Illegal Wildlife Trade: The Need to Look Within

It is often said, in Newtonian fashion, that what goes up, must come down. While this adage may apply to many things in the modern era, sadly, it doesn’t hold entirely true for crimes against wildlife. It applies lesser still to the illegal trade of wildlife – an organised crime that is growing exponentially and today, is considered globally to be fourth only to arms, human, and drugs trafficking. 

Like with many a societal ill, we assume that wildlife crime, particularly illegal wildlife trade (IWT), is not happening around us. We are given to believe and want to believe that it is a “foreign” problem. Reports on recent gargantuan seizures of wildlife contraband in countries like Singapore and Vietnam further this notion. However, the fact remains that while a large portion of India’s wildlife is hunted to meet the international demand for wild animal and plant-based products, a significant amount of hunting occurs due to localised, domestic reasons.

Source: Downtoearth.org 

Examples of IWT within India abound. Shells as ornaments and in interior decoration are commonplace occurrences. Ivory figurines lie scattered across homes in most corners of India, often acquired as family heirloom. Then, there’s wild boar or deer meat that many of you may have tasted or know someone who has. Not to forget the coral that adorns the jewellery of many. Broadly speaking, the drivers of domestic IWT include demand for wild animal meat (in rural areas as well as selected urban pockets), and use of wildlife parts in the “treatment” of everything from common cold to cancer by roadside quacks, of wildlife derivatives in pharmaceutical, fashion and construction industries, and of wild animal parts in a plethora of religious and ritualistic practices. 

While activists and conservationists have gone hoarse talking about the need to protect the nation’s wildlife against such frivolous use, it has made but a dent in the demand for wildlife-based products. 

This is definitely, however, not for the want of stronger laws. All of India’s world-renowned biodiversity is protected under the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972. The entirety of the nation’s wildlife (which as per this extensive Act includes both terrestrial and aquatic animals and plants) is listed under six schedules which afford them protection in varying degrees. Offenses under the Act can attract imprisonment from three to seven years and/or fines that range from Rs. 10,000 to 2 lakhs. Any ownership or trade of wildlife is strictly prohibited, except through a strictly regulated permit system. Unfortunately, the exemptions made under the Act for trade and/or ownership in live elephants, peacock feathers and snake venom have been severely abused, despite being strictly defined. 

So, while we waste no time in pointing a finger (even if a well-deserved one) at the use of wildlife for traditional Chinese medicine, we haven’t spent the time to introspect the decimation of our wildlife by our own hands and tastes. In a recent conversation with a friend, it struck me that we are largely blindsided to this self-inflicted damage to our natural wealth. This friend was of the opinion that since increased policing has shown to decrease human crime, we should be able to combat wildlife crime in the country by simply increasing vigilance by forest officials. The solution, however, is not so simplistic. 

Various governmental and non-governmental agencies in India have individually and jointly tried numerous methods to combat IWT that carries on within India’s forests, hinterland, and urban jungles alike. Yet, success stories are few and far between. We haven’t had an enforcement success of the scale achieved by Interpol and the World Customs Organisation (WCO) in their ‘Operation Thunderstorm’, even though India’s decorated agency, the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB), was involved in the mission. While this operation served well to highlight how far and wide the roots of IWT have spread across the world, learnings from this exercise are yet to help ascertain its exact extent within India.

Demand-reduction campaigns have been successful tools in nations as intensely wildlife-consumptive as China, but they haven’t thus far been deployed at an effective scale in India. In May 2019, the WCCB launched a campaign in collaboration with the UN Environment. This campaign aims at sensitising commuters at airports on wildlife crime, and its focus chiefly is wildlife that is smuggled to international markets. In any case, it’s too early to judge its efficacy. 

To add to these issues, the nation’s criminal justice system has been repeatedly inefficient in bringing to book India’s wildlife criminals. The already overburdened frontline forest staff has limited steam left to committedly fight against wildlife crime. Other enforcement agencies, including the ubiquitous Police, have their hands full with primary duties and wildlife crime is not a top priority for them. When presented with wildlife cases, Judges tend to prematurely grant bail to the accused(s) owing to either their sympathy towards “poor villagers who are just trying to make ends meet” or their apathy to the dire threats faced by wildlife. If and when the case makes it past this roadblock, the physical evidence tends to fall short of judicial standards or eye-witnesses fall dead-silent, if not already dead. When these roadblocks are cleared, the sentence that is ultimately delivered hardly serves as a deterrent to the crime. 

If we as a developing superpower are keen to force a reduction in IWT happening within our own shores and set an example for our neighbours to follow, we must increase our efforts to educate India’s people about the ecological impact and legal repercussions of consuming wildlife and their derivatives. We must encourage scientific research and development for the creation of ethical and sustainable alternatives to wildlife-based products and create an atmosphere promoting greater citizen ownership of the environment. Without the use of such forces against it, in true Newtonian fashion, IWT will continue to grow unabatedly. 

C. Samyukta

C. Samyukta is the Head of Forensics at the Wildlife Conservation Trust, Mumbai.

The views and opinions expressed in the article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Tilak Chronicle and TTC Media Pvt Ltd.

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