The global wildlife trade monitoring network, TRAFFIC, found in a survey that there were 141 wildlife seizures at 18 Indian airports between 2011 and 2020.
If you are a nature lover waiting in awe for the return of the cheetahs from faraway Namibia to the forests of India, for the first time in over 70 years, you’ll be surprised to know that our love of the exotic has truly crossed boundaries.
So much so that the sight of kangaroos roaming the streets of Bengal to “passengers” traveling with a suitcase full of iguanas and squirrels at Chennai airport is no longer news. For Indian ‘animal lovers’ go ‘wild’ about exotic species endemic to places miles away from India.
In recent months, officials have seized a number of exotic and unheard of animal species from towns and cities across the country.
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In addition, more than 32,000 Indians have voluntarily disclosed that they own exotic animals.
Seizure of exotic species
“Growing demand is fueling the deadly illegal wildlife trade, which is one of the leading causes of species extinction on the planet,” conservationist Purva Variyar wrote in wildlifeconservationtrust.org.
The boom in the illegal trade is evidenced by a series of seizures of exotic species, some of which are in danger of extinction, by law enforcement officers across the country in the recent past. Mizoram police even made it into the World Book of Records earlier this year for making the largest catch of smuggled exotic species in May.
The seizure included 442 rare species of lizards, 11 snakes (mostly albino pythons), four turtles, four pattos (small primates), four three-toed sloths, two beavers and one wild cat.
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That same month, law enforcement in Mizoram seized kangaroos, rats, meerkats, white cockatoos and Burmese pythons.
It was not the first time that marsupials, which are only found in Australia and New Guinea, had been sighted in India. Last July, Assam forest officials seized a kangaroo along with six macaws, three turtles and two monkeys near the state’s border with Mizoram.
Consequences of the coup in Myanmar
Forest officials in West Bengal had a much bizarre encounter on April 1 this year. While patrolling the forest, they were stunned to find two kangaroos in the wild near Gajoldoba, a popular tourist destination in the Jalpaiguri district.
Officials suspected that traffickers had left them in the woods.
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However, the series of draws has not stopped the illegal trade so far. Two large shipments have been seized in the northeast itself this month, suggesting that smuggling continues unabated.
On the night of September 16, Mizoram police seized two spider monkeys and an Indri Lemur from the possession of two people. Earlier, on Sept. 8, at least 40 exotic animals, including rare species of primates, turtles, monkeys and a wallaby, were rescued by Assam police from near Guwahati.
The increase in crime is commensurate with the increase in trade in endangered species and products in Myanmar since the army took power by overthrowing a democratically elected government in the country on February 1 last year.
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“Since last year, a sharp increase has been observed in the smuggling of exotic animals and narcotics through the Indian-Myanmar border in Mizoram. We allowed people displaced by the unrest in Myanmar to find refuge in our state. The smugglers are taking advantage of this situation,” said Mizoram’s Director General of Police Devesh Chandra Srivastava.
According to a report by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) released in April this year, Myanmar has witnessed a 74% increase in the online trade of endangered species since the coup.
In Myanmar, Thailand and Indonesia there are exotic animal farms. From there, the animals are smuggled to different countries, sources said.
Access through Mizoram
Champhai, a small adjacent town in Mizoram, is the main entry point to bring the exotic species to India, Srivastava told the federal.
From Mizoram they are smuggled to mainland India via Assam and West Bengal.
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Those linked to the crimes said the animals were previously smuggled into India via airways.
TRAFFIC, a global wildlife trade monitoring network, found in a survey that there were 141 wildlife seizure incidents at 18 Indian airports between 2011 and 2020.
Chennai International Airport recorded the highest number of wildlife seizure incidents, followed by Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport, Mumbai and Indira Gandhi Airport, New Delhi during the study period, according to the report titled “HIGH FLYING: Understanding the Wildlife Trade through the airports of India.”
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Wildlife experts attribute the rise in crime to the tendency of some Native Americans to own exotic animals.
“There seems to be a growing trend to keep exotic animals as pets. This led to a spurt in the pet trade,” says Dr. Bibhab Kumar Talukdar, General Secretary and CEO of Aaranyak, a green group in Assam.
The trend was noticed after the central government announced a voluntary disclosure scheme in June 2020. Through an advisory, it had called on the Indians to declare possession of exotic living species that are animal or plant species not native to India.
According to the advisory, no action would be taken even if the owners did not have proper documentation of the species.
In February 2021, the Ministry of Environment, Forestry and Climate Change received disclosure requests from 32,645 Indians, from 25 states and five Union Territories. IndiaSpend claimed to have access to ministry data.
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They can own the animals because the possession or trade of exotic species is not within the scope of the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972.
The law only prohibits trade in native Indian species. This legal gap is exploited by both traffickers and owners of exotic animals.
“Strict law is necessary to control the exotic animal trade,” added Mizoram DGP.