Exotic animals illegal trade
In Myanmar, Thailand, and Indonesia there are exotic animal breeding farms. From there the animals are being smuggled to various countries, sources said. Representational image shows two common squirrel monkeys playing on a tree branch. Pic: iStock

Illegal trade in exotic animals booms as Indian 'pet lovers' go wild

Global wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC found in a study that there were 141 wildlife seizure incidents at 18 Indian airports between 2011 and 2020

If you are a wildlife lover waiting in awe over the return of the cheetahs from faraway Namibia to India’s forests for the first time in more than 70 years, you will be surprised to know that our love for the exotic has truly transcended boundaries.

So much so that the sight of kangaroos wandering the streets of Bengal to ‘passengers’ travelling with a suitcase full of iguanas and squirrels in Chennai airport are no longer breaking news. For, Indian ‘pet lovers’ are going ‘wild’ over exotic species endemic to places miles away from India.

In the past few months, officials have seized a number of exotic and unheard-of animal species from across small towns and big cities in the country.

Also read: Cheetahs: Their Mughal connection, and how they went extinct in India

What’s more, over 32,000 Indians have voluntarily disclosed that they possess exotic animals.

Seizure of exotic species

“The growing demand feeds into the deadly illegal wildlife trade which is one of the major causes for species extinction on the planet,” wrote conservationist Purva Variyar in wildlifeconservationtrust.org.

The boom in the illegal trade is evident from a series of seizures of exotic species, some of them endangered, by law enforcers from across the country in the recent past. The Mizoram Police earlier this year even made it into the World Book of Records for making the largest haul of smuggled exotic species this May.

The seizure included 442 rare species of lizards, 11 snakes (mostly albino pythons), four tortoises, four pattos (small primate), four three-toed sloths, two beavers and one wild cat.

The Federal Premium: The road to return of the cheetah is strewn with landmines

The same month, the enforcement agencies in Mizoram had seized kangaroos, rats, meerkats, white cockatoos and Burmese pythons.

It was not the first time that marsupials, found only in Australia and New Guinea, were sighted in India. Last year in July, Assam forest officials seized a kangaroo along with six macaws, three tortoises and two monkeys near the state’s border with Mizoram.

Effects of Myanmar coup

Forest officials in West Bengal on April Fools’ Day this year had a far more bizarre encounter. While patrolling in the forest they were stunned to find two kangaroos galloping in the wild near Gajoldoba, a popular tourist destination in Jalpaiguri district.

Officials suspected that traffickers had abandoned them in the forest.

Also read: Kangaroos in Bengal, and the sordid tale of exotic pets trafficking

The series of hauls, however, has so far failed to put a check on the illegal trade. Two large consignments have been seized in the north-east this month itself indicating that the smuggling is continuing unabated.

On the night of September 16, Mizoram Police seized two spider monkeys and an Indri Lemur from the possession of two persons. Earlier, on September 8, at least 40 exotic animals, including rare species of primates, tortoises, monkeys and a wallaby were rescued by the Assam Police from near Guwahati.

The surge in the crime is proportional to the increase in trading of endangered wildlife species and products in Myanmar since the military seized power ousting a democratically elected government in the country on February 1 last year.

Also read: Central wildlife bureau points to serious lapses in probe of elephant poaching in TN

“A sharp increase in smuggling of exotic animals and narcotics through the India-Myanmar border in Mizoram has been noticed since last year. The long porous border with Myanmar and military coup has made it easier for smugglers,” said Mizoram’s director general of police Devesh Chandra Srivastava.

Since the coup, Myanmar witnessed a 74% increase in online trade in endangered wildlife species, according to a World Wildlife Fund (WWF) report released in April this year.

In Myanmar, Thailand, and Indonesia there are exotic animal breeding farms. From there the animals are being smuggled to various countries, sources said.

Entry through Mizoram

Champhai, a small bordering town in Mizoram, is the primary entry point to bring the exotic species to India, Srivastava told The Federal.

From Mizoram, they are smuggled to mainland India via Assam and West Bengal.

Also read: Cheetahs have landed, but the real sprint awaits them at MP grasslands

Those dealing with the crimes said, earlier the animals were smuggled into India mainly through airways.

TRAFFIC, a global wildlife trade monitoring network, in a study found that there were 141 wildlife seizure incidents at 18 Indian airports between 2011 and 2020.

Chennai International Airport recorded the highest number of wildlife seizure incidents, followed by Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport, Mumbai and Indira Gandhi Airport, New Delhi during the study period, said the report titled “HIGH FLYING: Insight into wildlife trafficking through India’s airports.”

Also read: Jairam Ramesh shares the inside story of cheetahs’ homecoming

Wildlife experts attribute the rise in crime to penchants of a section of Indians to own exotic animals.

“There appears to be a growing trend of keeping exotic animals as pets. This led to the spurt in the trafficking in animals,” said Dr. Bibhab Kumar Talukdar, secretary general and CEO of Aaranyak, an Assam-based green group.

Legal loopholes

The trend was noticed after a voluntary disclosure scheme was announced by the central government in June 2020. Through an advisory, it had urged Indians to declare possession of any exotic live species that is animal or plant species that are not naturally found in India.

As per the advisory, no action would be taken even if the owners lacked proper documentation of the species.

The Ministry of Environment, Forest, and Climate Change received disclosure applications from 32,645 Indians, from 25 states and five Union Territories by February 2021, IndiaSpend claimed accessing data of the ministry.

Also read: No torture of animals even for illustrative purpose: HC

They are able to possess the animals because neither owning nor trading in exotic species fall within the purview of the 1972 Wildlife Protection Act.

The Act only prohibits trade in indigenous Indian species. This legal gap is being exploited by the traffickers as well as owners of exotic animals.

“A stringent law is imperative to check trafficking of exotic animals,” Mizoram DGP added.

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