Last week, a team led by People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) India raided a breeder in Dahanu, about 160km north of Mumbai, and confiscated two mouse lemurs and 40 other animals, including Chihuahuas, pugs, Rottweilers and others.

One of the mouse lemurs rescued by Peta in Dahanu, about 160km north of Mumbai

The raid illustrates how animal rights activists are becoming much more active in India in the absence of clear domestic regulation as well as lax government attention to such sales. The Dahanu raid was the fourth one conducted by Peta in the last six months.

“In our last three raids, we have rescued some birds, which came into Mumbai from Jharkhand, parakeets and turtles," says N.G. Jayasimha, manager of legal affairs and campaigns for the group.

In the Dahanu case, an online classifieds advertisement, which has since been removed, had showed these animals were up for sale. The breeder insists he wasn’t doing anything illegal.

“I bought the lemurs from one person in Delhi," said the breeder, Firoz Sama, in a telephone interview. “It is easily available there. And I did not buy these lemurs; I got this in exchange for dogs. The lemurs are not endangered in India. I am fond of animals and I did not know it is illegal. The seller told me it was legal."

Maneka Gandhi, a member of Parliament and the chairperson of People for Animals, a not-for-profit organization, says: “The lemurs and marmosets he (Sama) was selling are found only in Madagascar. Such businesses are the second largest illegal trade in the world. The size of the illegal trade in India could be around Rs5-6 crore a day. (They) used to import these animals illegally during nights. The ships would stop at Dahanu and they would bring the animals in without paying customs. When somebody wrote to us asking if keeping mouse lemurs was legal, we looked into the matter seriously."

According to Mita Banerjee, deputy director, regional wildlife office, ministry of environment and forests, these species are found in Madagascar and there is an international ban on trading these animals.

“Though we have no domestic legislation on trading lemurs, since India is a signatory to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), trading of these animals is illegal," says Banerjee.

CITES is an international agreement, signed by many countries to keep a tab on illegal trade of wild animals and plants. The convention protects more than 33,000 endangered species.

“Any live animal imported attracts 30% (of the total animal value) of the custom duties," says a custom official, requesting anonymity, adding that the import of these animals is banned. Besides paying custom duties, the trading of these animals also attracts a 12.5% value-added tax (VAT).

“This tax, known as VAT, is payable on trading of all animals other than cattle, poultry, sheep and goats, provided the value of business is more than Rs5 lakh," says a sales tax official, requesting anonymity.