Protected birds, animals sold openly inside Asia's 'biggest cattle fair'

  • Poulomi Banerjee, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Dec 08, 2014 20:06 IST

For a split second the humans froze, feeling as caged in as the birds and animals around them. Then began the desperate struggle to escape. "Close Chidiya Bazaar!" an elderly shopkeeper shouted. Others pushed and punched terrified visitors as they tried to make their way out of the crowded market before the gates were pulled shut. The few policemen present stood around watching helplessly. Somehow, I found myself outside the gate, as did activist Gauri Maulekhi and her companions. We were soon to find, however, that we were far from safe.

The Sonepur Mela or Sonepur Cattle Fair in Bihar's Saran district is as far from the idea of "shining India" - the image projected by successive central governments at international platforms - as can be. Here, might is right, and the law exists only on paper. This seems to be true for those legalities that apply to humans and is doubly so for those that apply to animals. Bihar tourism advertises the month-long event at Sonepur as the "biggest cattle fair" in Asia. Ironically, despite numerous wildlife protection laws, government propaganda and the presence of police at the grounds, the mela - held this year from November 5 to December 4 - continues to be a hub of illegal trade in wildlife.

At first sight, the mela strikes a casual observer as being just like any other rustic fair. Families dressed in their glittery best stop to buy cotton candy or coffee. A man with a microphone calls out to visitors to witness stunts on a motorbike for just Rs 10.

Chidiya Bazaar where trade in protected species like munias, mynas and parakeets is common.

The make-shift theatres feature large posters of numerous skimpily-dressed dancers, some of whom go by the unlikely names of Kareena and Katrina. Ferris wheels and small shops selling bangles and household knick-knacks complete the picture. Then there are the cattle pens, stalls for horses and goats that is the USP of the Sonepur mela and the Chidiya Bazaar, where a number of protected birds are openly sold.

The Sonepur Mela traces its history to the era of Chandragupta Maurya (340 BC - 298 BC), who, it is believed, used to buy elephants and horses across the Ganga. The original venue of the fair is said to have been the neighbouring area of Hajipur. Only the puja was originally performed at the Harihar Nath temple of Sonepur which, locals believe, was built by Rama while he passed through the area on his way to win the hand of Sita. The venue of the fair was reportedly shifted to Sonepur during the reign of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb.

Trade in elephants remained an important part of the Sonepur Mela until recently, even though the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 prohibits their sale and purchase. "Those who owned elephants before the Act came into effect were given registration numbers for the animals, but were forbidden from selling them," says Shekhar Niraj of TRAFFIC , a wildlife trade monitoring network. Acting under pressure from animal rights activists, the Bihar government has put a curb on the sale and purchase of elephants at the fair. However, elephants continue to be brought for display to the fair and activists believe the venue now acts as a meeting place for buyers and sellers, with only the actual handing-over of the animals taking place outside the mela grounds.

Protected species like niligai (above) being sold at the fair this year. (Photos: Raj K Raj / Wildlife Trust of India)

Kerala is a popular destination for these elephants. "There is a huge demand for tuskers during temple festivals in the state. A good tusker can fetch up to Rs 50 lakh in Kerala," says an activist who does not wish to be named. The animals are also sold outside India. "Two years back at Sonepur Mela I saw a mother elephant and its calf being sold to a buyer from Nepal for Rs 35 lakh. The buyer owned a resort and an elephant safari in Nepal," says the activist. Ownership doesn't change on paper. "The buyer is shown to have received the animal as a gift, or got the animal on lease," says the activist. Not all elephants at Sonepur Mela are those that were captive in 1972. A local source reveals that, of the approximately 40 elephants that visited the fair this year, 10 were unregistered.

The Chidiya Bazaar occupies a small part of the fair, but sees high footfall. Unlike most of the fair, this is an enclosed space. Just outside the entrance, a notice put up by the government shows pictures of the species of birds that are protected. Trade in these birds is banned or restricted. Pictures of parakeets, mynahs, hill mynahs, shikras and munias are prominent. Hardly anyone spares a glance at the notice and a brisk business in exactly these species is conducted inside the bazaar alongside the legal trade in varieties such as the lovebird.

Monkeys and langur, both of which are protected under the Wildlife Act, are also sold here. "I also saw a porcupine being sold," says a local activist. Hostile to curbs on their illegal trade, traders do not allow photography inside the market. It's only the prospect of a sale that makes these taciturn men turn chatty.

"He's only six months old. He will be domesticated easily. I will put him in a gunny bag and help you carry him to the car," says a shopkeeper, eager to sell me a monkey, even as the little creature desperately tried to break out of its cage. In the next cage, a forlorn langur sat curled up. Every stall in Chidiya Bazaar is a study in cruelty to animals. The shikras have their eyes stitched shut. "You need to speak to it so that it gets used to the sound of your voice. Then you open its eyes in the presence of the entire family," explains one shopkeeper. While most traders insist the birds and animals are bred in captivity, a few, such as Ashraf, admit that many are caught from the wild. Egged on by the prospect of a sale, he even gives me his mobile number. The Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, does not differentiate between protected animals caught in the wild or bred in captivity as far as trade is concerned.

"The act puts a blanket ban on the trade in animals mentioned in schedules I and II of the Act. Restricted trade may be permitted in animals mentioned in the other schedules of the Act with the legal permit of the chief wildlife warden, but investigation has shown the traders at the Sonepur fair do not have such permits," explains Niraj of TRAFFIC. TRAFFIC has been tracking the illegal wildlife trade in Sonepur Mela for the past 10 years. Activists point out that several species were sighted at the fair for the first time this year.

"This includes porcupine and nilgai," says Gauri Maulekhi, animal rights activist and co-opted member of the Animal Welfare Board of India. On the issue of whether the traders have the permission of forest officials to trade in these protected animals, Maulekhi says, "They wouldn't be so hostile if they were authorised sellers. Also, they provide no valid deeds of sale to buyers." Buyers at Chidiya Bazaar get receipts at the exit that mention the name of the trader but not which animal was bought or its price.

Shikras being sold at the fair. The shikra’s eyes are stitched shut. Buyers are advised to remove the stitches only after the bird has grown accustomed to the presence and sound of its new owner’s voice.

On Sunday, November 30, Maulekhi filed a written complaint at the Chidiya Bazaar police camp inside the fair against the illegal trade. But the activist and her companions, along with the team from Hindustan Times that accompanied her, barely escaped assault by the traders when she went there with the police and tried to shoot videos of the illegal trade. "We have tried to raid Chidiya Bazaar before but have been beaten up by the traders," said a police official at the fair on condition of anonymity. Maulekhi also met the District Magistrate (DM) and repeated her complaint. "The DM ordered an immediate raid but all the banned species had already been removed from the market," she rues.

"Fifteen days ago I had met Bihar's principal secretary (environment and forest) and told him of the illegal animal trade at the fair. He rubbished my claims. Illegal trade of such a magnitude can't be carried out without political patronage. The authorities are hand in glove with the traders and receive a share of the profits." On his part, Vivek Singh, principal secretary (environment and forest), Bihar, says checks are carried out routinely. "The divisional forest officer is present at the fair. Trade in elephants has been curbed. It is true that some birds are being sold illegally, under the guise of trade in permitted species, but we are trying to stop it," he says.

Maulekhi insists that Sonepur Mela is only the tip of the iceberg of illegal wildlife trade that's taking place in the country. There are hubs of illegal wildlife trade in almost every city. "Lalkurti in Meerut, Mir Shikar Toli in Patna, Galiff Street and Raja Bazaar in Kolkata, and Shivajinagar in Bangalore are infamous for illegal trade in live wildlife," says Jose Louies, of Wildlife Trust of India. Maulekhi agrees. "80 per cent of the illegal trade in wildlife is concentrated in Mir Shikar Toli in Patna and Kolkata," she says.

Illegal exports are also made to China, Taiwan, Thailand, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and the countries of the Middle-East, Europe and North America, says Niraj. Birds, snakes, star tortoise, spotted deer and even scorpions are in demand. "People buy them as pets, collector's items and for the products derived from them. There is also a demand in the underground scientific community for research purposes," says Louies. While there is no doubt that big money is involved, there are no authentic estimates of the worth of the market. "Globally, wild animals and products derived from wild animals are the second most-smuggled item. The estimated worth of the global trade is $ 15 billion per annum. We have no estimates of India's share," says Niraj.

While Louies pushes for better scanning to curb trafficking, Neeraj points to the lack of resources. "We don't have enough manpower at the frontline field enforcement level and what we have is not properly equipped to carry out effective raids," he says. Meanwhile, Maulekhi has written a letter to the chief secretary, Bihar urging him to raid Mir Shikar Toli. "We need a centralised uniform law to monitor all such animal fairs," she says. The principal secretary is preparing to act on her complaint. "We are in the process of putting together a team. We need to be well equipped because the area is sensitive," says Singh. The risk is high. Last Sunday, minutes after escaping Chidiya Bazaar, Maulekhi, her companions, my photojournalist colleague and I found ourselves pursued by a mob waving sickles. I dived into a stall hoping to get lost in the crowd.

"Where is the other woman, the one with the activist?" I heard someone shout. I had been identified. It was only by wading into a swamp and hiding in its cold, dirty water that Maulekhi and I managed to give them the slip. Activists in Delhi had warned of the hostility of these traders. This time, a young activist was roughed up and cameras were broken. The police and government officials were of little help and escorted us out while the traders were busy removing their stock. We escaped. The wild animals we had hoped to free continue to suffer in their wire prisons.

Now, relive some of the scenes at Chidiya Bazaar, where trade in protected species like munias, mynas and parakeets, as well as niligai and shikras is common, in the photos below:

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