Kangaroos on the Street and a Suitcase of Iguanas: India’s Exotic Pet Problem | Illegal wildlife trade
FFrom red-eared turtles, cockatoos and hawks to yellow-cheeked gibbon, capuchin monkeys and orangutans, nothing is too much for discerning pets in India. But it was the sight of three kangaroos roaming the streets of West Bengal’s Jalpaiguri district in April that revealed the scale of the exotic pet trade in the country.
The malnourished kangaroos were intercepted after reports from local residents. One of the rescued marsupials later died, while the other two are recovering and will be housed at a nearby zoo.
A senior forestry official said the indian express at the time: “We are surprised to know who brought these kangaroos here, and how. We suspect they were smuggled into Nepal.
The kangaroos were the latest in a series of cases of exotic species trafficking to India in recent years: in April, five exotic monkeys and a wallaby were rescued in Assam, shortly after the discovery of five siamang gibbons in the same condition; 30 exotic birds and a red-eared guenon, native to Africa and listed as vulnerable on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, were intercepted at the Mizoram-Assam border in January 2021; in July 2020, also in Assam, a kangaroo, blue macaws, capuchin monkeys and Aldabra giant tortoises were rescued; and in October 2019Customs at Tiruchirappalli International Airport in Tamil Nadu seized a suitcase full of exotic reptiles, including iguanas.
According to a report by India traffic, more than 70,000 native and exotic wildlife have been seized at Indian airports between 2011 and 2020, many of which were on the IUCN Red List and the Appendices of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora wildlife threatened with extinction (Cites). The most common non-native species seized was the red-eared slider turtle, followed by the Chinese slider turtle.
Exotic pets are sold in markets and pet shops across India, as well as online. A period of two years study discovered that up to 84 species of exotic reptiles were traded in India between 2018 and 2020.
“India is both a source and a destination for the illegal wildlife trade, and sometimes also a transit route,” says Jose Louies, wildlife crime control officer at the Wildlife Trust of India. “The trade of exotic animals to India is driven by demand from people who want to own something exclusive and expensive, as a symbol of style or status, in defiance of their natural habitat. Most animals end up in a zoo, as the country of origin may not repatriate them.
Dr Saket Badola, Head of Traffic India, says: “The number and diversity of alien species smuggled into India has surprised everyone. We attribute this to the growing number of Indians with disposable income and the influence of social media, where people are exposed to exotic species kept as pets around the world.
Traffickers exploit a loophole in India’s 1978 law Wildlife Protection Act, which protects native species but does not cover imported or exotic species. Trade in any CITES-listed alien species is only permitted with licenses, certificates and import and export authorizations issued by the competent authorities. However, the animal can be traded freely once it enters India.
In June 2020, India’s Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change offered amnesty to Indians in possession of undocumented alien species. More … than 32,000 people declared animals, including kangaroos, iguanas and lemurs, according to a report by IndiaSpend, a data-driven journalism initiative.
“There are many concerns about this illegal trade,” says Badola. “In addition to threatening species in their natural habitat, they can spread zoonotic diseases as they travel around the world, carrying pathogens and viruses unknown to this part of the world. Many invasive imported species can also threaten local species.
“Most illegal shipments arrive by air, as many species are very expensive. To minimize losses, they are hidden in boxes and plastic bottles, in hand luggage, checked baggage or air cargo. Others arriving overland are smuggled across the porous borders with Myanmar, Bangladesh and Nepal.
Many seized animals are repatriated, but if their country of origin is unclear, they are quarantined and then sent to local zoos or animal parks.
“The main concern is that invasive species that reach the country through this international trade could impact our biodiversity,” Louies says.
Traffic works with customs officers at airports, training staff to be aware of illegal contraband beyond gold or narcotics. They have also developed an online wildlife trade course, including relevant laws, red flags to look out for at airports and how to handle seizures of dangerous species.
Activists hope the Wildlife (Protection) Amendment Bill, 2021 will be passed by the Indian parliament this year, increasing the number of species protected by law.
“The proposed amendment empowers the government to regulate or prohibit the import, trade, possession or proliferation of invasive alien species that pose a threat to wildlife or habitat,” said Debadityo Sinha of the Vidhi Center for Legal Policy.
But, he adds: “The proposed definition of ‘invasive alien species’ is limited only to species that are not native to India. Ideally, this definition should include all species not native to the geographic range. We have many examples that indicate that species from one geographic area can become invasive and pose a threat to local biodiversity when introduced to other geographic areas of the country.