India’s gory wildlife trade


WildlifeBy Sarosh Bana

The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated – Mahatma Gandhi

India is at war with its wildlife. Widespread poaching and relentless inroads by settlements, industry and farms are decimating wild animals and their habitats at an alarming pace.

While it was previously believed that habitat loss posed the biggest threat to animals in the country, it has now been established that the grave danger is from the illegal trade in the remains of these creatures.

Entrenched poaching syndicates are making survival a grim struggle for the richly diversified wildlife in the homeland of Mahatma Gandhi, the apostle of peace who gave the world the doctrine of ahimsa, or non-violence. No less an institution than the Supreme Court, the country’s highest court, has observed that many animals are being driven to the brink of extinction by ruthless sophisticated operators, some of whom have top level patronage.

At the same time, however, the State High Court of Madhya Pradesh dismissed a plea by a non-Government organisation (NGO) called Prayatna, seeking an inquiry by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) into the disappearance of all 20 tigers in central India’s Panna Tiger Reserve. Though 19 of the 20 tigers were reportedly slain by poachers, a division bench of the court dismissed the plaint, saying, “The CBI has many better things to do.”

Apart from Africa, India is a major hub of clandestine wildlife trade that has been estimated by Interpol at upwards of US$20 billion globally each year. This savagery prevails for a flourishing demand world-wide for animal products, the US being the biggest market.

The problem is serious enough for world leaders from more than 40 nations to have participated in the ‘Illegal Wildlife Trade Conference’ held in London, February 2014, where they collectively pledged to take key actions to stamp out this menace. The conference resulted in ‘The London Declaration’ that contains commitments for practical steps to end this illegal trade, which apart from threatening the survival of entire species, also undermines economic opportunity in developing countries. It prescribes actions that will help eradicate the demand for wildlife products, strengthen law enforcement, and support the development of sustainable livelihoods for communities affected by wildlife crime.

Endowed as it is with great biological diversity in its forests, grasslands, deserts, mountains, including the Himalayas, wetlands and marine areas, India harbours as many as 350 (or 7.6 percent) of the world’s 4,629 known mammalian species, 1,224 (or 12.6 percent) of the world’s 9,702 avian species, 408 (or 6.2 percent) of the 6,550 known reptilian species, 197 (or 4.4 percent) of the world’s 4,522 species of amphibians, and 2,546 (or 11.7 percent) of the 21,760 species of fish.

The global trade in animal parts holds out enormous lucre, being next only to drug-running and arms trafficking in its intensity and profitability. It flourishes in the face of national and international laws that prohibit it.

Article 48A of India’s Constitution requires the State to protect and improve the environment and safeguard forests and wildlife. Article 51A (g) obliges every citizen to protect and improve the natural environment, including wildlife. Enacted for this constitutional purpose was the Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972, its Chapters V and V-A prohibiting ‘trade or commerce of wild animals, animal articles or trophies’. Chapter VI makes violation of the provisions of the Act a criminal offence. The country is a signatory to both the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and the UN Convention against Transnational Organised Crime (CTOC).

Nothing is sacred

The national Indian animal, the tiger, and the national bird, the peacock, too are under siege. Illicit wildlife trade deals most commonly in tiger and leopard parts and skins, elephant tusks, rhino horn, snakeskin, deer antlers, turtle shells, musk pods, bear bile, mongoose hair, and also live birds such as waterbirds, migratory birds, parakeets, mynas and munias, exotic pets and marine species like seahorses, shells and coral. Those that are not traded are eaten; the wide spectrum of birdlife and even jackals, mongoose, porcupine, monitor lizard, antelope and deer are prized for their flesh both by the forest-dwelling communities and those with a taste for the exotic.

The vigorous wildlife trafficking in India is more for meeting the demand from outside the country, there being relatively little domestic demand for wildlife products. There is a booming cross-border trade as China has always been a huge consumer of wildlife produce. Traditional Chinese medicine is based largely on natural flora and fauna in their various forms. Consumption in that country is also driven by the age-old belief in the aphrodisiacal powers of various animal products, such as tiger penises and rhino horns.

Poachers will find support from politicians, conniving forest guards and officials, and local villagers and tribals, who are often good trackers and trappers. A weak criminal case against two villagers accused of killing two 17-month-old tiger cubs led to their acquittal. This was because the forest authorities ‘failed’ to file a charge sheet against the culprits within the mandatory 60 days. The duo had poisoned the cubs on the outskirts of the Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve in the desert State of Rajasthan after they had killed their goats. Though killing a tiger is a non-bailable offence, bail may be granted if the charge sheet is not filed within the stipulated time – an easy out.

There had been more than 40,000 tigers in India a little over a century ago. Widespread hunting by the erstwhile maharajas and the British colonialists exterminated many of them by the time of Independence in 1947. The first ever all India tiger census conducted in 1972 revealed the survival of only 1,827. Alarmed by the dwindling numbers, the country launched ‘Project Tiger’ in 1973-74 in a concerted effort to salvage the situation. Aimed at conserving tigers in specially constituted reserves, the scheme has seen the establishment of 39 Project Tiger reserves covering a combined area of 32,137 sq km.

The effort did help increase the tiger population to around 3,500 in the ‘90s. Subsequent censuses, however, reflected the grim incidence of unbridled poaching and habitat destruction that has once again shrunk the number to 1,706. Of the 447 tigers estimated to have died between 1999 and March 2011, 197 fell to poachers. In a major rebuke to Project Tiger, the two tiger reserves of Sariska, in Rajasthan, and Panna, in Madhya Pradesh, saw their last tigers being wiped out in 2005 and 2008 respectively.

At the other end of the spectrum, even the butterfly is not spared. These exquisite insects are laminated onto lampshades even as they are alive, which are then sold clandestinely as home decorations.

Cruelty and brutality are part of the work profile of those whose livelihood is from the blood of animals. Undercover agents have witnessed that after snaring many of the animals in traps that can maim and cripple, these culprits often begin to cut the skin and fur while the creatures are still alive and struggling desperately. They stomp on the necks and heads of animals who struggle too hard to allow a clean cut. The bloodied bodies are thrown onto a pile and some are still alive, breathing in ragged gasps and blinking slowly. Hearts of some animals are still beating five to ten minutes after they are skinned.

With poaching and trading transcending borders, not all poachers in India are Indians. Many a wildlife trafficking syndicate draws culprits from neighbouring countries like Nepal, Tibet and Bhutan, while Czech poachers too have been arrested. Armed rebel militias both in India and abroad are being increasingly drawn to this trade. The internet facilitates cross-border wildlife trade, with deals struck and orders placed on the web, often in code, and online payments made ostensibly for other products. These criminal rings are well connected, politically powerful and have the financial clout to pull off their trade without being caught. They have the means to cultivate persons in the right places, forge documentation and evade the law as they butcher myriad species to the brink of extinction.

Indian poachers are frequently forest-dwelling tribals whose familiarity with their surroundings is exploited by the higher operatives. The Pardhi tribe was officially declared the ‘number one threat’ to wildlife after some of them poached eight lions in the Gir forests of the State of Gujarat in 2007.

A little more than 400 Asiatic lions inhabit this 1,412 sq km reserve, which is their only natural habitat.

Numerous wildlife offences are registered against Pardhis, who, being traditional hunters, are considered the most skilled of all poachers. Hundreds of tiger deaths have been attributed to these tribesmen over the years and they are active across the country. They poach cruelly. Once they had set four steel-traps in Gir in the afternoon and by evening they had poached three lions. The Pardhis, who have sub-tribes like Bawadiya, Mogia, Chidimar and Bahelia, had been branded a ‘criminal tribe’ in 1871 by the British colonialists for their hunting and poaching activities, but denotified as ‘criminal’ and named a nomadic tribe in 1952.

Tribal poachers like the Pardhis are the first link in a wider criminal set-up. They meet the orders placed by a trader from the city who then arranges for the items to be smuggled across the border to his counterpart in another country, and so on ‘til it reaches the end consumer. It is impossible for such a network to sustain itself without vast profits and intelligence management.

India’s deadliest poacher doubtlessly has been Sansar Chand, who incidentally is not a Pardhi. The 56-year old felon became involved with wildlife crime in 1974 when, as a 16-year old, he was arrested for possessing 680 skins, including those of tigers and leopards. He and his partners in crime, many of them family members, have as many as 57 cases filed against them, but shoddy investigations, apathy of, or collusion by, officials, and weak laws, have helped him get acquitted in ten cases and often prematurely freed after conviction on technicalities.

During the years, Sansar Chand has established a smuggling network that can supply any wildlife product that is sought for. He is estimated to have been responsible for the deaths of more than 250 tigers, 2,000 leopards, 5,000 otters, 20,000 wild cats, and 20,000 wild foxes, apart from the critically endangered snow leopards and clouded leopards. He himself says they are ‘uncountable’ and betrays no remorse, having amassed enormous wealth and properties through his bloodletting. He has vowed to hunt India’s endangered wildlife to extinction in order to subsequently gain a windfall from the inventories and caches of pelts and animal parts he has built up.

In India, like in many other countries, the problem is not of laws, but that these may be poorly communicated and just as poorly enforced. Often, efforts to counter wildlife trade are undermined by lack of political will and governance failures.

Wildlife trafficking, deforestation, and loss of habitat are no longer localised problems, but global ones. Information is the key to developing an understanding and, with it, the resolve, to counter them. Ultimately, it is demand that sustains this massacre and such demand arises from a lack of understanding of, and sensitivity to, this massacre.

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