Wildlife officials log on to Amazon to catch illegal traders of animal parts
Photographs, in possession of wildlife protection officials depicting how male monitor lizard penises are extracted from their bodies in central India’s tribal belts, are brutal. In some cases the lizards, a protected species under schedule I of the Wildlife Protection Act — a status also accorded to tigers — are roasted alive over a homestead fire, force applied to their backs so that the organs protrude and can be yanked or hacked out.
The organ, called hemipenis, is being sold online as a miraculous plant called ‘hatha jodi,’ according to recent investigations by the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau and the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) that found that illegal wildlife trade is gaining traction on online marketplaces.
In May and June, the WCCB, an investigative agency under the environment ministry, carried out Operation Wildnet to nab suspects, but soon hit a roadblock when it came to making international e-retailers like Amazon comply.
Amazon.com, the American version of the platform, continued to list posts by those selling hatha jodi. On July 25, there were 6 listings for around $60, or ₹3,860, apiece.
“The internet has become one big marketplace, where you can reach more people,” said Tilottama Verma, who heads the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB), on the challenges for investigating agencies. With a list of nearly 3,000 keywords – which includes hatha jodi – officials trawled through online marketplaces and found suspect sellers on some of the most popular platforms, including Amazon, Flipkart, OLX.
Almost all of them, including Amazon’s Indian website, agreed to take down the listings except Amazon US.
Hiding in plain site
Online trade is a grey area as far as jurisdiction is concerned. There is ambiguity about the role e-retailing websites play in facilitating this trade, what their responsibilities are towards preventing it, and towards customers who genuinely believe they are buying plant products but are handed lizard penises instead.
Earlier this year, Amazon came under fire from India for selling doormats with the Indian flag on its Canadian website. It took a diplomatic effort and threats from foreign minister Sushma Swaraj for the listings to be taken down.
Is Amazon US culpable?
Amazon offered a variety of explanations for keeping the posts live on their US website. An Amazon India official, who did not want to be identified because she was not authorised to speak on the matter, said that WCCB had directed them not to take down the posts so that the agency could collect more intelligence about the sellers.
WCCB officials deny making such requests. Amazon later claimed that they were conducting their own investigation, but declined to share any details.
“We already have the information we need, we have not asked people to keep the posts live, that will only promote illegal trade,” said RS Sharath, a senior inspector at WCCB.
In their official statement, Amazon India said: “These products are no longer available on Amazon.in. We have engaged with the government and have provided our utmost support to help the government monitor the situation by providing all necessary information regularly and will continue to do so.”
But, on the American listings, an Amazon representative said: “We do not know if the items are fake or real, so we cannot take them down”.
“We want the posts down but we would need to go through INTERPOL,” Sharath said, referring to the International Police Organization.
Since Amazon’s international websites can be accessed by buyers in India, keeping products up after they are made aware of the misuse potentially makes them a party to the crime, legal experts argue.
“They are culpable under the Indian Information Technology Act because you can access the Amazon.com website from Indian phones and computers,” said Pavan Duggal, a cyber-law specialist.
Falling into the trap
Aniruddha Mookerjee, at the WTI, who led the NGO’s investigation, said the buyers include extremely religious people who are fooled by tantrics and so-called godmen into buying the product for its supposed magical properties.
It is unclear whether the people who extract the parts – mostly tribals -- are aware of where they are ending up and what they are used for. Much of the onus would lie on the actual sellers and suppliers who put up the posts, but in so far as the e- retailers are earning commissions or business through the transactions, they are culpable.
WCCB recognised that this was the case but the agency is relying on the companies’ cooperation to tackle the issue.
“The safety and well-being of our users and all living beings is of utmost priority to us. We have robust filters on our platform which disallows sale of animals or products prohibited for sale by Indian law. With the support of our technical filters we had no advertisements for ‘Hatha Jodi’,” OLX said in a mailed response.
“The message is that even online posts are not going unnoticed,” Sharath at WCCB said. “The challenge is to put a name, a face, and an address to the online post.”
Three years ago, recognising that there was a growing presence of contraband items online, the agency hired a cyber crime specialist Vishal Sagar. Sagar’s main job is to comb the web for references to code words like ‘hatha jodi.’
The bureau currently tracks about 2,000-3,000 keywords and new ones are added routinely as sellers keep devising new codes.
Such trade has not yet been detected on the dark web, which is tougher to track, especially by an agency like WCCB whose officials are understaffed and over-worked. Even if they are able to patrol the web better, the responsibility to take down posts would still lie with e-retailers.
WCCB held meetings with online retailers in May to sound them out about the misuse of their platforms and is now approaching them individually. The agency is coordinating with INTERPOL to spur action across borders, though in the case of the internet, it is unclear where the borders really are.