India’s wildlife Market
Prerna Singh Bindra
India just finished celebrating National Wildlife Week, with myriad functions, laudatory speeches and solemn pledges to conserve wildlife. A terrible irony, considering that India’s wildlife is up for sale, in the market, for the asking. We are well-aware about the trade in tiger and leopard skin and bones, ivory and rhino horn that makes it to the headlines, but the scope of this illegal trade is much wider-a silent crime that continues, unchecked, unnoticed-depleting our wildlife at an unprecedented scale. All wild creatures priced to sell-virtually none is spared.
Let’s take a cursory look at recent seizures: In two separate incidents 19 beetles, and 500 bottles of insects and caterpillars were recovered in North Bengal; a tip-off led to the recovery of a 100 kingfisher beaks, packed in a courier package, from the post office in Kolkata, 950 star tortoises were stuffed in the baggage of a Bangkok bound passenger at the Chennai airport, 50 kgs of sea horse and sea cucumbers were found in a gunny bag, off the Tamil Nadu coast on their way to Srilanka, 58 fresh water turtles were seized at Gosaiganj near Lucknow.
Though shocking, this inventory is no means exhaustive, and cannot begin to cover the kind or number of species in trade: Turtles are slaughtered for their meat as is the very rare dugong, dolphins milked for oil, primates make for good pets-while some like the Nilgiri langur lend themselves to black magic, as does the slender loris, butterflies and beetles are good collectibles and make fancy decoration items, spiny-tailed lizards are boiled, alive, for their aphrodisiacal qualities-which can also be had from a potent brew of scorpions, pangolin scales are a cure for piles, giant squirrels are wanted by resorts as unusual pets to amuse their guests, sea horses and sea cucumbers sought after for aquariums, and for medicinal qualities. Birds are destined for the cage-from the commonly available parakeets and munias to the rare hill myna. It’s not just the pet trade, though-most birds, including our migrant guests are killed for the table, while owls are in demand for tantric rituals. It’s an endless list, covering the entire spectrum of India’s wildlife, the volumes are catastrophic, say experts, though the quantum of trade remains a mystery.
“Unfortunately, scant attention is paid to micro-fauna, the awareness is very low, even our staff needs to be trained for this,” agrees Sumita Ghatak, DFO, wildlife, North Bengal Range, whose team was instrumental in the recent seizure of butterflies, beetles and insects. In one of the cases, two Czech nationals were caught collecting rare butterflies, moths and beetles in the Singalila National Park in North Bengal. Though there have been sizable seizures—a massive haul of 45,000 butterflies and moths ten years back, 3,000 butterflies and beetles in 1996, followed by another 2000 beetles in 2005, that is also because some efforts at awareness have been been made in this region But these cases, most would agree, “represent not even the tip of the proverbial iceberg.” North Bengal is just one supply source; Uttarakhand, Ladakh, Himachal and the Western Ghats are the other butterfly and insect hotspots that lure unscrupulous traders, and ‘scientists’. The risks are few, and the money good-a source says that one jewel beetle may fetch as much as Rs 20,000. Butterflies-the most sought after being Pale Jezebel , Banded Apollo, Kaiser-i-Hind, Malabar Banded Swallow—are prized catches private collections, or could be fashioned into paper weights and other knick-knacks.
Tiger and jewel beetles are in demand for trinkets, while in Japan, tiger beetles are valued for their medicinal values-and the rhinoceros beetle is uses, strangely, in ‘sumo-wrestling championships”, on which bets are placed on the participants, not unlike the cockfights in our country!
The scrub forests of Andhra Pradesh are being emptied of star tortoises—the poacher may be paid a mere Rs 50 a piece, but by the time the reptile reaches a pet shop in the US, it could fetch upto $ 1000. Otter skins, fashioned into coats, or used as trimmings, is another lucerative business-and some estimates suggest that otter population have plummeted by 90 per cent across their range.
But we can’t lay the blame for this trade entirely on foreign shores. “We tend to ignore the domestic market, which is huge. Truth is, almost everything has a use, and a market,” points out Abrar Ahmed, who has been studying this trade for many years.
Of particular concern is the trade in fresh water turtles-massacred for their meat-and also for its sub-surface-a layer of flesh between its shell and body-that is cut into cubes and reportedly used for aphrodisiacs. “The amounts are colossal–I have apprehended trucks stacked full of turtles,” says a forest official from UP. Rivers across the country are the happy hunting grounds-and the meat is bound for Kolkata, and Bangladesh. The meat, says a source, is an easy buy, available in most fish markets-or to escape detection, delivered discreetly to your door. Expectedly, the trade has depleted wild populations. “In a survey we did in the Mahandi river basin, three species of fresh water turtles- Aspideretes leithii, Pelochelys cantor, and the river terrapin, are no longer found,” says Biswajit Mohanty, of the Wildlife Protection Society of Orissa. With populations depleting in Orissa, intelligence information is, that poachers are now operating in Gujarat.
As we have seen, the markets are as varied as the species-it could anywhere in the world-as in the case of butterflies and star tortoise sold on the Internet, or bound for foreign shores as are kingfisher feathers, used as fish flies, or falcons for sport. The same species has multiple markets- the pelts of smaller cats, like leopard cats, jungle cats or fishing cats is smuggled for making coats, while their flesh are also eaten by local tribals. Or take the instance of fox-its fur may be used in coats and slings to smuggled out, or its tail hung upside down as a good luck charm by local people-especially in Rajasthan. Says Dr Dharmendra Khandal, from Ranthambhore based NGO, TigerWatch, “We just had information that about 50 foot for fox have been found in the forests of the Bhilwara region. We keep getting periodic information of fox poaching, and also jackals-whose fur is used for trimmings in coats etc.” He adds that every year five-six people are apprehended annually around the national park for trading in monitor lizards—killed for its meat-and skin. Hyenas are butchered too, their blood is supposed to have curative properties. A rather inexplicable trade around these parts is in doves—any species—slaughtered by the hundreds-their innards supplied to the local prostitutes, for reasons unknown.
If you thought that is bizarre, then get acquainted with the owl trade. Its a brisk, albeit illegal, business, Heavily in demand by those seeking a change in fortunes—a beleaguered love life, a financial mess, political advantage—the owls are used by tantriksin gory rituals for ‘good luck.’ All species have a market-but the most in favour is the great-horned owl which may fetch as much as Rs three lakh. Incidentally, the ‘season’ for this trade has just begun, as the demand for owls shoots up during Diwali, primarily from Gujarat, followed by Maharashtra and Punjab.
“The trade will heat up for other species too, such as the falcons,” points Abrar Ahmed, “large numbers of the birds, mainly the Peregrine falcon, is smuggled to the Middle East and Pakistan. Falconry, is a traditional sport, wherein the raptor is trained to hunt birds, especially the Houbara Bustard and small mammals, and continues unabated, driving the demand for falcons—and pushing the bird to the brink in the sub-continent.
“The bird trade is huge, and most widespread. At a conservative estimate, a minimum of 1-1.5 lakh birds of 300 species are caught and traded,” informs Ahmed. According to a survey in trade of water birds by Traffic-India revealed that birds sold for ‘flesh trade’ included the bar-headed geese, greylag geese, pin-tail ducks, brahminy ducks, poachers; and cranes, storks though occasionally eaten, were mainly sold for private menageries. Egrets, hoopoes, hornbills are used in black magic-though the latter are also killed for their beaks to be worn as head gear.
Local haats or traditional animal markets are ‘hotspots’ for this business–water birds trussed up for the table-(though these are also supplied to resorts particularly in the tourist season), spiny-tailed lizards freshly boiled, penguin quills, caged mynas, frog legs for the pot-and even the odd tragopan or the rare slow loris, usually marketed as the ‘sharmili billi Lajwanti” . Ahmed, who wrote a paper on the primate trade in India, says that all 15 species of primates found in India are in trade. While the smuggled of rhesus macaques for experiments is quite common, even critically endangered species i.e the hoollock gibbon, golden langur, slow loris are smuggled to South-east Asia for the pet trade.
The law in not silent—most of the species in trade are covered under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972—but it is not worth the paper it is written on, with enforcement very poor, and the forest staff ill-equipped and under-manned to deal with a trade of this scope. Says Samir Sinha who heads Traffic-India, “It’s a dynamic, destructive trade, with new species and new markets emerging, a ‘traditional business’ that has morphed into both, a national and trans-national organised, lucerative crime that needs to be battled at a similar level.”
As can be imagined, the impact of the trade is devastating-silencing our forests, killing our wildlife. And if it continues unabated, it will push species-known-and unknown to the brink of extinction.