930 pieces of ‘black corals’ worth ₹50-K seized from MMR, 2 held
In a first in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR), the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB) and Maharashtra forest department on Sunday arrested two men from Jalna for illegal possession of 930 pieces of corals, which are worth ₹50,000 in the Indian market. Sanjay Jugraji Duggad, 51, and Sanjay Vishnu Nikalaje, 38, had brought the protected marine species to MMR for sale.
WCCB said they identified the species as black corals (Antipatharians), which are deep sea corals used to make jewellery, medicines, decorative items, and even used in vastu beliefs (material peace).
Based on the images shared by HT with the Zoological Survey of India and Tuticorin-based Sugandhi Devadasan Marine Research Institute, both institutes confirmed that the species was black coral but of gorgonian type coral species, Echinogorgia species. “This is also commonly called as black coral, placed under schedule 1 (part 1VA) of Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. This gorgonian coral species is recorded from Gulf of Mannar, Lakshadweep, and Andaman Islands with Indo-European Australian distribution,” said Dr Patterson Edward, director of the Tuticorin-based Sugandhi Devadasan Marine Research Institute.
Corals are schedule 1 species under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, meaning corals have the same protection as that of a tiger or a leopard. The quantum of punishment in offences related to smuggling and handling of corals can lead to jail term of three to seven years. Corals are marine invertebrates that attach themselves to rocky intertidal regions or the ocean floor, and are carnivorous animals.
Both arrested accused were produced before a district court at Panvel on Sunday and were granted forest department custody for further investigations till November 20. A four-wheeler Mahindra Xylo, used by the accused, was also seized by the team.
“On interrogating the accused, we have identified an entire nexus working out of Maharashtra that acquires these corals from Kanyakumari, Tamil Nadu,” said Nandkishore Kupte, assistant conservator of forest, Panvel division. “The accused purchased these black corals from a seller in Marathwada. A team will be leaving for the exact location (cannot be disclosed at the moment) to crackdown on this nexus across the state.”
“The collection of these species, dead or alive, is completely banned under Indian laws. They can neither be exported nor imported. However, there is an illegal black market for these types of corals, especially across Southeast Asia,” said Dr EV Muley, former additional director, Union environment ministry. Muley was also the national coordinator for UN’s Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network (2006-2010).
WCCB said this was the first-ever case related to coral seizure reported from MMR.
“Earlier this month, the Karnataka forest department had seized some sea fans (gorgonians – another soft coral species), and arrested two people. During interrogation, they found out that soft corals were being supplied out of Jalna,” said M Maranko, regional deputy director, WCCB. “Based on this, senior officers from Karnataka contacted Maharashtra forest department and WCCB.”
Last week, both WCCB and Maharashtra forest department teams planned the operation and decided to contact the accused. “Both persons were willing to travel to MMR to deliver the corals, where a team of 10 officers (eight from the forest department and two from WCCB) had laid a trap for them. While they were expected around 5.30pm on Saturday, they arrived early Sunday morning and were immediately arrested,” said Maranko, adding that each piece is being sold for approximately ₹50.