India gets serious about stopping exotic wildlife trafficking across borders - Hindustan Times
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India gets serious about stopping exotic wildlife trafficking across borders, ramps up international security network

Mar 05, 2024 09:04 PM IST

The Centre recently notified rules to streamline the management and protection of wildlife species, including clamping down on illegal trade of exotic species

In the shadowy intersections of international borders and hidden markets, the illegal trade of exotic wildlife flourishes. This poses a dire threat not only to global biodiversity but also to the nation's rich natural heritage and, even public health, through potentially devastating zoonotic diseases.

The Indian star tortoise is a threatened species that is illegally trafficked(Courtesy Neil D'Cruze) PREMIUM
The Indian star tortoise is a threatened species that is illegally trafficked(Courtesy Neil D'Cruze)

Last month, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) director Praveen Sood highlighted the grave challenge of exotic wildlife trafficking in India during a regional investigative and analytical case meeting. This event, jointly hosted by the CBI and Interpol, brought together domain experts from India, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand, aiming to forge a united front against this illicit trade. The Indian delegation comprised officers from the CBI, Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB), and the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence. The WCCB is India’s apex body to deal with wildlife crime.

Exotic species traded

Exotic species are non-native animals or plants introduced in new environments, often causing ecological, economic, or health impacts on their adopted ecosystems. Exotic animals, both trafficked from and to India, include a diverse range of species, ranging from birds of vivid plumage to reptiles with ancient lineage, and mammals.

Jose Louies, joint director and chief of wildlife crime control, Wildlife Trust of India explained the rationale behind the trade.

“Exotic pet trade is all about getting what is non-native and rare into a country where the owner can show off with the animal. These animals become collectors' prized properties. Some exotics will lose their charm over a period of time as people will breed them and the animal will become more common in the regional market. Then the suppliers will look for another species which is more rare, and the cycle continues.”

Sometimes, the trade could also be driven by a demand for specific body parts of exotic animals, Dr Neil D’Cruze, head of wildlife research at global non-profit World Animal Protection said. “In many cases escalating illegal exotic trade is largely driven by lucrative market demands from beyond India’s borders, with a growing focus on the trade in both live animals and their body parts. There are a variety of drivers involved, wildlife is in hot demand for luxury use as pets, decoration, entertainment, and traditional medicine.”

Exotic wildlife species caught in the web of illegal trade to and from India

Meanwhile, the smuggling of native species of India going to other countries include mostly turtles and tortoises, the WCCB maintains. “The Indian Star Tortoise, which is listed under Schedule IV of the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972, and Appendix II of CITES, and native to India, is notably the most trafficked species in this illegal trade," HV Girisha, director, WCCB, said.

According to WCCB’s official list, the illegal trade of species entering India ranges from a variety of animals, from the unique Albino Porcupine and Sugar Glider, the Ball Python, to the endangered Aldabra Tortoise and the charismatic Marmoset Monkey. The list extends to include a spectrum of iguanas (blue, green and hyacinth iguanas), the Spotted Cuscus (a kind of marsupial), as well as the elusive Golden-headed Lion Tamarin (a marmoset) and the diminutive Pygmy Marmoset, among others.

Notably, the Fennec Fox, African Spurred Tortoise, Tegu Lizard, and Radiated Tortoise are also part of this illicit trade, alongside the Gerbil, Red-Eared Sliders, Fiery Squirrel, Kangaroo, and various primates like the Capuchin and Spider Monkey.

Among exotic birds, Green and Blue Macaw and Copper Teal are smuggled across borders.

Among exotic birds, Green and Blue Macaw is smuggled across borders.(Courtesy Neil D’Cruze)
Among exotic birds, Green and Blue Macaw is smuggled across borders.(Courtesy Neil D’Cruze)

"Most of the birds come through land from the northeastern parts into India while the reptiles come through airports. Owing to the colour, being vegetarians, and easy handling, iguanas and snakes like the ball python are illegally brought as part of the pet trade,” said Girisha.

Tito Joseph from the Wildlife Protection Society of India highlights a few more species.

"From Star Tortoises to Peacock tail feathers, Grey Junglefowl feathers, Molluscs, and body parts of both big and small cats, to the critical pangolin scales, sea cucumber, luxurious shahtoosh, and precious red sanders, the smuggling of these Indian species to foreign lands is a grievous blow to our biodiversity,” he said.

Scale of the problem

According to the WCCB, the period from 2011 to 2020 witnessed approximately 140 seizures of live exotic wildlife species. This figure was further accentuated by a discernible uptick in recent years, with more than 40 seizures recorded at airports and 28 seizures of exotic species from land borders between 2021 and 2023 alone.

India, together with the other countries that took part in this meeting, is intricately involved as a “recipient” in the web of exotic wildlife trade, said Girisha.

“The notable increase in seizures is a testament to the burgeoning issue at hand. Nationals from each of these five nations have, at various junctures, been apprehended at airports, entangled in the illegal trade of exotic animals. This underscores the necessity of a unified approach to data gathering, analysis and overall information exchange,” he said.

Girisha highlighted the need to decipher the complex networks facilitating this trade.

“Our objective is twofold: to delineate whether we're confronting a singular, organised syndicate or a series of independent operators, and to forge a robust alliance with our counterparts in these countries. By sharing intelligence and resources, we aim to dismantle the foundations of this illicit trade," he said.

Various agencies are already collaborating across borders to initiate investigations. Such cross-border information exchange is facilitated through Interpol's office, the National Crime Bureau (NCB).

“Each of the member countries hosts an Interpol NCB serving as the pivotal conduit for communication. This formal channel ensures that information flows seamlessly among nations, enabling a coordinated response to dismantle illegal trade networks,” said Girisha.

Trafficking routes: a complex web

The routes used for these nefarious activities are as complex as they are covert. Smugglers exploit porous borders, leveraging land and air pathways to transport these animals across continents. “Sea routes are not as prevalently used in trafficking as air and land," explained Girisha. “The journey by sea can take months, whereas aviation offers a mere three to four hours of transit time. Additionally, land routes provide a relatively safer means to transport and maintain the integrity of the smuggled goods, making them a preferred choice for traffickers.”

The elusive Golden-headed Lion Tamarin marmoset is on the official list of the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau as a trafficked species.(Matt Flores/Unsplashed)
The elusive Golden-headed Lion Tamarin marmoset is on the official list of the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau as a trafficked species.(Matt Flores/Unsplashed)

On land, the smuggling of wildlife often involves the transport of body parts from big and small cats, pangolins, and ivory. “These activities predominantly occur through the porous borders with Nepal, Bangladesh, and Myanmar. The land routes, especially via Mizoram, Manipur, and West Bengal from Myanmar and Bangladesh to India, are crucial for the movement of these illegally traded goods, offering traffickers a semblance of safety and ease in transportation,” said Tito Joseph of Wildlife Protection Society of India.

In the realm of air trafficking, the dynamics shift towards using the vast network of international flights to move contraband. “Via air mostly employs the Foreign Post Office and flights destined for Europe, the Middle-East, the US, East, and Southeast Asia. The major airports in Bengaluru, Chennai, Mumbai, Trichy, and New Delhi are identified as the primary landing spots for these illicit cargoes,” added Joseph.

This method of trafficking is particularly chosen for smuggling a variety of species, including ball pythons, cockatoos, capuchin monkeys, iguanas, kangaroos, macaws, and marmoset monkeys, showcasing the broad scope and international demand driving this illegal trade, he highlighted. “The sea routes, while as less recorded, include certain items like red sanders, shark fins, and molluscs, with the Middle-East, China, Malaysia, and Singapore being the primary destinations,” said Joseph.

An amended law, and new regulations

On February 28, the ministry of environment, forest, and climate change (MoEFCC) issued a notification introducing the Living Animal Species (Reporting and Registration) Rules 2024. These rules mandate the reporting and electronic registration of possession of any animal species listed in Schedule IV to the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972. The registration process requires a detailed application, including a declaration and proof of acquisition for species acquired before the commencement of the Wild Life (Protection) Amendment Act 2022, or relevant import licences and CITES permits for those acquired thereafter.

The rules aim to streamline the management and protection of wildlife species, enhancing conservation efforts and legal compliance, said Girisha.

“From the handling of exotic animals by owners and breeders to the detailed reporting of their offspring, deaths, and even relocations within the country, every action is now being meticulously charted and mandated to be reported to the chief wildlife warden of respective states. This extends to traders as well, who are required to maintain an updated stockbook and report their inventories online via Parivesh, a dedicated portal hosted by the MoEFCC. These regulations form a stringent yet essential framework designed for the states to enforce diligently, ensuring the trade remains regulated and within the bounds of legality,” he said.

The role of the WCCB becomes pivotal when these regulations are breached.

The Blue Iguana is an exotic species brought into India(Courtesy Neil D’Cruze)
The Blue Iguana is an exotic species brought into India(Courtesy Neil D’Cruze)

India's legislative framework for curbing exotic wildlife trade was strengthened with the amendment of the WLPA, which aligns India's national legislation with its obligations under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

The amendment sought to enhance the protection of endangered species by introducing new schedules for species listed under CITES, improving the management of protected areas, and rationalising the schedules that list wildlife species.

“While amendments in the act are good, the implementation is the weak link here,” said Louies. “Arrests and recovery of animals do happen, but not much investigation to find the depth of these networks and kingpins. Documentation is key as cases need to stand in the court to get convictions for the accused. Unless in depth investigations to disrupt the networks and proper followup in the courts happen, the WLPA provisions will not achieve its desired results.”

Impact of trafficking

The impact of this trade is profound and multifaceted. Beyond the immediate threat to the survival of these species, trafficking of exotic species undermines conservation efforts, disrupts ecosystems, and can introduce invasive species that threaten local wildlife.

“It's bad news for biodiversity in the source and destination countries,” said Louies when speaking about the impact of such alien and invasive species. “The red-eared slider is the best example in India or the Burmese Pythons in Everglades. There are countless other examples like the Piranha, African Catfish, Alligator gar etc. In the Indian freshwater bodies are also good examples where the native biodiversity is affected by these invaders. The threat is largely from reptiles and fishes as they will breed faster and if a suitable ecosystem is found, they will thrive, replacing the native fauna.”

Moreover, the close contact between humans and these wild animals during capture, transport, and sale increases the risk of zoonotic diseases, which can lead to epidemics and pandemics, as witnessed due to the impact Covid-19 globally. “Details such as animal quarantine certificates among other key details of every species are crucial to be reviewed at all entry points across land and air routes to ensure how any species can alter the native biodiversity,” said Rudolf Alvares, deputy director, WCCB.

As the world grapples with the consequences of habitat loss and climate change, the added pressure of wildlife trafficking exacerbates the challenges facing endangered species in India and beyond, highlighting the urgent need for comprehensive solutions to protect the planet's irreplaceable natural wonders.

Badri Chatterjee works as a Senior Communications Manager (South Asia) at ICLEI South Asia, that works on local action for global sustainability. The views expressed are personal.

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