Smugglers of endangered plant species may now be dealt with as severely as poachers in a bid to protect the country's rich diversity of flora, although protection will come under wildlife laws and not the Forest Conservation Act.
India is home to about 12% of the world's endangered plant species but laws do not protect plants the same way as animals. The government plans to end this anomaly and provide legal protection to endangered plants and trees by incorporating a new schedule in the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972.
A senior environment ministry official said under existing laws, a person found with endangered plant species can be booked for illegally cutting a tree and sentenced to a maximum jail term of only six months and a fine of Rs 500. Killing an endangered animal, however, can put a person in jail for seven years with a Rs 25,000 minimum fine.
Environment ministry officials made a presentation to a high-level committee reviewing environment and forest laws, seeking the new schedule in the Wildlife Protection Act and want plants to be ranked on extinction probability. This means that the more the chances of a plant becoming extinct, the more the jail term for a person who is caught with it.
The ministry also plans to put a legal framework in place to deal with inter-state smuggler networks after the Andhra Pradesh government registered about 1,000 cases of illegal felling of endangered Red Sander trees.
The species, confined to the Eastern Ghats in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, is used in medicines, perfumes, facial creams and to make luxury furniture and has been seized at major international airports like Heathrow, Bangkok and Tokyo. A tonne of the shining wood fetches over Rs 5 lakh in the international market.
Similarly, Agarwood from the northeast and rare herbs and plant species from the Himalayan region are also in demand with smugglers.