Wildlife Week: It’s Time to Take on Trafficking More Seriously

In ‘Wildlife Week’, we get you a gruesome reality check on the wildlife trafficking.

Published
India
4 min read
File image of crime branch officers holding a seized head of a Royal Bengal tiger outside a hotel in Nagpur March 16, 2011. (Photo: Reuters)

Wild fauna and flora in their many beautiful and varied forms are an irreplaceable part of the natural systems of the earth which must be protected for this and the generations to come.
– Preamble, Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES)

This July, the UN General Assembly adopted the first ever resolution to fight wildlife trafficking and put an end to poaching. The resolution was adopted by 193 countries and comes not a moment too soon – in spite of international agreements and efforts, wildlife trafficking has spiralled out of control.

A worker holds a green turtle (Chelonia mydas) after unloading it from a truck in Denpasar, capital city of the province of Bali. (Photo: Reuters)
A worker holds a green turtle (Chelonia mydas) after unloading it from a truck in Denpasar, capital city of the province of Bali. (Photo: Reuters)

Just look at the numbers – the population of elephants in the world’s forests plummeted by an astonishing 62 percent between 2002 and 2011. Last year researchers estimate that in South Africa alone, a rhino was killed every eight hours. The tiger population at the beginning of the last century stood at 1,00,000 – today it hovers around the 3,500 mark. Illegal logging is estimated to constitute around 30 percent of all timber sales and illegal fishing constitutes around 20 percent of marine fish sales. Around five million wild birds are illegally traded every year along with millions of reptiles like turtles and snakes.

Understanding the Problem

Simply put, wildlife trafficking “is the illegal cross-border trade in biological resources taken from the wild, including trade in timber and marine species”.

Trafficking isn’t a new phenomenon but recent years have seen a sharp rise in wildlife trade. With improved means of global trade and communication, advanced systems for tracking and killing animals and increasing demand in East Asia, the illegal wildlife trade has seen unprecedented growth.

Long-tailed macaque babies are seen inside a basket as police seized a truck smuggling them from Vietnam to China, in Changsha, Hunan province. (Photo: Reuters)
Long-tailed macaque babies are seen inside a basket as police seized a truck smuggling them from Vietnam to China, in Changsha, Hunan province. (Photo: Reuters)

Authorities believe that transnational criminal networks are the main players in wildlife trafficking today. High demand and weak regulation makes organised wildlife crime massively profitable and one of the most high-earning international criminal activities – INTERPOL estimates wildlife trafficking to be worth around $20 billion per year.

What’s India Doing?

Location, rich biodiversity and lax enforcement have created a perfect storm and India has emerged as a major global hub for wildlife trafficking.

Illegal trade in India continues to be brisk and news reports frequently reveal attempts to traffic medicinal plants, red sanders, ivory, birds, pangolins, shark fins, star tortoises, turtle shells, leopard, otter, blackbuck and tiger skins, claws, peacock feathers, porcupine quills, sea horses, bones, rhino horns, and other animal parts.

A policeman holds a water bottle with a yellow-crested cockatoo put inside for illegal trade, at the customs office of Tanjung Perak port in Surabaya, East Java province, Indonesia. (Photo: Reuters)
A policeman holds a water bottle with a yellow-crested cockatoo put inside for illegal trade, at the customs office of Tanjung Perak port in Surabaya, East Java province, Indonesia. (Photo: Reuters)

India’s location makes it a convenient transit point for trafficked goods to access other Asian countries. Within the country, West Bengal is particularly notorious as a trafficking hotspot due to its “huge porous borders” and its access to international air, sea and road transport routes.

While India’s mega biodiversity is a rich source for in-demand plants and animals, lax enforcement mechanisms lead traffickers to believe that they can commit crimes with impunity. Most disturbing is the magnitude of the problem – by some accounts, “customs authorities multiply known offences by 10 to estimate the size of the illegal trade’’.

What Does the Law Say?

Legally speaking, along with prohibiting illegal hunting, the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 (WPA) also bans trade in over 1,800 species of animals and plants. The Wildlife Crime Control Bureau was set up in 2008 in order to specifically tackle the issue of wildlife crime and illegal trade. In addition, the Customs Act and other laws make trafficking a punishable offence. Finally, India is a signatory to CITES, an international treaty which attempts to regulate trade in protected species.

A Thai cop shows a baby crocodile with his mouth tied. 451 such baby crocodiles were seized earlier this year from small bags packed into cases after authorities received a tip off that a known trafficker was on his way to Thailand’s grey market. (Photo: Reuters)
A Thai cop shows a baby crocodile with his mouth tied. 451 such baby crocodiles were seized earlier this year from small bags packed into cases after authorities received a tip off that a known trafficker was on his way to Thailand’s grey market. (Photo: Reuters)

The problem, however, is that the laws relating to wildlife trade are in dire need of both strengthening and enforcement. We are still a long way from having a consolidated system to fight back against illegal wildlife trade – the piecemeal legal framework leads to delays and loopholes and there is a general lack of coordination between different layers of administration and law enforcement.

In the few cases where they are actually caught, traffickers are sanguine about relatively short prison sentences and long drawn out trials. The case of Sansar Chand, one of India’s most notorious traffickers makes it clear that better measures are required to punish organised wildlife trafficking syndicates in India.

Conclusion

While better enforcement mechanisms are important, trafficking and poaching thrive because there’s a market for those goods and all of us have a role to play, starting with just being aware and conscious about the problem. The Wildlife Crime Control Bureau runs a volunteer programme – if you can, do contribute your time and effort! And finally, remember that it’s not high value items which can be trafficked – it could just as easily include the turtle delicacy you’re eating in a restaurant or the coral you’re putting inside your fish tank.

A couple of Spider Monkeys, that had been found on a bus inside a bag with three dead monkeys, rest in a hammock at the Federal Wildlife Conservation Center on the outskirts of Mexico City. (Photo: Reuters)
A couple of Spider Monkeys, that had been found on a bus inside a bag with three dead monkeys, rest in a hammock at the Federal Wildlife Conservation Center on the outskirts of Mexico City. (Photo: Reuters)

Habitat destruction and increased man-animal conflict continue to be a massive concern but it may well be wildlife poaching and trafficking that deals a death blow to animal populations in India. It’s easy and convenient to just blame the poachers and the administration but wildlife conservation needs all of us to come together and do our part.

(This article is part of a two part series on wildlife poaching and trafficking in India. Read part one here)

(Shalini Iyengar is a lawyer and researcher working in India.)

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