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Illegal sea cucumber trade: Smuggling kingpin arrested in Lakshadweep

PUBLISHED ON JAN 22, 2020 05:23 PM IST

The Lakshadweep forest department on Tuesday arrested a person accused of heading an international smuggling operation in sea cucumbers, a protected species under national and international laws.

A consignment of 52 dead sea cucumbers weighing 10kg, worth 5 lakh, was seized from the Agatti Island home of accused Mukbeel KP. The contraband was being processed for export to Southeast Asia, said forest officials. The Navy, Coastguard and local police are probing the illegal harvesting of sea cucumbers in the seas off the Lakshadweep Islands.

Found at the bottom of lagoons and the ocean floor, sea cucumbers are single-branched marine invertebrates, ranging in length from 1.9 centimetres to more than 6 feet (1.8m). The species is in high demand across Southeast Asia (mainly China), for use in dishes and traditional medicine. The species is listed under Schedule I of the Wildlife Protection Act (WPA), 1972, akin to the protection for tigers, leopards or elephants. They also have protection under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), to which India is a signatory.

The animals cannot be traded and a ban on harvesting of sea cucumbers was imposed in 2001 under the WPA by the Union environment ministry.

A senior Union environment ministry official said the government was aware of an increase in sea cucumber smuggling in Lakshadweep. “The ministry’s regional office has been asked to take stock of the latest information and submit a report,” the official said.

Mumbai-based Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), that currently has researchers in Lakshadweep studying marine life, wrote to the Union environment ministry, highlighting the scale of illegal trade in the species. “After this latest arrest, the situation is getting murkier as it is being learnt that second-hand boats are being used along with satellite phones so that fishermen do not get traced,” said Deepak Apte, director, BNHS. “A thorough investigation is needed by an independent body, to put an end to this illegal trade.”

The arrest of the Agatti resident comes 11 days after the forest department carried out the largest seizure of marine animals from Lakshadweep Islands, with 172 sea cucumbers weighing 234kg worth 1.17 crore seized off Kavaratti Island. Four persons, suspected to be part of an international marine animal trafficking syndicate, were arrested earlier.

“A cognisable non-bailable offence was registered under WPA by the department at Amini court, against the accused. This arrest has dealt a major blow to the international sea cucumber trade in Lakshadweep,” said Damodhar AT, secretary environment and forest and chief wildlife warden, Lakshadweep. “Mukbeel was absconding from the mainland for a long time but we had information about his activities,” he said.

Damodhar added that they nabbed Mukbeel based on an intelligence report that he was traveling from Kochi to Agatti by flight. “A team of forest officers along with local police caught the accused as he was about to board the flight. Mukbeel was taken to Amini using a helicopter and produced before the district magistrate court that remanded him in judicial custody for 14 days,” he said.

According to Damodhar, the smuggling network collects sea cucumbers in the Lakshadweep Sea and sends them to Kochi, Mumbai, and Bengaluru, before they are smuggled to Sri Lanka, and further to Southeast Asian countries. “The second route passes through the Maldives and straight across to China and neighbouring countries,” he said.

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