Internet chatrooms have become the latest hotspot for clandestine trade in wildlife. The websites allow buyers and sellers to communicate, view photos of exotic and indigenous animals, decide a price and even complete the transaction online, before the consignment is dispatched.
Trade of any native Indian species is illegal and falls under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. However, species protected under Indian laws may not be protected internationally, which is how the nexus runs.
But to avoid attracting attention of law enforcement agencies, animals are given code names — ‘latoo’ for turtles and tortoise, ‘scooter’ for snakes and ‘double engine’ for larger species of higher value.
“The single-most important factor fuelling wildlife trade on the Internet is anonymity. Most sellers use fake names and addresses, and change their email identities frequently,” said Jose Louies, head of enforcement assistance and law, Wildlife Trust of India (WTI). “Communications and deals initiated in open online forums shift to emails, chatrooms, discussion boards, making the process of identifying and tracking of the people responsible a difficult task for authorities.”
While a figure cannot be put on the extent of the illegal wildlife trade in India, Louies said, globally the black market generates $50 billion to $150 billion annually.
“Trade of a host of different exotic and indigenous species has increased by 100% since the 1980s and 1990s, with India being the primary source and one of the major destinations,” said BC Choudhury, wildlife scientist and former professor, Wildlife Institute of India (WII).
In the last two months alone, the Customs department in Mumbai has confiscated close to 400 turtles being smuggled abroad from the city. Similarly, close to 47kg pangolin scales were seized by Madhya Pradesh forest officials in the first week of May and a Kolkata-based businessman involved in smuggling these animals to China and Vietnam was arrested. In 2013, Customs at the Kolkata airport seized 10,043 exotic turtles being taken to Singapore.
“Reports from Kolkata, Ahmedabad and Hyderabad show an increase in the number of animals being traded over the past one year, for meat, house-pets and medicine,” said Milind Lanjewar, additional commissioner, Air Intelligence Unit (AIU) at Mumbai Customs.
Currently, WTI is investigating two websites – blackwaterreptiles.com and tortoisesupply.com. “The websites have no address of its operating location, all transactions are done in US dollars and net banking facilities are available. Most of the websites are based abroad and animals are freely sold on them since the species are not protected under India’s wildlife laws,” a WTI official told HT, requesting anonymity.
The websites have a shipment procedure with a seven-day guarantee, where they sell close to 500 different exotic species such as lizards, snakes, turtles, salamanders, crocodiles, newts, frogs, tarantulas, scorpions and feeder insects. According to experts, closed groups of traders who know each other and portray they are animal lovers operate the trade on social media platforms, going on to recruit other members and connect traders across the globe. Based on a large order placed online, traders put together the species at a specific location, which is further divided into smaller consignments and sent via air, water, cross-border trespassing and parcels.
“Even if 50% of the consignment does not reach the preferred destination, it does not matter as the profits reaped of the other 50% are humongous,” said Louies, adding WTI scouts web and social networking sites, picking up suspicious leads, and tracking traders by posing as buyer or sellers.