People wear face mask to protect against coronavirus, Mumbai, March 12, 2020(HT PHOTO)
People wear face mask to protect against coronavirus, Mumbai, March 12, 2020(HT PHOTO)

The world is paying a price for the illegal wildlife trade

India must not deplete wildlife habitats and its inhabitants, and make protecting the natural world a national priority
By Valmik Thapar
UPDATED ON MAR 13, 2020 05:24 PM IST

India faced its first poaching crisis in 1992, thanks to a huge demand for tiger skins and body parts from China. When I heard this, I wrote to the Dalai Lama about how Tibetans were also involved in the smuggling of dead tigers. I received an immediate response from him, indicating his support for conservation.

In a letter dated February 15, 1994, he wrote: “I am extremely disappointed to receive reports indicating the involvement of Tibetans in the illegal trade of tiger skins, bones etc. I am also told that Tibetans maybe involved in the killing of animals for these products. These are totally against the basic Buddhist concept of reverence for life and my personal concern for animal life, plants the environment and the planet itself… I hope that the people who are involved in these despicable activities will be punished properly.”

For the next two decades, however, India faced huge demand pressure from China, including Tibet, for both tiger and leopard body parts. This changed in 2010 because of better enforcement and the Chinese demand on African wildlife. The result: African wildlife populations plummeted, claim experts.

In the 1990s, I was part of the Indian government’s Tiger Crisis Cell, and by 2005, after the tigers of Sariska (Rajasthan) and the Panna (Madhya Pradesh) reserve forests vanished, I was inducted into the Prime Minister’s Tiger Task Force.

As part of the task force, I witnessed the terrible impact of the wildlife trade from close quarters. From 1990 to 2010, demands from the Chinese markets accounted for the death of more than 500 tigers, and at least 1,000 leopards.

In these two decades, endless international investigations were done on China’s wildlife markets and reports sent to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. But few had the guts to act against China’s wildlife markets, and the nation also stalled action against it. But a small bunch of wildlife protectors hammered on, revealing the live trade in bats, civets, snakes, pangolins, porcupines, and even tigers and bears. Most dismissed these people and their investigations. The markets went on as animals were cut up and consumed; be it as tiger penis soup or bone wines, and hundreds of animal parts were used as so-called medical cures. This use was justified as it was regarded as a traditional medicine and a part of China’s traditional past, making it “acceptable”.

Even in 2002, when the Sars virus arrived, few heeded the warnings of wildlifers, even though this virus started from the consumption and destruction of horseshoe bats. Experts say that the novel coronavirus was born in the wildlife market of Wuhan in China in late 2019. Since wildlife markets put humans in close proximity to live and dead animals, viruses that live only in animals mutate and infect humans.

The illegal wildlife markets of China, which has flourished for decades, must not be allowed to function. The same holds true for wildlife markets in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia. The ban on them has come too late. The damage has already been done.

The coronavirus missile from Wuhan in China has spread across the world. It has resulted in huge human suffering and death. Economies are coming to a standstill and the losses could run into trillions of dollars unless a vaccine is developed soon. The planet is in chaos and fear — 300 million children are not going to school, planes have been grounded and travel has been put on hold in many places. With people staying indoors and economic turmoil staring us in the face, the fear is now very real.

The world must decide to fix accountability for this crisis. I only know that the wildlife warrior has to be saluted for his never-ending warnings. Across the world, ignorant and insensitive politicians and bureaucrats must learn and be made accountable for their inactions. Many have complimented China for the way it contained the coronavirus, but the world has conveniently forgotten the huge wildlife markets that flourished despite repeated warnings over two decades, and were never closed down.

What can India learn from this episode?

Don’t take short cuts that deplete wildlife habitats and their inhabitants. Developing super infrastructures cannot be at the cost of wildlife or natural landscapes.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi chairs the National Board for Wildlife. It has not met for years. The prime minister must now convene a meeting to discuss wildlife and its protection, and not just to clear projects. Our business leaders must understand that saving wildlife is not an elitist activity. We need corporate wildlife responsibility. Protecting the natural world must be a national priority.

We cannot afford another coronavirus episode. As I write this, over 125 countries are infected with the virus with more than 1250,000 people infected and more than 5,000 dead. The figures are rising and could be much higher. Heed this warning and don’t destroy the natural world. If we do so, we will pay a heavy price.

Valmik Thapar has worked for 43 years with wild tigers. He has also written 30 books on India’s tigers and wildlife
The views expressed are personal
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