Snake venom is believed to be used in traditional Chinese medicines as antidotes and by high-end drug abusers. (Photo Courtesy- Wildlife crime control bureau) PREMIUM
Snake venom is believed to be used in traditional Chinese medicines as antidotes and by high-end drug abusers. (Photo Courtesy- Wildlife crime control bureau)

Mystery of snake venom smuggling persists: Red Dragon Code 6097

One of the theories considered by investigators suggests that the venom originates from snake farms in Thailand and smuggled through Bangladesh, India and Nepal for its final destination either in China or in European countries
UPDATED ON SEP 15, 2021 04:37 PM IST

Snake venom estimated to be worth 170 crore has been seized from many districts of West Bengal since 2017. One such consignment was seized last week, bearing a familiar yet mysterious tag – Red Dragon Made in France Code No 6097.

The red dragon code, which means good fortune, has baffled the investigators for over four years as they have not managed to get to the kingpins of the illegal trade while carrying out arrest of small-time couriers, caught with venom stored in crystal jars, a wildlife crime control bureau officer said.

Snake venom is believed to be used in traditional Chinese medicines as antidotes and by high-end drug abusers. It has been recovered in states such as Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, Bihar and Punjab in the past few years with Bengal considered the hub of its smuggling. In all these cases, only couriers have been caught and the commonality was the red dragon code.

“We are still not sure about its origin, destination country and end use. What we do know is that it usually enters India through Bangladesh and is meant to be smuggled out through Nepal and Bhutan,” said Agni Mitra, deputy director (eastern region) of Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB).

One of the theories considered by investigators suggests that the venom originates from snake farms in Thailand and smuggled through Bangladesh, India and Nepal for its final destination either in China or in European countries. They also believe that in recent years, snake venom was extracted in places such as Tamil Nadu and Bihar for foreign clients and have not ruled out the possibility of it being used as a drug in India.

The suspicion that the venom was headed to European countries is based on the Made in France label on the jars. In 2017, the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence seized 1 kilogram of cobra venom in Bihar and said it was being smuggled to France from India. However, the directorate officials did not provide any information linking France with the illegal venom business.

Last Friday, the Border Security Force (BSF) seized three jars with the same code, containing around seven kilograms of suspected snake venom in three forms – crystalline, liquid and powder. Top officials of the agency said it could cost around 57 crore in the illegal market.

“The jar had markings: Cobra SP – Red Dragon – Made in France – Code No 6097. No one was arrested since the jars were recovered from an unattended, under construction house at Dakshin Dinajpur in north Bengal,” said a senior officer of the BSF’s north Bengal frontier.

In February 2021, BSF found snake venom estimated to be worth 24 crore from Uttar Dinajpur district, which was being smuggled to Nepal in jars having the same marking. These instances reminded officials of the West Bengal forest department of similar seizures way back in 2017 and 2018 when some of the first consignments were seized in north Bengal.

“Back then, the venoms were seized in crystal glass jars and sealed. They had the same markings: Cobra SP – Red Dragon – Made in France – Code No 6097. We had intercepted at least 11 such jars in three consignments and arrested 17 persons from north Bengal,” said a forest official associated with the case. All of them told officials that they were just couriers and knew nothing about the smuggling racket.

In one consignment, four kg snake venom was seized, officials said, estimating it to cost between 25–30 crore in the international illegal market. In other cases in 2017-18, venom, estimated to be worth 70 crore, was found, officials said.

To find out what type of venom was in the jars, the West Bengal forest department sent at least 20 jars to the Haffkine Institute for Training Research and Testing in Mumbai, which confirmed it to be snake venom. A former official at the Haffkine Institute, on the condition of anonymity, said that the jars came sealed with the instruction to use a laser gun to break the seal.

“We had a tough time as we were not sure what was inside it. It could have been anything from venom to explosive to some radioactive material. It was only when the analysts from both the defence research wing and BARC ruled out the presence of radioactive material or explosive that the jars were opened and tested. We found a combination of venoms in various jars,” the official said.

The analysis by Haffkine Institute made investigators consider the possibility that the venom was being smuggled back to India after some additions to turn it into a high-value drug. The venom in some of the jars was found in powder form, which the investigators believe could be for drug peddling. The jars found in Uttar Dinajpur last week had white powder; sugary crystalline and coca cola colour liquid, making investigators believe that the venom was for use as a party drug.

However, arrested couriers claim that the venom comes from Bangladesh and is headed to China via Nepal and Bhutan for use in traditional Chinese medicines.

“In some cases, a booklet was found with the jars, written in Thai language, which led investigators to suspect that the venom could have originated there and in other countries in south-east Asia. It was learnt that some farms in Thailand bred venomous snakes in clay water pots in banana plantations,” said a second WCCB official, who refused to be named.

He said Indian officials had taken up the matter with their counterparts in China and Thailand in the past with little headway.

“There was, however, no breakthrough. While the Chinese officials said that they produced their own snake venom and had no information of such illegal trade, Thailand officials too denied having any related information,” said the WCCB official quoted above.

Wildlife activists are also puzzled about the tag, the smuggling route and the consignment quantity. “The route seems to be rather illogical,” said Tito Joseph, program coordinator of Wildlife Protection Society of India.

“If we assume that Bangladesh is the origin, or even if it is a transit country, then why would someone take a longer route through north Bengal and then through Nepal and Bhutan to reach China when this could be easily done through Myanmar.”

He said that there were rumours that the snake venom was smuggled for use in drug parties as a substitute for narcotics in India and Nepal.

Experts also said that snake venom is required in very small quantities to produce anti-venom. Venom is injected in horses and when antibodies are produced in sufficient quantities, they are drawn and cultured to produce anti-venom.

“But that is required in very minute quantities and procured legally in India. Several kilos of venom seized over the years could be sufficient to meet the world’s requirement for a few years,” said a senior official of Bengal Chemicals and Pharmaceuticals, which earlier used to produce anti-venom.

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