The arrest of two small-time turtle traders in North Kolkata in August has triggered a domino effect in what is turning out to be one of the largest wildlife smuggling rackets in the country in recent times.
In just three months, about 60 wildlife smugglers and traders were arrested from across India acting on information extracted from the two. At least 20 people from Uttar Pradesh, 12 from Maharashtra, five from Karnataka, five from Bengal and two from Delhi were apprehended. Aside from that, thousands of turtles and tortoises – both live and dead – and several kilos of meat were seized.
“It is one of the biggest wildlife smuggling rackets that has been unearthed in recent times in the country. The racket was involved in smuggling various species of tortoises and turtles for both the pet industry and for their meat. A major portion of the consignments was smuggled to China where there is a huge market,” said a top official of the wildlife crime control bureau (WCCB) in Delhi.
Acting on a tip off, WCCB officials in Kolkata caught Sambhu Mondol and Subho Dey from their hideouts in Sodepur in North Kolkata on August 6, where around 80 turtles and tortoises of various species were seized. Based on the information grilled out of them, several arrests were made in other states.
“On seeing the enormity of the racket, a red alert was sounded across the country and several other agencies including the forest department, police and even the special task force in some states were involved,” said a WCCB official posted in North Kolkata.
WCCB officials and the Crime Control Unit of the West Bengal forest department conducted joint raids in Galiff Street in Kolkata (where a Sunday pet market thrives), Sodepur, Bongaon in North, 24 Parganas district and Chandannagore in Hooghly district. Most traders were selling turtles under the guise of trading in ornamental fishes.
The racket also has roots in Delhi, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh. However, Uttar Pradesh has proven to be the biggest hub; centres in areas like Unnao and Shuklaganj have been a major source for these animals.
Several species of turtles and tortoises – including the smaller ones such as the tent turtle, star tortoise and crowned river turtle that serve the pet industry and large ones such as the Gangetic Soft Shell and the Indian Soft Shell which are killed for their meat – were smuggled both across the country and abroad. They included Schedule-I species which are categorised as highly endangered under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, and are accorded the highest protection.
A major chunk of the illegal consignment reaches Kolkata by rail and road from where they are smuggled out of the country through Bangladesh, Malaysia and Thailand. China, which associates these animals with wealth and fortune and as auspicious in Feng Shui, is a big market for these dealings.
Unlike large mammals such as the tiger, elephant or rhino, smuggling or poaching of these amphibious reptiles does not attract much attention. However, they are just as significant in the natural order of things.
“Turtles are vital for the ecosystem as they act as scavengers and clean up ponds and rivers. They also form an important part of the food chain. Decline in their population could have an adverse impact on the health of water bodies,” said Shailendra Singh, country director of Turtle Survival Alliance that works on freshwater turtle conservation.