E-Legal Trade In Endangered Species
In the virtual bazar beyond the pale of law, PRERNA SINGH BINDRA traps the illegal traders of wildlife
IT’S SIMPLE, buying peacocks on India’s newest market place for the booming illegal trade in wildlife — cyberspace. It took me just half-a-day; some browsing on the Internet and one phone call to be offered India’s national bird. Adults, and chicks, as many as required. This was through a classified ad website, www.adpost.com, which, among its vast menu, lists ads offering birds for sale, mainly ‘legal’ exotic birds. But that’s only for the public eye, a cover. The real deals are made over through private email and chatrooms. I picked on just one such dealer, Kanpur-based, who had advertised on the site. Within a few hours I — as a potential client — had in my inbox pictures of the birds “I can go ahead and provide”, including Alexandrian and plum-headed parakeets, the trade of which is banned under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. Plus a pair of peacock chicks, and a mature male, protected as a Schedule I species, which means they have the same legal cover as the tiger. For all that it matters — available, as they are, at the click of a mouse, from the many dealers trawling their wild ware over the Internet. Another one up for grabs is the star tortoise, also a protected and endemic species, with traders from Chennai “willing to have bulk order of Indian star tortoise”, at $500 per piece on a UK-based website, to those offering a “four Indian star tortoise for sale for good price. Plz write back,” in chatrooms.
The scale of the crime is much wider as a seizure in Meerut on August 26 proved. This is the first conclusive evidence of cyberrun wildlife trade in India that materialised out of months of online tracking by a Delhi-based NGO, the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI). The introduction with the dealer, Jeevan Thakur, was first made through an Orkut chat room. While talk was on for various rare and endemic species, the final deal was struck — through a false email id, fangsofmumba@yahoo.com, to be precise — for peacocks and hill mynas, both falling under Schedule I of the WPA. There was another prize catch — an albino civet cat — also protected by law. Civets are relatively common. This one, being an albino, was rare — if only for the purposes of the market, and the deal, after much bargaining, was arrived at Rs 2.35 lakh. Apparently Thakur had a customer from Dubai who offered Rs 5 lakh, but he preferred to sell in India.
On offer was a pair of cubs from the Isle of Man, UK: “12-week-old Siberian tigers are called Chikito and Niky. Male: $1,800, Female: $2,000. If you wish to have both babies, I am ready to let both go at $3,000,” wrote the seller, who has recently moved from Shanghai to England (with the cubs). She claims she has the necessary papers, but the legalities of keeping and shipping tiger cubs in the UK is suspect. According to experts, keeping tigers is illegal in England. This particular correspondence has been forwarded to concerned authorities. India has always maintained that it is in the cover of ‘legal’ trade that illegal trade flourishes, and endangers wild tigers.

The extent of Thakur’s trade was revealed when his cyber history was investigated — he used online social networks and ads to meet with potential customers, spread across India, the Middle East, Far Eastern countries and Europe. Other destinations where he smuggled wildlife are still being investigated. His booty of illegal menagerie included rare mammals like the slender loris, giant squirrels (primarily for the pet trade) and spiny-tailed lizards (its oil is used for aphrodisiacs). Birds were Thakur’s forte — Shaheen and peregrine falcons, golden orioles, peacocks, parakeets, sunbirds, barbets — you name it, Thakur made it available. Owls have a good market, especially the great horned owl, which fetches a huge price. One trader had even specified the weight he wanted; “1. 5 lakhs for a 3.5 kilos owl (live) for voodoo purpose.” According to Ashok Kumar, vice chairman, WTI, Thakur, and his brother Akash, also an accused in the Meerut case, have been in the business for at least a decade. Emails dating to 2003 reveal that Akash offered a decoy customer, besides endangered birds, python, and the critically endangered female clouded leopard.
“It may sound horrific, but the known cases represent little more than the proverbial tip of the iceberg — so tremendous is the scope of the web, and so little do we know about it, especially in India. There has been no study or survey, unlike in the US, and Europe — which reveals that everything is available on the Internet. Though impossible to quantify, there is no denying that the illegal wildlife trade on the Internet is alive, and growing by the minute,” says BK Sharma, who was formerly attached to the Wildlife Crime unit of the CBI.
While little is known of the extent of the wild web trade in the country, there is intelligence information mainly from overseas official agencies that ivory from South India, and shahtoosh shawls from Kashmir and Delhi are being peddled on the Internet.
This is also an indicator of the change in the profile of the trader — a new generation of tech-savvy peddlers is overtaking the traditional trader who conducted his shady business in the bylanes of old towns or in stuffy backrooms of bird markets in various towns. The market has changed from a ‘physical’ entity to a ‘virtual’ one — hence, more difficult to identify or control. One example being, the sale of a tiger skin that went unnoticed in 2002 on the website baazee.com, (the skin was touted as the world’s largest, up for $1 million) until a story appeared on a news website.

I did a quick browse to find what was on offer online — rare butterflies, beetles, birds, tortoise, turtles, monkeys, rhino horns and ivory artefacts; the last were found on sale on eBay, some claim to be ‘pre-ban’. But an International Fund for Animal Welfare report in 2007 revealed that at least 90 percent of all investigated ivory listings on eBay were legally suspect.
Internationally, illegal wildlife trade is measured at over $25 billion annually, and the virtual world has just widened the market further. To just get an idea of the size of the market, IFAW found more than 9,000 wild animals or products — from live chimpanzees to ivory tusks — for sale in chat rooms and on legitimate trading sites over a one-week period.
THE VOLUME of trade has an ominous impact on India’s wildlife, for this is primarily a source country, the suppliers in this murky business. The product — be it a tortoise or a monkey or cobra skins — may be auctioned online by a dealer based in, say, China or the US, or any part of the world, but it may well have been sourced from India. Take the recent case of two Czech nationals who were accused of unauthorised collecting of rare and protected insect species from the Singhalila National Park in West Bengal. It is reported that they routinely used the Internet to sell their ‘collection’.
The single-most important factor fuelling the wildlife trade on the Internet is anonymity. Most sellers use fake names and addresses and change their email identities frequently. Communications and deals that begin in open fora later shifts to emails, chatrooms, discussion boards etc., making identifying and tracking of the persons responsible a difficult, if not almost impossible, task.
And with negligible web patrolling, endangered species are under the hammer in the virtual world, for sale to the highest bidder — dead or alive. •

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 37, Dated Sept 20, 2008