When three poachers were arrested in Assam’s Karbi Anglong district three years ago, it confirmed what had been an open secret for years: the state’s great one-horned rhinoceros was in severe danger because of rampant smuggling of its horns to traditional medicine hubs in Southeast Asia and China.
But what wildlife experts didn’t realise then was that the multi-million dollar rhino poaching business was just the tip of the iceberg.
The arrest of a top militant leader in November 2013 revealed that far more money rides on smuggling smaller animals found in the region, such as tockay geckos, bullfrogs, snakes, pangolins, civet cats, red pandas, slow lorises and macaques.
Most of these smaller animals are highly sought in the clandestine international market for their meat or in traditional medicine for their perceived curative and aphrodisiac properties. Bullfrogs, for example, are a European delicacy, while snakes are in demand for their skin in the lucrative international handbag and footwear business.
Alarm bells rang when Dilip Nunisa, chief of militant group Dima Halam Daogah, was caught in 2013 with two tockay geckos that fetch Rs 3-4 crore each in the international grey market. He apparently held on to the nocturnal lizards – believed to possess medicinal qualities to cure cancer, AIDS and even impotency – too long to negotiate the right price.
“Smuggling of lesser animals, equally if not more important than the bigger ones as ecological indicator species, is often overshadowed by the rhino horn trade,” said Bibhab Talukdar, chief of a Guwahati-based wildlife NGO.
A 2013 study by a network of wildlife NGOs in the region said 200-300 snake skins are smuggled out via Bangladesh every year, as are 150-200 pangolin scales and at least 1,500 bullfrogs. The illegal trade in amphibians was unearthed when 14 bags of bullfrogs were seized near Kaziranga National Park in 2007. The final destination for those bags was France, which legally imports up to 4,000 tonnes of frozen frog legs annually.
A rhino horn fetches up to $60,000 per kg in the grey market. An elephant ivory goes for $2,200 a kg; a tiger’s bones, skin and meat fetch $70,000 while a leopard’s body parts are a tad cheaper. Bears are killed for their paws, a delicacy that comes for $12-15 each, and their “cure-all” bile for $200,000 a pound.
The volume of trade in smaller animals is believed to be much higher. A poisonous snake, for instance, goes for an average $2,100 while venom fetches $215,000 a litre.
Apart from Bangladesh, much of the illegal trade in wildlife to Myanmar and beyond is through Dimapur town in Nagaland. Kaziranga suffers the most for its proximity to Dimapur.
“Kaziranga is the prime target for poachers, but fact is the rate of poaching has decreased from 5.66% in 1965 to 1.14% in 2014. That said, better protection has seen more poachers being killed or arrested in recent times,” the park’s director MK Yadava said.