13 times rise in quantity of sea cucumber seizures from India over five years: Study
Over the last five years, illegal trade involving sea cucumbers in India has witnessed a sharp spike. Over 27,166.5kg of dry, wet, and live sea cucumbers worth around ₹29.4 crore (US$3.9 million) have been seized so far, a recent analysis has revealed.
The study by Hong Kong-based non-profit environmental group OceansAsia has identified a 13-times rise in sea cucumber seizures over five years from Lakshadweep, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and the Indian Ocean waters.
According to the analysis, in 2015, three cases were registered, five persons were arrested and 980kg sea cucumbers worth ₹1.04 crore (US$141,610) was seized, while in 2019, 15 cases were registered, 41 persons were arrests and over 12,515kg of sea cucumbers worth ₹13.26 crore (US$1.8 million) was seized.
Between January and August 2020, 11 cases were reported, 15 persons were arrested, and 9,016kg of sea cucumbers worth ₹9.58 crore (US$1.3 million) was seized. Consignments were a mix of live, processed (dry and wet), and semi-processed sea cucumbers.
“There has been a significant increase in sea cucumber poaching and smuggling in the south of India recently, with Lakshadweep and Tamil Nadu now global hot spots,” said Dr Teale Phelps Bondaroff, director of research, OceansAsia.
Sea cucumbers are worm-like sea creatures that are single branched marine organisms (invertebrates) high in demand across Southeast Asia, mainly China, for food and traditional medicine. Protected under Schedule I under the Wildlife Protection Act (WPA), 1972, a trade involving sea cucumbers is banned. The Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) imposed a total ban on harvesting and transporting sea cucumbers in 2001.
Soumitra Dasgupta, additional director-general of forests (wildlife), MoEFCC and director WCCB said, “We are fully aware of the rising sea cucumber trade at Lakshadweep. Taking cognisance of the request from the local administration to reinforce protection measures, adequate financing under a species protection plan, including sea cucumbers, has been provided. The Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB_ is monitoring this illegal trade at ports, airports, and all other dispatch points, and regular follow-ups are in place to address this issue.”
In February, WCCB sought the Interpol to issue a Purple Notice (a category to tackle international environmental crime against criminals hunting wild animals).
Presently, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) taking over all major sea cucumber poaching offence cases in Lakshadweep.
The general modus operandi appears to entail sea cucumbers being poached from Indian waters and then smuggled into Sri Lanka. “This way sea cucumbers are laundered and can be re-exported to Southeast Asian markets,” said Dr Bondaroff adding, “An operation involves a couple of fishers in a small boat or gleaning on the shore, to larger groups using divers and operating several vessels in deeper waters.”
The Lakshadweep forest department confirmed OceanAsia’s figures were accurate if not more. “Lakshadweep became the source for this trade over the past year-and-a-half. The trade was at a small-scale earlier with isolated cases but witnessing the demand, local people got involved after being given access to satellite phones and the greed for fast money allowing a substantial rise in trade volume,” said Damodhar AT, secretary environment, forest and chief wildlife warden, Lakshadweep administration. To enhance protection, Lakshadweep declared the world’s first sea cucumber conservation reserve across 239sq km - Dr KK Mohammed Koya Sea Cucumber Conservation Reserve, Cheriyapani in February.
In August MoEFCC sanctioned ₹2.72 crore for 2020-21 to enhance security measures to curb wildlife crime. The ministry agreed to form the Lakshadweep Marine Wildlife Protection Force (LMWPF) by engaging 350 personnel and established three anti-poaching camps in uninhabited islands (Veliyapani, Thinnakkara, and Suheli Islands). Damodhar said recruitment of 200 personnel (part of the LMWPF) will be completed next week.
Sea cucumbers are typically sold dried, canned or frozen form, though sea cucumber powders and extracts are also available, the analysis read highlighting the spike in demand and prices over recent years. The price of a kg of dried sea cucumber that sold for the equivalent of approximately ₹221 (US$3) in the 1960s and sold for ₹4.400 (US$60) in the 1980s and ₹8,800 (US$120) in the 1990s, skyrocketed to ₹27,200 (US$370) in the 2000s, the study claimed. “The prices are even higher today. What’s worse, we have come across reports of the involvement of organized crime syndicates in the industry, with drug cartels in Mexico and the Yakuza in Japan getting involved in the industry or using the industry as cover to other illicit operations,” said Dr Bondaroff. “Destroying local sea cucumber populations can have a serious impact on marine ecosystems, wildlife, and people’s livelihoods. If poaching and smuggling are not curbed, the sea cucumber population will likely collapse.”
CBI INVESTIGATION UNDERWAY THROUGH VIDEO CONFERENCING DURING PANDEMIC
Meanwhile, the CBI has been investigating cases over the past two years via video conferencing during the Covid-19 pandemic, said Damodhar. “Due to travel restrictions and 21-day quarantine rule in Covid-free Lakshadweep, the CBI teams have not managed to reach the islands. However, along with our support and the Enforcement Directorate, all previously arrested accused will be rearrested by CBI to track down the nexus,” he said.
SCALE OF THE SEA CUCUMBER TRADE
OceanAsia, a marine conservation organisation based out of Hong Kong combating wildlife crime in Asia through investigation, research and awareness, compiled their analysis based on media reports between 2015 and 2020. “There are limitations to our research but we are currently working on a more detailed version looking at the global sea cucumber crime industry, which will be released around December,” said Dr Bondaroff. “It is good to see increased attention and vigilance on the part of Indian authorities. However, international and inter-agency cooperation is also needed, as many sea cucumber smuggling routes out of India appear to go through Sri Lanka.”