Latest advisory to regulate exotic pet trade lacks teeth sans a definite ‘law’, say experts
Throughout human history, domestication of animals has been a common practice, but in the recent few years there has been a sudden increase in it, especially when exotic species of animals come into the picture. The terms ‘exotic species’ or ‘exotic pets’ do not have a fixed definition in the Indian law, but generally refer to birds or animals kept within households which are rare or rather unusual to domesticate. Owing to their high demand, countless number of animals and birds are sold illegally every year. When we talk of exotic live species, certain questions are bound to be asked. One is forced to think why is illegal trading a huge business and where does India stand? It is also essential to be aware of the impact of these exotic species on the common man and the ecosystem. Talking globally, illegal trade is estimated to generate revenues up to $23 billion per year. India is not far behind. In fact, it is among the top 20 countries for illegal wildlife trade and Chennai and Mumbai airports act as key destination and origin points for traffickers. In its first global report on the illegal wildlife trade, released last month, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) has described wildlife trafficking as a “global threat”, which also has links with other organised crimes such as modern slavery, drug trafficking and arms trade. The ‘wildlife’ in question can be for purposes other than laboratory- it can be for recreation, and the species trafficked may end up in private zoos.
Private zoos may have found a legal sanction in many parts of the world, but in India they are still a taboo. Here they are state-owned and governed by the Central Zoo Authority. Yet, keeping many such species in confinement without legal sanction is not a rarity in India, with many private farms being ‘operated’ with the sole intention of pleasing guests or tourists. They are basically owned by the rich and powerful and are part of a nexus that is tough to crack, claim sources. Like the ‘illegally omnipresent urban slums, these ‘farms’ are also a problem that has to be regulated and brought under the law in order to contain it. Hence, a need was felt to introduce new rules to regulate the import and export of ‘exotic wildlife species’. Currently, it is the Directorate-General of Foreign Trade, Ministry of Commerce that oversees such trade. Under the new rules, owners and possessors of such animals and birds must also register their stock with the Chief Wildlife Warden of their respective states. Officials of the Wildlife Department will also prepare an inventory of such species and have the right to inspect the facilities of such traders to check if these plants and animals are being housed in salubrious conditions. Additionally, stockiest will have six months to declare their stock. The advisory, issued earlier last month, also says ‘exotic live species’ will mean animals named under Appendices I, II and III of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) of Wild Fauna and Flora. It will not include species from the Schedules of the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972. The form is available on the government’s Parivesh portal. According to Deepak Kumar, IFS, CCF, JFM: “The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) of wild flora & fauna is a multilateral treaty between governments whose aim is to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival. The species include plants, animals & birds under categories of threat of extinction. This is protected by International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). India is signatory to this. Exotic animals come under appendixes I, II & III of CITES. CITES Appendix-I includes species that are in danger of extinction and commercial trade is prohibited. CITES Appendix-II includes species that aren’t facing imminent extinction but need monitoring so that any trade doesn’t become a threat. CITES Appendix-III includes species that are protected in at least one country. IUCN has nine categories: Not Evaluated, Data Deficient, Least Concern, Near Threatened, Vulnerable, Endangered, Critically Endangered, Extinct in the Wild & Extinct. Around 5800 species of animals & 30,000 species of plants are protected by CITES (related to international trade)” The advisory has been welcomed as it will create a process where all imports would be screened which was till now being made through the Director General of Foreign Trade. Also, it is going to be a disabler in the business of wildlife trade. It is important to mention that this is the first time that CITES Appendix listed animals will be examined by the state forest department which would provide them with greater control.
But, like any other government initiative, this advisory is also not without its share of loopholes and subsequent criticism. Sometimes, zoos also serve as places for carrying out illegal practices. For example: Tiger Temple, a tourist attraction in Thailand has been shut down after being accused of illegal wildlife trade and mistreatment to animals, points out senior forest official and head of Dudhwa National Park, Ramesh Pandey. Similarly, the Maharajbagh zoo in Nagpur received a notice that it would be shut down if it did not comply with the 1998 National Zoo Policy. “If you ask me if there are any declared private zoos in India where exotic animals are kept, I would say no. But there seems to be no regulation that can prohibit people from keeping exotic birds or animals if procured legally. So, people may be having ‘zoo-like’ facilities and having birds or animals in them,” he adds. According to Deepak Kumar: “In India, there is a heavy demand for scarlet macaw, sea turtles, marmoset, grey African parrots, ball python, turtles species (especially sea turtles), chimpanzee, orangutans, gibbon, squirrel monkeys, lemurs, wallabies, exotic python species etc. The Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972 curbs the smuggling and illegal trade in wildlife and its derivatives as one of its primary objectives but the setback of this act is its limitation to animals within its schedule and its non-applicability to exotic animals outside its confines. In order to curb this practice and to address these loopholes, the Ministry of Environment Forest and Climate Change (MOEFCC) has issued the advisory for dealing with import of exotic live species in India. The main reason for issuing this advisory is the rising global concern about illegal wildlife trade and zoonotic diseases, especially after the outbreak of coronavirus (COVID- 19).” However, he adds: “All zoos have some exotic species, like chimpanzee, hippopotamus, giraffe, many bird species, etc. (Mumbai zoo has even got a penguin. They have created cold & icy environment for them). They come under animal exchange programme with foreign zoos. It’s approved by the Central Zoo Authority. But, percentage of exotic species is restricted, you can’t keep too many.”
Recently a report was released by TRAFFIC (leading non-governmental organisation working globally on trade in wild animals and plants) which reported a significant increase in poaching during the two month lockdown period. It reports that poaching for consumption and local trade have doubled during the lockdown period. The analysis was carried out by comparing media reported instances of poaching during a six week pre-lockdown period (10th February to 22nd March 2020). Prior to this advisory the imports were being traded through DGFT (Director-General of Foreign Trade) under the Ministry of Commerce and Industry and the forest department as well as the chief wildlife wardens had no role to play. Now, the importer will have to attach a No Objection Certificate (NOC) of the chief wildlife warden of the related state along with the application, thus keeping the forest department and the wildlife authorities updated about the imports. “In view of the pandemic, we need to control trade of exotic animals. I think the focus of advisory is on regulation of trade of exotic species. Secondly, the survey and NOC from chief wildlife warden will give some control over such animals. Earlier it was being controlled through commerce ministry and directorate of foreign trade. Wildlife authorities were not in the loop. So, it is a step in the right direction. The authorities of wildlife need to be given more powers and resources,” says Vidyanand Garg, honorary secy, IIPA and former chairperson, UP Forest Corporation, former principal secretary, forest & environment. Many citizens of the country have kept CITES (Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species) enlisted exotic animal species in their possession while there is no unified database available of such stock of species both at the state or the central level. The registration will be done for the stock of animals, new progeny, as well as for import and exchange. This will help in better management of the species and guide the holders about proper veterinary care, housing and other aspects of well-being of the species.
However, the flip side is that being a mere advisory, it does not have the power of a law which makes it a bit impractical. According to HV Girisha, IFS, Regional Deputy Director (North Region), WCCB, New Delhi: “The advisory has defined the ‘exotics’ as those that are mentioned under the Appendices of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) but not under the Schedules of the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972. This limits its scope. As registration is a legal process, this advisory can be contradicted and be conflicting. Until and unless there is a law in place, how can the registration be valid?” For example, if someone is caught with undeclared stock, under which section of which law or act will he be booked? Also, there is no mention of the welfare standards of captive facilities that could lead to legal backyard breeding, Girisha rightly adds. The Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB) is an organisation that is tasked with monitoring illegal trade. Zoos are governed by guidelines of Central Zoo Authority (CZA). CZA is created through WildLife Protection Act (WLPA) and WLPA is for protection of indigenous species. No rule here to regulate the exotics, claim experts. Says former DGP UP, Dr Vikram Singh: “Under no section of the law can private zoos be allowed to operate. If it is done, then it is illegal and part of a nexus.” This raises the obvious question: If so, why is there a need to regularise something which is outright illegal? Deepak Kumar also points out: “As wild animals & its articles’ trade involves huge money and big dealers & hardcore criminals, we need many wings to work together – Intelligence agencies, police’s special task force, customs, wildlife experts (for identification & to check legal angle). Then, entry and exit points are most important and strict vigil & checking are needed there. Districts need to (a) broadcast/make clear that those in possession of exotic pets must declare any such species or its part within six months; They must also maintain proper documents and list of all such species, owners, other details etc. (b) If found undeclared, strict action needs to be taken by the district authorities and they must inform nearest custom & foreign trade officials. Also this action must be properly advertised for proper public awareness. Hence, awareness among masses is a must - if they see something fishy or doubtful, they must inform wildlife officers or the DFO of their district. Unless all these points are followed, we can’t get the desired result.”
On June 21, 2020, Kolkata airport officials arrested a man with exotic macaws and parrots, native to South America and New Guinea. The birds were smuggled from Bangladesh, and headed for Bengaluru, local media reported. This is not an isolated case. An instance was reported at Chennai International Airport on February 2, 2019 wherein a tiny leopard cub was found inside the luggage of a middle-aged man named Kaja Moideen. A month after this incident, another passenger flying in from Bangkok was found carrying African horned pit viper along with some iguanas and tortoises. Seizures at the Chennai airport include 18 kg peacock feathers meant to be smuggled to Malaysia and Singapore (13 March, 2019), 14 kg shark fins worth Rs 8 lakh from a man travelling to Singapore (21 January, 2019). The list is long. Of course exotic species have caught the fancy of affluent Indians. Many of the wildlife species whose trade was not considered illegal have served as a breeding place of many infectious diseases. In such a situation illegal trade flow of such animals will only add to the already deteriorating condition because of the contact between humans and the animals, claim experts. It is also important to note that 61% of human diseases potentially have zoonotic origin and 75% of globally emerging diseases have a link with wild animals. In case of exotic species, the problem is much more severe since they may record the presence of unrecognized microbes and microparasites. Example: Parrots and other exotic birds can transfer potentially deadly pathogens such as psittacosis, salmonella, and even avian tuberculosis to humans. After the trafficking of people, arms and drugs, wildlife smuggling is the biggest illegal trade in the world. It involves transportation and distribution of animals as well as their derivatives such as their skin, tusks, shells, hair etc. Social networks and online marketplaces have long been hubs of illegal activity. The illegal trade of wildlife animals has seen quite a rise in India. After the smuggling of Rhino horns, elephant tusks, the list has extended to Indian Pangolin, Mongoose, red sand boa, Bengal Monitor Lizard and even Tokay Gecko. The Indian Pangolin is the world’s most trafficked wild mammal and is on the verge of extinction. Red Sand Boa is mostly found in semi-desert and dry foothills of Rajasthan and brings in huge amount of money in the illegal wildlife trade business. As per the survey of Wildlife Protection Society of India, the animals which are poached are black bucks, blue bills, chinkaras, elephants, tigers, leopards, deer, Hill Mynah and many more.
Wildlife trade poses the second-biggest direct threat to the survival of species after habitat destruction. “India’s fast-growing air transport sector can pose a major problem. Wildlife trafficking by the air is generally of high-end, high-value products. In comparison, smuggling by seaports or land is large in volume or size,” says Saket Badola, head of the India office of TRAFFIC, a global wildlife trade monitoring network. The number of airports in India increased from 50 in 2009 to 127 in 2019, including 23 international airports which handled 66.54 million passengers in 2019-2020. India is among the top 20 countries for illegal wildlife trade. Chennai and Mumbai airports act as key destinations and origin points for traffickers, according to Runway to Extinction, a report published by C4ADS as part of the USAID ROUTES (Reducing Opportunities for Unlawful Transport of Endangered Species) Partnership in May 2020. The ROUTES partnership is global and multi-sectoral international with aim to disrupt wildlife trafficking activities. The ROUTES dashboard uses open source wildlife seizure data to inform wildlife trafficking through airports, between 2009 and 2020. “Flyers smuggle live animals via check-in baggage, hand baggage or air cargo,” M. Maranko, Regional Deputy Director of the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB) Western Region says. Over 31% of trafficked items were in checked luggage in India (43% globally) followed by air cargo at 20%, ROUTES data show. In 2019-2020 there were 114 violations related to the Wild Life Protection Act of India and EXIM Policy (foreign trade policy); and Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), says Tilotama Varma, Additional Director, WCCB. The first two are national laws, while CITES regulates global legal and illegal wildlife trade. Some fauna species seized as check-in or hand baggage were star tortoises, exotic birds, red-eared slider turtles, iguana, python, spiders, marmoset and tamarin monkeys, tricolour squirrels, and iguanas and even leopard cubs. Flora included red sanders, sandalwood, and kuth roots among others. Parts or derivatives included shark fins and peacock feathers. “We routinely conduct training and capacity building sessions for officers to cover wildlife products, species and derivatives,” explains Manoj Kumar, Joint Director at the National Academy of Customs, Excise and Narcotics where customs officials are trained. He adds that customs officers are regularly updated on the several multilateral environmental agreements under the global Green Customs Initiative, which includes CITES.
According to sources, a major concern is that the species and products listed under CITES aren’t harmonised with the Wildlife Protection Act of India. India’s protected list of species exclude other non-native, exotic animals and plants. So a species or product may be allowed for trade in the country where the flyer is coming from, but would be illegal in India. Similarly, India’s protected list of species may exclude other non-native, exotic animals and plants. Passengers who aren’t aware of the rules and regulations around wildlife may unknowingly purchase or bring prohibited items to India. Awareness campaigns aimed at the public and airport authorities are required to widen the understanding of threatened species, illegal wildlife trade and international conventions. The illegal wildlife supply-chain goes beyond the seizures at the airport. Dr Vikram Singh explains that curbing it requires identifying the forward and backward linkages with the cooperation of state forest and police departments, CBI, revenue intelligence, various border security departments, railway and industrial police forces, enforcement directorate, and customs. The supply-chain originates in forests and natural habitats, and involves several people, from locals and poachers to carriers responsible for transporting the consignments across and out of the country. To have an idea of the scale of reptile trade — since 2009, 1,11,312 individual tortoises or freshwater turtles (11,000 a year) were illegally traded across India, according to TRAFFIC. Over 60% of seizures, of tortoises or turtles, emerge from Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal. In 2019 UP police seized 5 caracals (cat native to Africa) & an African serval cat from wildlife traders in Mirzapur area. Hence, the latest advisory- if empowered by a competent law- can help nip the bud at the source!
India’s wildlife trade is thriving too: Report
In its first global report on the illegal wildlife trade, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) has described it as a “global threat”, which also has links with other organised crimes like modern slavery, drug trafficking and arms trade. Findings of the study, which expressed concern over the lack of focus on the financial aspects of the crime, are based on inputs from about 50 jurisdictions across the FATF global network, as well as expertise from the private sector and civil society. The “Money Laundering and the Illegal Wildlife Trade” report said “criminals are frequently misusing the legitimate wildlife trade, as well as other import-export type businesses, as a front to move and hide illegal proceeds from wildlife crimes. They also rely regularly on corruption, complex fraud and tax evasion”. The study has highlighted the growing role of online marketplaces and mobile and social media-based payments to facilitate movement of proceeds warranting a coordinated response from government bodies, the private sector and the civil society. The FATF found that jurisdictions often did not have the required knowledge, legislative basis and resources to assess and combat the threat posed by the funds generated through the illegal trade. The report recommended that jurisdictions should consider implementing the good practices, as observed during the study. They include providing all relevant agencies with the necessary mandate and tools; and cooperating with other jurisdictions, international bodies and the private sector. The FATF said legislative changes were necessary to increase the applicability of anti-money laundering laws to the illegal wildlife trade-linked offences. The report noted that in 2012, India amended the Prevention of Money Laundering Act removing a value threshold — of Rs 30 lakh and above — that was earlier applicable to the wildlife trade predicates. During the study, 22 of the 45 respondent countries considered themselves as source for wildlife crime, 18 as transit countries and 14 as destination countries. All but nine reported to be impacted by the risks from financial flows linked to the trade, with the majority of exceptions being European countries. According to the report, criminal syndicates are misusing formal financial sector to launder the proceeds. Funds are laundered through cash deposits, under the guise of loans or payments, e-banking platforms, licensed money value transfer systems, and third-party wire transfers via banks. Accounts of innocent victims are also used and high-value payments avoided to evade detection. Front companies, often linked to import-export industries, and shell firms are used for the movement of goods and trans-border money transfers. Another common trend is the misuse of front companies with links to the legal wildlife trade, said the report. “Other industries that may be more vulnerable to misuse include traditional medicine, décor and jewellery and fashion,” it said. Respondent countries said the criminals were also buying high-value goods, such as real estate and luxury items, to launder the proceeds. According to the 2016 UN World Wildlife Crime report, criminals are illegally trading products derived from over 7,000 species of wild animals and plants across the world.
Wildlife poaching doubles during lockdown: Report
Wildlife poachers in the country have used the situation arising out of the coronavirus pandemic to their advantage. While the authorities were busy combating the pandemic, these poachers were stealthily increasing their criminal activities in the jungles. According to a report released by TRAFFIC India with support from World Wildlife Fund (WWF) India, the incidents of poaching for consumption and local trade had more than doubled during the lockdown. It happened despite consistent efforts by the law enforcement agencies to curb poaching, while clearly pointing out that wild animal population in India was under additional threat during the lockdown period. However there was no evidence of stockpiling of wildlife products for future trade, the report added. This increase in poaching was noticed uniformly throughout the country and not restricted to any geographical region or state or to any specific wildlife area. The analysis was carried out by comparing media reported instances of poaching during the six week pre-lockdown period (February 10 to March 22, 2020) with those from six weeks of lockdown (March 23 to May 3, 2020). The report, “Indian Wildlife Amidst The COVID-19 Crisis: An Analysis Of Poaching And Illegal Wildlife Trade Trends,” pointed out that the overall poaching incidences rose from 35 to 88. According to the report, the highest increase in poaching was reported to be of Ungulates, mainly for their meat. The second group, which showed a marked increase was poaching of “small mammals” including hares, porcupines, pangolins, giant squirrels, civets, monkeys, smaller wild cats. From six cases in the pre lockdown period, the number rose to 222 during the lockdown period. Interestingly, incidences related to wild pet-bird seizures nearly halved from 14 percent to 7 percent between the pre-lockdown and lockdown periods probably due to a lack of transport and closed markets. However, larger birds such as Indian Peafowls and game birds such as Grey Francolins, consumed for their meat, were targeted during the lockdown. According to Dr Saket Badola, Head of TRAFFIC’s India Office: “The reason for the sudden spurt in the poaching seems to be because of the increase in the number of villagers staying close to the vicinity of jungles being jobless, entering the forest area in search of meat and also to make quick money.” “The more than doubling of reported poaching cases, mainly of Ungulates and small wild animals for meat, is doubtless placing additional burden on wildlife law enforcement agencies. Therefore, it is imperative that these agencies are supported adequately and in a timely manner so that they can control the situation”, he added.
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