India's Wildlife Trade: Success and Failures of Protecting Endangered Species
By Natasha Kabała, Science Writer
Your first thoughts of India may be fantastically spiced foods, an incredible assortment of teas, and magnificent landscapes. It may not ever occur to you that when visiting this country you may cross paths with some of the most proficient poachers in Asia, but you’d be wrong.
India has an immense amount of biodiversity and, as a result, has become a hotspot for poaching, causing many of its native species to face extinction. Illegal wildlife trafficking in India has become more organized and sophisticated as the wealth and technology in the trade have grown. Many large gangs with significant networks and influence are involved, making it much more difficult to regulate. As a result, India’s native wildlife such as tigers, elephants, and rhinoceros, as well as products from other endangered animals internationally, have and continue to suffer.
History of Hunting in India
Like many countries with established poaching, India has a long history of large game poaching dating back to the 16th century. Poaching of animals such as tigers, elephants, and rhinos began as a tradition in India when the Mughal emperor Jalal-ud-Din Muhammad Akbar fell in love with the sport. From then on, the practice of large game hunting was perceived as a royal activity and was a sign of power and wealth.
Over time, these traditions have had a devastating effect on the populations of many endangered animals in India. Furthermore, other cultural perceptions in Asia have contributed to the continuation of poaching and increased the demand across the planet for animal products from tigers, rhinos and elephants. The belief that tiger necklaces bring the wearer power and good-luck or that certain animal bones or horn have almost magical medicinal properties that cure a variety of diseases has encouraged poaching to become the huge trade that it is today.
Several laws in place in India and around the globe protect endangered wildlife. Many endangered animals, including tigers, rhinos and elephants, are protected in India by the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972. Under this act, most people are prohibited from hunting, possessing, buying or selling protected wild animals or animal parts. In 1976, India also joined the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES); binding India by the regulations of this convention as well.
Unfortunately, such laws are ineffective if they are not enforced and, in many areas, it is common for wildlife trafficking to go unnoticed. However, there are many success stories that reflect the potential positive impacts of these laws. In May 2016 ,traffickers who were found smuggling the body parts of an estimated 125 tigers and 1200 leopards were given a four-year jail sentence for their crimes. More recently in June 2018, 12 tusks were seized and six men arrested in the region of Tamil Nadu. Sadly, these successes still involved the death of endangered species, but local officials hope that by removing poaching gangs, there will be fewer people removing these animals from the wild.
The Illegal Wildlife Trade in India
India is one of the principal countries involved in the illegal wildlife trade, especially in tigers. Of the 481 seizures since 1987, 275 were within India. Stories like that of Sita, the tiger made famous for being photographed for National Geographic before she went missing in 1998 from Bandhavgarh National Park, drew more attention to the crisis. Sita is suspected to have been a victim of the poaching crisis after a pelt matching her coloration was found nearby in the house of a known poacher.
It has been estimated that 34 tigers were poached in India in 2018, and already 10 this year. The exact number of tigers poached is difficult to determine because it is only based on the number of tiger parts seized and so this number may be much higher. With less than 4,000 individuals left in the wild, these poaching statistics are worrying for the tiger’s future. With animals like tigers being poached so numerously, it is likely that they will become extinct in the wild in our lifetime.
The laws and regulations to protect India’s wildlife cannot be beneficial if they are not enforced effectively. Transporting products and smaller animals illegally still require little effort across many regions of India. A seller interviewed by The Times of India said that “There is no checking [buses], and transportation cost is low.” Moreover, trains can be easily used if boarded from a small station to avoid checks. Additionally, bribing officials is a common practice employed by poachers and wildlife traffickers.
According to another seller, “there are agents for these [endangered] animals and if you pay the right amount, you will get whatever you want.” This illegal cooperation allows many small animals, such as endangered turtles and birds, or animal parts, including those from tigers and rhinos, to be transported across India easily and with little risk to the poacher or seller.
As a result, the most expensive cost of transporting live animals is the high death rate rather than the transportation itself. Amongst animals, however, the severely low transportation costs for traders means they are relatively unfazed by this. The death rate when trafficking animals can be as high as 30%, but this figure does not include those that die after they are transported to markets and buyers. The high death rate has an even more devastating effect on endangered species because, since many die in transit, more will be taken from the wild to keep up with demand.
The Siliguri Corridor
In North-East India, the country bottlenecks between Nepal and Bangladesh; this area is called the “Siliguri Corridor”. Some regions, such as Sikkim and Assam, are almost completely isolated from mainland India. Since it is perfectly situated in the middle of Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, and Myanmar, this area is a hotspot for illegal trafficking . In February 2018, there was a major seizure in the Assam region, and authorities stated that the shipment was likely to be on its way to Nepal. In July 2018, 9kg of ivory was seized in the city of Siliguri.
These types of seizures prove how prevalent trafficking still is in this area. Furthermore, it’s easily traversable international borders make it easy to transport protected animals and products to neighboring countries, and therefore illegal wildlife trafficking is incredibly difficult to regulate in this region.
In addition to bypassing the country’s legal system, social media has made it even easier now for traders to buy and sell products. Social platforms, such as Facebook, have many groups that offer exotic pets and animal products worldwide. With social media, animals and their products can be transported after a buyer has already been secured.
By keeping the animals in private residences, wildlife traffickers don’t have to keep animals in markets where law enforcement could raid their products. Some buyers even have their own personal, safer transport back to their home countries, which makes regulating the transportation of exotics more difficult.
India's Enduring Illegal Wildlife Trade
India’s biodiversity is distinct and beautiful but, unfortunately, this variety of life also means that it is targeted by poachers for the wildlife trade. Despite laws and regulations protecting endangered species and their sales, the trade is still flourishing. With wildlife sales now being made online, this trade has never been easier. In addition, many animal products are sold abroad, so conservation efforts not only have to focus on the culture within India but to also discourage the demand internationally. Only by doing this will endangered animals in India be protected from extinction.
Spreading knowledge and awareness about these issues is one of the best ways to end the trade and increase public awareness of its devastation. The world's tigers have faced centuries of environmental and poaching pressure that is only now beginning to ease. As we work towards building a better, more sustainable future for these animals, it’s essential that we do it united globally. If you’re ready to join in the fight to protect the world’s tiger populations, join us at Stop Poaching Now today!