On August 17, the forest department nabbed three Nepalese nationals who were in possession of hides of two red pandas and one leopard, from Siliguri’s PWD crossing. Initial investigations revealed that the accused were “habitual traders” in wildlife articles, who had procured the hides from Nepal.
Forest officials revealed that this was the first time that hides of red pandas and leopards were retrieved in the region.
This incident put the focus back on North Bengal, as a smuggling corridor for exotic animals and their articles.
In April this year, four kangaroos were found by forest officials in the region. Initially two kangaroos were rescued from Jalpaiguri’s Gajoldoba, on the night of 1 April. Hours later, the carcass of one kangaroo and an injured kangaroo were spotted in the Dabgram forest range. Three weeks ago, two men were caught trying to smuggle a kangaroo into Alipurduar.
It is pertient to note that kangaroos are not native to India or South Asia. The marsupials are mostly found in the outbacks of Australia.
Besides kangaroos, four monkeys, believed to have been smuggled from Indonesia were rescued by forest officials, in an isolated incident. According to the officials, the monkeys were rescued from a Siliguri-bound bus in Moynaguri, and were valued at Rs 1.1 crore.
North Bengal – The Smuggling Transit Corridor
North Bengal, especially the Siliguri corridor, is no stranger to the smuggling of animals and their articles. This is because of its geographical location, which puts it near Nepal, Bangladesh and Bhutan. West Bengal itself is a gateway to the North-eastern states.
Forest officials claim that northern West Bengal features in up to four underground trade routes, which spans across a 300-kilometre stretch of National Highway 27 and 31, from the Assam-Bengal border of Coochbehar in the east to North Dinajpur’s Islampore on the Bengal-Bihar border in the west. The route encompasses key locations like Jalpaiguri and Siliguri.
According to forest officials and available data, smugglers who are primarily from the North-East would procure exotic animals or their articles from Assam or Bhutan, transport it using National Highway 31 which connects Uttar Pradesh’s Unnao to Assam’s Guwahati and passes through Siliguri, all the way to Nepal through Siliguri. It is alleged that the articles are then smuggled to China and Indonesia from Nepal.
Because of increased checking on the said highway, smugglers allegedly now transport animals and articles through Phuentsholing, a small hamlet in the southern border of Bhutan and West Bengal, according to forest officials.
These articles include elephant tusks, horns and hooves of rhinoceros, hides of the clouded leopards, cheetahs, and snake venom.
Snake Venom by the stamp of ‘Red Dragon Cobra’ and a tag of ‘Manufactured in France’ has also been retrieved by officials along the Bangladesh-Balurghat-Jalpaighuri route. Meanwhile, Rhinos which have been poached for their horns in Jaldapara and Gorumara have also allegedly been linked to militant groups in Myanmar. This has led forest officials to suspect that the racket has a wide international reach.
To tackle this issue, forest officials along the Indo-Bhutan and Indo-Nepal border have been put on high alert with strict naka checkings using sniffer dogs to identify trafficked animals. A wide network of intelligence along the vulnerable areas have also proven successful for the forest officials as the recent nabbings have mostly been through tip-offs. A special task force has also been formed and tasked with the sole purpose of nabbing poachers and smugglers.
Forest officials and Wildlife conservationists believe suspect that the curb on cattle-smuggling and a ban on trading of Indian-species in India have prompted smugglers to smuggle exotic species, which over the years have become an organized crime racket, across the globe, with India being one of the hotspots.
Wildlife Smuggling in India
According to US based environment news platform , India is one of the top 20 countries for wildlife trafficking, and among the top 10 for wildlife trafficking by air. They further add that India’s megadiverse nature and high population makes it both a major source and transit area for illegal wildlife and their articles. Most of the wildlife is smuggled in India through air, primarily via Mumbai and Chennai airports which have statistically seen the highest number of nabbings.
Investigations have revealed breeding farms for exotic animals in Maharashtra and Karnataka, but it is suspected that the Kangaroos which were being smuggled were most likely being bred in some South-Asian country and being smuggled through the Siliguri corridor.
In such cases, locals primarily from the North-East act as middlemen whose job is to transport the animal or artefact from one border to another. In other instances, forest officials have reported that similar locals often aid poachers in hunting down the animal for articles.
When it comes to hides, the animal is skinned after being killed, and the skin is dried for a few days in an undisclosed location. It is then packed in bags and transported. For live animals, rescue operations and interceptions have revealed that most of the animals are transported in small cages.
What makes the situation worse is that smugglers are reportedly misusing the Voluntary Disclosure Scheme issued by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) in 2020 aimed at controlling the growing marked of exotic animals in India. This allowed Indians to declare the possession of exotic wild species without any documentation before March 15, 2021.
The loophole here is that the Wildlife Protection Act does protect exotic species. It only protects Indian species. So, there is no policy or law that regulates the ownership of exotic species.
However, this hasn’t stopped the selling of Indian species and their articles. Mongabay reports that the rampant killing of pangolins by Assamese tribes and the subsequent selling of their skin has endangered the animal. There has been a significant rise in demand for pangolin scales especially in the traditional medicine markets of China and Vietnam.
This comes after a global drop in demand for red sandalwood and ivory. However, there has been an increase in demand amongst citizens for exotic pets, both in India and abroad, which leads to exotic animals being smuggled to the country, and indigenous species being smuggled out of the country.