wildlife trade affect the environment?
Wildlife trafficking in India is driven by many factors. The foremost of these is the demand for raw material like red sandalwood and ivory (used in manufacturing luxury products), and animal parts – particularly rhinoceros horn and tiger parts – for traditional medicine. The World Wildlife Crime Report 2020 states that although global markets for rhino horn and ivory have fallen consistently since 2011, new market demands such as those for pangolin scales and European glass eels have emerged. In Assam, because of intense hunting of pangolins by local tribes, which eat the meat and sell the scales, this once-abundant animal is now relatively rare. The traditional medicine markets in China and Vietnam are major consumers of pangolin scales, rhino horns, and the skin and body parts of various big cats, birds, Asiatic black bears, musk deer, wolves, and jackals.
Another factor that drives wildlife trafficking is the demand for meat – many animals such as the Bengal slow loris, softshell turtles from Uttar Pradesh, deer, antelope, wild cattle, and even sea cucumbers are mainly trafficked for consumption.
The third major driving factor for wildlife trafficking in India lies in the growing demand for exotic pets, especially birds like cockatoos, macaws, and grey parrots. In addition many Indian birds, fish, and reptiles are in great demand in global pet markets. What is even more shocking, is that zoos may also be involved in illegally buying exotic animals, as per a recent case involving Indore zoo and its connection to kangaroos being transported from a ‘farm’ in Mizoram.
The wildlife trade not only depletes environments of their natural inhabitants, but is also responsible for added threats like the spread of invasive species and emergence of new zoonoses. The three factors in combination can lead to whole ecosystem collapses and major disease outbreaks. Some of the most virulent viral diseases including Ebola, Marburg virus disease, SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), and the most recent pandemic – COVID-19 (Coronavirus disease-19) – have all arisen in areas where close human-wildlife contact occurred such as in wet markets.
Wildlife trafficking in India is rapidly wiping out populations of tigers, elephants, rhinos, pangolins, star tortoises, and many other native species. Simultaneously, invasive species like the red eared slider turtles (which are popular pets) and suckermouth sailfin catfish (a common aquarium fish) are destroying natural habitats.
What is being done to reduce wildlife trafficking in India and what happens to the seized animals?
The DRI, which is in the forefront of the battle against smuggling, has teamed up with the Indian Customs as a part of the Green Customs initiative of the World Customs Organisation, to counter wildlife trafficking into and out of India. To combat the rising use of air transport in wildlife trafficking, a suite of tools to help law enforcement agencies in India battle wildlife smuggling have been developed by TRAFFIC, along with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), World Wide Fund for Nature India (WWF-India), and the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB).
Apart from this, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) also has a short 20-minute training module to help spread awareness on wildlife trafficking through air transport. Airport authorities in Bengaluru have even set up a forest cell to tackle wildlife smuggling. The Counter Wildlife Trafficking program, run by the Wildlife Conservation Society-India, conducts training and sensitisation workshops for state forest departments, police forces, customs officials, border security force units, and even the judiciary, on conducting crime scene investigations and promoting inter-agency collaborations.
In addition to all these initiatives, the WCCB has begun profiling criminals in a real-time database and will soon network with neighbouring countries (Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, and Myanmar) to stem transboundary wildlife crime.
Molecular biology tools, including DNA testing and bioinformatics are also being used in wildlife forensics to identify the point of origin of trafficked animal products. In addition, citizen science initiatives, dog squads, and various DNA databases and reference libraries are being used to monitor animal populations susceptible to poaching and the wildlife trade. India also destroys seized wildlife products to send out a strong anti-poaching message.
However, despite these efforts wildlife trafficking in India is still rampant. India’s CITES membership as well as its strong laws (Wildlife Protection Act, 1972) – prohibiting the trade of over 1,800 species of native plants, animals, and their products – are ineffective in tackling wildlife trafficking as these laws/advisories are often poorly communicated and enforced. In addition, wildlife experts say that India needs stronger laws to deal with exotic species that have been smuggled into the country, which is a huge lacuna that is exploited by smugglers to feed the exotic pet trade.
Most often, when exotic live animals that have been smuggled into India are seized, they are sent to rescue centres or sanctuaries. Since zoos are usually meant to showcase Indian native wildlife, they often do not have adequate quarantine centres or appropriate enclosures to properly manage seized exotic animals.
Sanjeev’s sanctuary, Prani, currently houses many exotics – iguanas, monitor lizards, red-eared sliders, and emus – to name a few. “Nearly 90% of the exotic birds that we have at Prani, along with our iguanas, were given up by people who could no longer care for them. Sometimes, we also rescue animals meant for slaughter, such as our emus”, says Sanjeev. “In addition, Prani also has also been working/volunteering with the airport authorities in Bengaluru, the Forest Department, and the Animal Welfare Board of India, who often hand over seized animals to us. One memorable instance that stands out in my mind was when we had to care for over a hundred tiny Hamilton turtles – one of the most endangered species of turtles in the world – that were seized at the Kempegowda International Airport,” he adds.
Sanjeev ruefully admits that he often takes in red eared sliders out of fear that people will abandon them in local lakes and ponds, where these terrapins can destroy the ecosystem and kill off native species. Since the CITES rules do not usually allow for reintroduction of exotic species to their natural habitats (except under very stringent circumstances), humane euthanasia or a lifetime of captive care are the only ways to deal with smuggled exotics.
Since most people will not even entertain the idea of euthanasia, most exotics are usually condemned to life in captivity. “And so many of the exotic species smuggled into India – such as capuchins, marmosets, and wallabies, which fetch good sums when sold – are returned to the pet market, while others, like the red eared sliders are either given up to rescue centres or subject to uncontrolled releases,” he adds.
Read more: Using citizen science to track illegal wildlife trade in the Himalayas
Banner image: The Indian star tortoise is one of the most trafficked reptile in the world. Photo by N A Nazeer/Wikimedia Commons.