Nabarun Guha, Mongabay | April 20, 2021
On March 16 this year, around ten days before Assam went to polls, routine checks were on at the checkpoint in Ghiladhari in Golaghat district of the eastern state. When the police stopped a private vehicle, they didn’t expect what they saw – macaws, silvery marmosets and golden-headed tamarin, all exotic animals, usually found in the Amazon rainforest in Brazil.
The case was then handed over to the forest department, who passed it to the customs department as the seized animals were of foreign origin. The animals were later sent to the Assam State Zoo and Botanical Gardens in Guwahati. A customs official from Golaghat said, “We have arrested three people. The main accused is from Tamil Nadu while the other two people are drivers from Manipur. They said that they collected the animals from Ima market in Imphal and their destination was Chennai. We are assuming that these animals entered India via Myanmar border in Moreh.”
There have been multiple instances in the last one year when exotic animals have been seized by different enforcement agencies across northeast India. On February 19, this year, Assam Rifles and Customs rescued 80 exotic animals including rare species like leopard tortoise, red-footed tortoise, yellow, orange and green iguana, bearded dragon and albino iguana around the Friendship Bridge over the Tayo river near India-Myanmar border in Champai district of Mizoram. Again on January 27 this year, Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI), rescued 30 exotic birds and a red-eared guenon, a primate found in Africa, from Vairengte, the Mizoram-Assam border town in Kolasib district.
In a major haul in July last year, a kangaroo from Australia, six hyacinth or blue macaws, and two capuchin monkeys, all of which are native to South America, and three Aldabra tortoises from Seychelles Island were seized from Lailapur in Cachar district, a small town along the Assam-Mizoram border.
The demand for exotic species has been increasing in India over the years. This has been acknowledged in the Smuggling in India Report 2019-2020 published by Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI), last year, which said, “There is an unfortunate and increasing trend in smuggling of endangered and exotic fauna from different parts of the world in India. Since there is a complete ban on trade in Indian species, interest of the smugglers has shifted to exotic species, which has led to disastrous global environmental consequences. The long international border and air routes are used to source consignments from Bangkok, Malaysia and other tourist destinations in Southeast Asia as well as from Europe, from where they are sent to major cities like Kolkata, Chennai, Hyderabad, Delhi, Bengaluru, Mumbai, Kochi, etc.”
Stating that smuggling of exotic animals into India is not a new trend, Saket Badola, country head of TRAFFIC India, wildlife trade monitoring network, told Mongabay-India, “In fact, India is now slowly emerging as a major demand market for exotic animals. People with disposable income are acquiring these animals for fun or to show off in their private collection. As trade of many of the sought-after species is regulated under Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), majority of these animals are acquired illegally.”
“Our enforcement agencies have become very active about wildlife crime, because of which we are seeing more seizures. This has been a prolonged effort which is now yielding results. But there is also this huge demand for these animals in India. There is Crawford Market in Mumbai, which is notorious for trade of exotic species. Now, large farms are coming up in places like Pune where exotic species are being bred,” said wildlife crime investigator Rahul Dutta.
Government advisory leading to surge in seizures
To regulate this growing undocumented market of exotic animals in the country, Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) last year issued an advisory for dealing with declaration of stock of exotic live species (species listed under Appendix I, II and III of CITES), import of exotic live species, registration of progeny of previously held stock and transfer/transport of stock in India.
According to a report published recently in IndiaSpend, 32,645 Indians declared their stock of exotic animals till February, 2021. Initially, a six-month window open till December 15, 2020 was given to Indians willing to voluntarily declare their stock of exotic pets, though later the window was extended till March 15, 2021.
Indicating that the recent surge in seizure of exotic animals in northeast India is a result of MoEF&CC advisory, Agni Mitra, Regional Deputy Director (East), Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB) told Mongabay-India, “Earlier, there was some level of incoming of exotic animals in India, especially from Bangladesh via Meghalaya, Assam and West Bengal borders. The advisory of MoEF&CC provided a sort of amnesty to people owning exotic pets as they could declare their stock of exotic animals even without proper documentation and no questions would be asked. So because of that there was a hurry in acquiring CITES animals and birds and this is why we have seen a manifold increase in the number of seizures in Northeast India and also West Bengal. From now on, people who collect exotic species can do so only after showing valid documents.”
In the last one year, most of the seizures of exotic animals in northeast India have taken place in Mizoram. As the state shares its border with both Bangladesh and Myanmar, it is assumed that the consignments are entering northeast via either of these two countries.
Sunnydeo Choudhury, Divisional Forest Officer (DFO), Cachar, who had led the operation in Lailapur last July in which multiple live animals like kangaroos, macaws, and Aldabra tortoises were rescued said, “In that incident, we had arrested two people, the driver and helper of the truck carrying the consignment. During interrogation, they said that they collected the consignment from Mizoram and didn’t know anything beyond that. From the seizures, we got materials like soaps which were from Myanmar and Thailand. So, we can only speculate that the animals might have come from those countries but we don’t have any concrete evidence right now to establish that.”
Dutta said that post COVID-19, there might be a change in the routes used by smugglers. “Exotic animals mainly enter India through Indo-Bangladesh border in Assam and Meghalaya. However, post COVID-19, checking in the Bangladesh border has become more rigorous. This increases the chance of the consignments being detected and it also delays the entire process. Traders want their consignments to reach their destination at the earliest because these consignments are live animals. If the delay causes the animals to die en route, the traders won’t get money. So, now a new route via Myanmar might be used.”
Myanmar is currently going through an upheaval following a coup carried out by the country’s military which deposed the country’s democratically elected government. Badola said that enforcement agencies need to keep a close watch on the situation in Myanmar. “In northeast India, Myanmar is certainly the most prominent route right now, though there are other land routes like Nepal and Bangladesh. Under prevailing situation in Myanmar, wildlife law enforcement agencies need to keep a close watch on the border areas. The current situation might disrupt or enhance the illegal wildlife trade through Myanmar. If trade decreases via that route, vigilance needs to be enhanced on other transit routes because smugglers are known to make such shifts in adverse condition in one location,” he said.
WCCB’s Mitra said that currently there is no indication of the coup having any clear impact on the exotic animals trade in India. “Most of these exotic animals enter India via Bangladesh border. Regarding Myanmar, its northern and eastern parts are anyway rebel-controlled and elected government or the military government has scant influence over those areas. However, there is Golden Triangle, where Myanmarese territory is next to Laos in the eastern side and Thailand in the southern side. Because of multiplicity of enforcement agencies of different countries, that area is a haven for illegal activities like gambling, drug smuggling, and trade of illegal items like arms, counterfeit currency, and wildlife products. So, parts of Myanmar have always been a fertile ground for wildlife smuggling. But I don’t think the recent coup has any impact on the exotic animals trade,” he said.
The two persons arrested in Cachar last year after rare animals like kangaroos, macaws, and Aldabra tortoises were seized from their truck later got bail from the Gauhati High Court. The court observed, “as seized animals do not come under the purview of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, the detention of the petitioners would not be permissible under Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 and, since the only case registered against the petitioners is under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, the Court is of the view that the petitioners will be entitled to go on bail vis a vis the aforesaid case under the Wildlife (Protection ) Act, 1972 unless wanted in connection with any other case.”
In India, there is a legal lacunae as trade of exotic animals don’t come under the purview of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. This often makes it difficult to prosecute people involved in exotic animal’s trade.
“The purpose of the Wildlife Protection Act was to primarily ensure protection of Indian wildlife. Being member of CITES since 1976, we have an international obligation to protect endangered species of other countries as well. In our country, CITES is implemented through Customs Act, 1962. The provisions of Customs Act can only be applied when there is a crossing of international border or smuggling is clearly made out. So, if an exotic animal is 100 km inside the territory of our country and it can’t be clearly established that it has been smuggled in, we don’t have any legislation to prosecute the offenders. To bridge this gap, the ministry has notified this amnesty where all CITES animals have to be declared” said Mitra.
Threat from exotic species
Since the COVID-19 pandemic brought the world to a standstill, the threat of zoonotic diseases is something which is being taken more seriously. Since, the trade of exotic animals is carried out mostly illegally, there is always the risk of them being carriers of a potential virus.
Elaborating on the threat from the trade of exotic species, Badola said, “There are two big threats from exotic species. First, there is the risk of zoonotic disease outbreak. As these animals are entering illegally in India, no quarantine rule or hygiene protocol is followed. It might be a point of origin of a new zoonotic disease. Secondly, if these animals escape from the possession of owners or are deliberately released, they might alter the faunal pattern of the location. There is the case of red eared slider turtles, an American breed which are kept in huge numbers by people in India. These turtles which now occupy Sukhna Lake, Chandigarh are believed to interfere with the native species, thus impacting them adversely. It is as harmful situation as spread of an alien invasive species like lantana.”
The animals which were seized in Cachar last year as well as those in Golaghat last month are presently housed in Assam State Zoo and Botanical Gardens in Guwahati. However, nobody really knows for how long they will be kept in the zoo.
Stating that the zoo is just the caretaker of the rescued animals for the time being, Tejas Matiswamy, DFO, Assam State Zoo said, “It is difficult to say how long these animals will be kept here. We can’t release them without knowing where they came from. It is a legal process which will take some time.”
Often, the biggest challenge is to find out the country of origin of the rescued animals, especially if the species is found in multiple countries. But even if the country of origin is established, the process to return the animal to its original country is highly cumbersome.
Mitra said, “The CITES says that the source country of the animal are supposed to take back the animal and also bear the transportation cost. However, many of these seized animals are farm bred. For example, if a kangaroo is seized in India, it doesn’t mean that the animal has come from Australia. There are more chances of it being bred in a farm in a Southeast Asian country. As this farm bred animals might be genetically mixed as well, their source countries might not be interested in taking them back, especially in a post COVID-19 scenario. Also, if the source country is not economically strong, they might be disinterested for financial reasons. So, in that case, these animals will have to spend rest of their life in a zoo.”