Delhi, Kolkata and Hyderabad: The threat posed by poaching to India’s wildlife shows no signs of receding, in fact it’s only getting more intense from all the evidence that’s come to light through various seizures. Monitoring vast and remote habitats is difficult and things are only getting worse with rebel groups also getting into the illegal wildlife trade as a means of raising funds, especially in the North-East.
“Instead of kidnapping and extortion, the various insurgent groups have resorted to poaching wildlife and making easy money,” said Bibhab Talukdar, chair of the IUCN Species Survival Commission, Asian Rhino Specialist Group.
IUCN is the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
“The menace of terrorism is affecting people and wiping out whatever wildlife is left in this region,” said conservation scientist Goutam Narayan, credited with saving the critically endangered pygmy hog from going extinct in Assam, the only place it’s now found in the world.
The arrest of Moniram Rongpi, leader of the Karbi People’s Liberation Tigers, and members of his group in October confirmed suspicions about the involvement of international poaching syndicates with insurgent groups in Assam and other north-eastern states.
The illegal wildlife trade is the third largest illicit commerce after drugs and arms, according to security experts. No one is sure about the exact scale of the trade or its operations. Only when seizures take place do authorities and conservationists get a sense of the extent of the damage that poaching does. With the number of seizures having increased over the years, the inference is that poaching has burgeoned exponentially.
“Now there is at least one seizure in every 10 days,” said M.K.S. Pasha, associate director of TRAFFIC-India, the country unit of the wildlife trade monitoring network.
Another area of concern is the illegal trade in medicinal plants, about which very little is known. According to Pasha, more than 8,000 species of medicinal plants are illegally traded, with almost 90% of the species exploited from the wild.
There has been a surge in rhino poaching this year around the Kaziranga National Park. The rhinos are especially vulnerable during the floods, becoming easy targets as they move to higher ground. A rhino horn may fetch Rs.50 lakh or more in the illegal market.
A socio-economic issue
There is alarm among conservationists who see poaching devastating wildlife and setting back decades of conservation efforts.
Given the link with insurgency, the situation is moving beyond the scope of wildlife protection and management. Experts are describing it as a social problem, with economic inequality forcing many into poaching.
The illegal trade caters largely to the traditional Chinese medicine market. The victims are tigers, leopards and bears for their claws, bones, bile, skin and whiskers; rhinos for their horns and elephants for their tusks, apart from many others.
Others are also under threat: The otter’s skin is used in coat trimmings; the musk deer is hunted for its musk pod; the chiru for shahtoosh shawls; mongoose hair is used in paint brushes; snake skin for belts and leather goods, apart from the trade in live snakes such as the redsand boa; butterflies and spiders as curios; porcupine for meat and quills; monitor lizards for meat and leather; and fresh water turtles and bullfrogs as food.
In August, Interpol seized 1,220 pangolins (the scaly anteater) and arrested 40 people in an operation executed in South-East Asia against the illegal trade in the animals. That reflects the sudden rise in demand for certain animals used in Chinese medicines, which are becoming a fad, experts said.
Demand for Manipur’s rare Tokay gecko has surged, with an adult fetching as much as Rs.20 lakh in the illegal wildlife market. The gecko can supposedly cure AIDS.
Marine species are also suffering. Sharks, sea turtles, sea cucumbers and sea horses are hunted for food and used in Chinese medicine.
In the Gulf of Mannar, the forest department seizes processed sea cucumbers on a regular basis. In April, the forest department seized 75kg of processed sea cucumbers along with equipment and vessels.
This “was derived from approximately 300 live animals”, said Shekhar Kumar Niraj, director of the Gulf of Mannar Marine Biosphere Reserve.
In April, TRAFFIC-India found 3,389 online advertisements for wildlife products such as tiger bones, elephant ivory, rhino horns and hawksbill turtle. In July, more than 8,700 birds, mammals and insects were confiscated. Around 4,000 people were arrested in an operation spanning 32 countries coordinated by Interpol against the illegal trade.
Interpol pegs the total value of illegal wildlife trade at $20 billion (around Rs.1.1 trillion) annually. Havocscope, an Internet database that tracks black market economies, puts the value of wildlife smuggling and poaching at $32 billion.
“Illegal wildlife trade today is a well established business with a vicious circle of well-networked operators offering high gain with low-detection probability,” Pasha of TRAFFIC-India said. “Earlier, it was just China, but now with economic growth and prosperity in other South-East Asian countries like Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam, prices have gone up three to four times during the past year.”
Officials at Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB), under the ministry of environment and forests, declare that in cases related to trade of iconic species such as tigers, the offenders are more or less known. They mostly belong to the Bawaria tribe, while some are from the Bahelia and Paradhi tribes in and around central India. Most are repeat offenders.
One of them, Bheema Bawaria, was caught with tiger skin and bones in Gurgaon on 1 August through a joint operation by the National Tiger Conservation Authority, non-governmental organization (NGO) Wildlife SOS, WCCB, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), the Haryana Forest Department and Haryana Police. Bawaria had been absconding since 2009 and has several wildlife crime cases pending against him.
Poaching has been the main source of income for these tribes for generations, said a senior official who didn’t want to be identified.
“We need the help of social scientists here to show these people a new way of life. Today, it doesn’t matter to the Bawarias if they are in jail or out of jail as they don’t have any other skills,” this person said. “Living below the poverty line, they have no other options.”
WCCB officials are hopeful that in the next three-four years they will be able to curb the illegal trade, provided these nomadic hunting tribes can be encouraged to take up another livelihood.
The Wildlife Protection Act was enforced in 1972, banning hunting in India. But poaching continues, by organized gangs for illegal trade; by indigenous people for food; by the local mafia for exotic meat such as venison, which is then sold in the domestic markets; and by influential people for sport.
In Nagaland, indiscriminate hunting by locals for bush meat has wiped out most of the wildlife in the region.
There’s also a trend among the Indian rich to have their own collection of exotic birds and animals. Collectors are ready to go any length to acquire a rare specimen.
Trading in exotic birds
In the monsoon session of Parliament, environment minister Jayanthi Natarajan said the export of live exotic birds is prohibited except for Albino budgerigars, budgerigars, Bengali finches, white finches, zebra finches and the Java sparrow.
India is a signatory to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), but it is still to be incorporated in the Wildlife Protection Act. Hence, species that are not on the CITES list can be easily procured and bred for the pet trade.
There is the breeding and trade in India of birds such as African grey parrots, macaws, Gouldian finches, Eclectus parrots, cockatoos and cockatiels. They are also cross-bred to get hybrids. Mutations with new colour combinations fetch a high price in the pet market. There is no database for these evolving new species of birds.
According to Abrar Ahmed, an expert on the bird trade, more than 450 of the approximately 1,300 Indian species have been documented in the bird trade.
“With awareness and strict enforcement of wildlife laws on birds, the trade of common species in the open market has decreased. Former bird exporters, dealers and trappers now focus either on exotic birds or on species that are not openly displayed because of their highly specialized demand. These command a very high price,” said Ahmed.
Species of owls, falcons, parakeets, munias and hill mynas are found in the many known bird markets in the country such as Baheliya toli in Varanasi, Kumar mohalla in Meerut, Mehboob chowk and Pardi-wara in Hyderabad, Metia bruz/Narkel Danga in Kolkata, Russel market in Bangalore, Old iron market (behind Moore market) in Chennai, Vagri basti in Ahmedabad and Mirshikar toli in Patna, among others.
Even the house crow is sold in some markets as it caters to a superstition that releasing them on certain nights wards off evil.
According to Ahmed, birds like owls are sold at a premium and delivered to the client’s doorstep. Therefore, such trade remains undocumented, as the traditional business has gone underground. The trade of owls is widespread and thus poses a potential conservation threat (Mint, 10 October 2011, “Open season on owls in India”).
Despite the ban in domestic wild birds, the live bird trade is widespread across the country. Birds continue to be trapped and sold as pets, for use in superstitious rituals or exports.
On a visit to the well-known Sunday bird market in Galiff Street in Kolkata, this writer didn’t find any big expensive birds, but the market was full of parakeets, munias, budgerigars, lovebirds, zebra finches, Gouldian finches and Java sparrows.
Preventing a ‘bigger issue’
Keeping them company were aquarium fish, puppies, pigeons, guinea pigs, rabbits and plants. The police is aware of the trade.
“For generations they are only selling birds,” an officer said on condition of anonymity. “If we intervene, they will move on to other things like drugs and robbery. This will create a bigger problem.”
Among animals, tamarins and loris (both types of monkey) are now in great demand. Any species that is not protected by CITES can easily be procured, but the documents are not always clean, according to a trader.
The three main entry points are the Indo-Nepal and Indo-Bangladesh borders, and Kochi. Some of these exotics animals are put on display, as were a pair of zebras and giraffes at a wedding in Punjab, according to a breeder. Meanwhile, another person is said to be on the lookout for a rare leucistic Agami lizard (flying lizard), for which he’s ready to pay Rs.2.5 lakh.
In South-East Asia, there is great demand for the Indian star-shelled tortoise in the exotic pet trade. In August, around 300 such tortoises were confiscated by the customs department at Tiruchirappalli airport, foiling an attempt to smuggle them in pillow covers stuffed with puffed rice. In the last decade, data compiled by TRAFFIC-India shows a total of 42 seizures that led to the rescue of 26,000 star-shelled tortoises.
WCCB, set up in 2007, and the Economic Offences Wing of CBI are the two central nodal agencies tracking wildlife crime. They coordinate with multiple agencies such as the Sashastra Seema Bal, the Border Security Force, the Indo-Tibetan Border Police, the Railway Protection Force, Coast Guard, Customs, Assam Rifles and the Special Frontier Force. Apart from this, there are state forest departments and the police.
While coordination among the security agencies is vital, tackling the illegal wildlife trade isn’t high on their individual priority lists. Still, the involvement of insurgents and their funding through the illegal wildlife trade could force a rethink.
TRAFFIC-India workshops help bring some of these agencies together. The workshops also involve representatives from Interpol, the World Customs Organization and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
WCCB officials rue the fact that there is too much focus on iconic species such as the tiger, which is taking the attention away from other wildlife contraband. Strengthening wildlife enforcement in the country is one thing, but unless the government and NGOs address the social and economic problems in tribal communities that survive on the illegal wildlife trade, nothing much will change.
Hit List | After tigers, it’s the leopard’s turn
By Ananda Banerjee
New Delhi: On an average, four leopards are killed every week by the illegal wildlife trade, according to Illuminating the Blind Spot: A Study on Illegal Trade in Leopard Parts in India by TRAFFIC-India.
The report shows that at least 208 leopards are killed by poachers every year. Since 2001, more than 1,700 leopards have been poached according to seizure reports documented by the Wildlife Protection Society of India. In reality, the actual numbers are many times more, said conservationists.
The unrelenting poaching of tigers has put the species on the brink of extinction. There is huge demand for tiger parts that are used as aphrodisiacs in traditional Chinese medicine. But as demand rises, making it difficult for poachers to supply wild tigers, the focus has shifted to leopards. According to a former member of the National Board for Wildlife, leopards are disappearing much faster than tigers. Body parts of the leopard are easily passed off as those of the tiger, while the skins are sold as decorative items.
As tigers and leopards are predators at the apex of the food chain, they do not necessarily share the same territory. Overlapping of territory does happen at times, but leopards are abundant and widespread across the country, as of now. Also, the fact that there is no database on leopards, unlike tigers, helps those engaged in the clandestine trade.
Organized poaching gangs don’t have to operate only around national parks and wildlife sanctuaries. As leopards tend to inhabit fringe forests near human habitations, human-animal conflicts have steadily gone up, which makes trapping and killing leopards much easier for poachers.
In Uttarakhand, this problem has reached chronic proportions, accordingly to scientist Vidya Athreya, who studies ecology and the behaviour of leopards.