51.5kg sea cucumbers worth ₹1 crore seized in Lakshadweep
A fresh consignment of 54 sea cucumbers weighing around 51.5 kg worth ₹1 crore was seized near Agatti Airport, Lakshadweep on Thursday. This comes amid the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) taking over all major sea cucumber poaching offence cases in Lakshadweep.
Acting on a tip-off, the Lakshadweep Sea Cucumber Protection Task Force seized the consignment consisting dead sea cucumbers processed with preservatives and kept ready for further transportation to mainland, said officials.
Sea cucumbers are invertebrates, which can grow up to 6 feet, and are high in demand across south-east Asia, mainly China, for food and traditional medicine. In India, the species is listed under Schedule I of the Wildlife Protection Act (WPA), 1972, and the Union environment ministry imposed a ban on harvesting sea cucumbers in 2001.
In February, the Lakshadweep Islands administration announced the creation of the world’s first conservation area, covering 239 square kilometre, for endangered sea cucumbers.
Officials said organised networks in Lakshadweep which export sea cucumbers for short-term monetary gains have been destroying the natural ecosystem. “We have learnt that the latest recovered consignment may have been part of six other similar ones (which are yet to be traced). This highlights that the illegal trade is still at large. Based on the size of the species, we believe they have been hunted from uninhabited islands where such large sea cucumbers are found,” said Damodhar AT, secretary of department of environment and forest and chief wildlife warden of Lakshadweep administration.
A case has been registered under WPA, and further investigation is underway to nab the offenders, he said.
Meanwhile, the Union environment ministry has agreed to form Lakshadweep Marine Wildlife Protection Force by engaging 350 personnel titled Marine Wildlife Protection Watchers (MWPW), who will be placed across 10 the islands. The ministry has sanctioned ₹2.72 crore for the 2020-21 fiscal which includes expenditure for establishing three anti-poaching camps in Veliyapani, Thinnakkara and Suheli islands, all of which are uninhabited.
“MWPW will guard these isolated locations through round-the-clock surveillance for all activities in lagoon areas to protect not only sea cucumbers but all other Schedule I species from poaching and prevent wildlife offences in Lakshadweep,” said Damodhar.
Marine biologist and interim director of Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) Deepak Apte said the issue needs to be investigated at both national and international scale on priority. “This is about the sovereignty of the territorial waters, because we are unaware of the links of these offenders. Unless punishments are strong, such risks will continue,” said Apte. “The fishing community has to be made aware that this is illegal. They should also be made aware that historically they have been a nature conservation-oriented community, and that such acts tarnish the image of islanders.”
Earlier on February 12, Lakshadweep witnessed the largest global seizure of the species as a consignment of 1,716 sea cucumbers worth ₹4.26 crore weighing 852 kg was seized from Suheli. On January 21, an international trade kingpin was arrested and a consignment of 52 dead sea cucumbers was seized. On January 15, 172 sea cucumbers weighing 234kg worth ₹1.17 crore were seized and four persons were arrested as part of an international marine animal trafficking syndicate. The fourth case was in November 2018 when the same trade kingpin (arrested on January 21) was caught with a 8.75-kg consignment. The kingpin, who was arrested, had managed to escape from custody back then.
In view of these three cases, the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau in February requested the Interpol to issue a purple notice (a category that aids efforts to tackle environment crime and issues notices for criminals hunting wild animals to sell their body parts in the international market).
Following this, CBI took over all the three cases.