India's high demand for exotic pets leads to rise in animal smuggling

Legal loopholes are another reason for the increase, highlighted when five mongooses and a common spotted cuscus were found in luggage

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Six live animals have been seized from the checked-in luggage of a passenger in Chennai, in a case that highlights a growing trend for smuggling rare species into India and loopholes in its wildlife laws.

Airport officials found five dwarf mongooses and a common spotted cuscus, a marsupial that lives in Australia and New Guinea, last week. They were concealed in the bags of a traveller from Thailand.

The animals were returned to their native countries and the passenger was arrested, but the incident yet again exposed the rise in cases of smuggling of wildlife into the country.

In recent years, India has witnessed a surge in the smuggling of rare, exotic animals such as tortoises, birds including cockatoos and macaws, civets and snakes. They come from South-east Asian countries such as Malaysia and Thailand and are used for meat, superstitious practices and to own as pets.

More than 70,000 native and exotic animals were trafficked through 18 Indian airports between 2011 and 2020, said a report by Traffic, a partner of the UN Environment Programme.

Smugglers usually use land routes through the country’s north-eastern region bordering Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar and Bangladesh to smuggle the animals, but many fly into airports.

Earlier this month, officials at the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence — the federal anti-smuggling intelligence agency — arrested two people for allegedly smuggling 665 exotic animals including turtles, pythons, lizards and iguanas worth a total of 30 million rupees ($364,000).

The animals were smuggled from Malaysia in air cargo. More than 100 of them were found dead.

Police in the remote north-eastern state Mizoram in August detained two men carrying six crates of exotic animals, including grey langurs, two hoolock gibbons and a Phayre’s leaf monkey — all native to South and South-east Asia — in a lorry.

In April, local people in Siliguri, West Bengal, were bemused when a pair of kangaroos — which are famously native to Australia, not India — were spotted bouncing along a motorway.

The animals were rescued and sent to a wildlife park, where one of them later died.

The directorate said in its annual smuggling report in 2020 that one of the challenges law enforcement officials face is the volume of international traffic and “ever-changing methods used to smuggle wildlife products”.

“Organisations and well-connected criminal gangs blend illegal consignments with the huge volume of legitimate trade, blending non-protected species with protected ones or using fraudulent documents,” the directorate said.

In 2020, as the coronavirus pandemic gripped the nation, the environment ministry introduced a one-time voluntary disclosure programme allowing owners of exotic live species acquired illegally or without documents to declare them to the government from June that year to March 2021.

More than 32,000 people declared the ownership of exotic pets, with experts believing most were acquired illegally.

Wildlife experts say the reason for a rise in smuggling of these animals and birds is the high demand for them as pets, combined with major legal loopholes that encourage the illegal trade in the country.

India has tough wildlife protection laws and lists animals according to threats they face and the levels of protection required. But the legislation is applicable only to native animals or those listed.

Some of the 81 star tortoises found in the luggage of an Indian man arriving from Chennai in Bangkok. AFP

There are no regulations to protect non-native species described as “exotic animals” in the legislation, making their smuggling a negligible offence.

There is nothing in India's Wildlife Protection Act 1972 that mandates arrest or prosecution for possessing and smuggling exotic animals and birds. Most of the arrests are made under India’s criminal law.

India is also a signatory of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, a 1975 treaty designed to ensure the protection of plants and animals. But because of a lack of proper legislative structure, it often fails to curb the problem.

“Smuggling happened earlier also, but there is a higher demand after Covid,” Tito Joseph, programme manager of the Wildlife Protection Society of India, told The National. “Earlier, we believed only rich people were purchasing but there’s a demand even from the middle-income class.”

Mr Joseph said that while customs can arrest people, there is no way to prosecute them under the Wildlife Protection Act.

Customs officials have the authority to stop people from transporting wild animals if they do not have proper permits and deport the animals to their native countries, but the smugglers often get away with minor punishments.

“If exotic species are detected at the customs point, they can seize the animals and register a case under the Customs Act, but when the animals are detected somewhere else, the legislation doesn’t apply,” Mr Joseph said.

“Most of the time, laws like cruelty against the animals are applicable on the smugglers, for which the punishment is [much lower].”

India has an archaic law to prosecute those accused of cruelty towards animals, with offenders fined ten rupees (12 cents) to 100 rupees ($1.22) for repeat offences and given three months in prison.

India’s Parliament in August cleared a bill to amend the Wildlife Act. This would help to regulate the domestic trade in exotic animals and their possession.

However, the bill is yet to be passed by the upper house of Parliament.

Mr Joseph hopes that if the government “incorporates such species” and the law is enacted, the smuggling will be reduced.

Updated: November 01, 2022, 4:43 AM