FEATURE:

WILDLIFE TRADE: PUSHING SPECIES TO THE BRINK OF EXTINCTION

As we near the year 2000, there is a spurt in illegal wildlife trade. Attempts are also increasing to smuggle wildlife and their products out of the country. The global wildlife trade, estimated to be $25 billion annually, has a major percentage originating from our country. India has indeed become a conduit for the illegal wildlife trade.

The experience of TRAFFIC-India (Trade Record Analysis of Flora and Fauna), the wildlife trade monitoring arm of WWF-India, tells us that the trade in wildlife products includes the highly endangered species such as the tiger, rhino, musk deer, bear, elephant, and falcons, besides the commonly found parakeet and other birds. The trade is reportedly next in value only to the narcotics and illegal arms trafficking.

The Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 (amended up to 1991) clearly prohibits killing, selling, buying or keeping wild animals in captivity. Despite the Act, the trade continues to flourish.


To the Brink

Wildlife trade has pushed several species to the brink. Tiger is one such precious animal hunted all over its range for its skin, bones and other parts,besides finding use in trophies. In fact, every part of the animal is used in one way or the other. Its bones find their way into traditional oriental medicine, though there is no scientific evidence of their efficacy. Most consumers of tiger parts are from South-East Asia (China, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan). In India, tiger skins have a ready market and sell for anything between Rs. 5,000 to Rs. 10,000 each.

To fulfill the demand for tiger bones, even related species are used as substitutes, and these include the leopard, the Snow Leopard and the Golden Cat. The global demand for fur coat from India pushes 20 species of wild mammals into illegal trade , ranging from the Snow Leopard and Cluded Leopard, to the desert cat, jackal, and the wolf.

The killing of the Tibetan antelope, or chiru, to extract its underwool for making Shahtoosh shawls is perhaps the most dastardly of all crimes. It is estimated that about three to four antelopes are slaughtered to make a single shawl, considered to be one of the finest natural fibres in the world.

Another highly endangered animal, the one-horned rhino, is hunted for its horn. These horns are smuggled to South-East Asia for use in traditional medicine, falsely believed to be useful as an aphrodisiac and for the treatment of blood pressure, paralysis, and brain fever.

Musk or Kasturi, as it is popularly known in India, is yet another commonly traded product. Derived from the musk pod of the highly endangered musk deer, a high altitude Himalayan species persecuted in most of its distribution area, it is considered to be a natural perfume fixative and used in the Aryuveda, Tibetan and Unani systems of medicine.

Poaching

The poaching of the Asian elephant for ivory has severely depleted its population. Male tuskers are the main quarry of poachers. The killings have adversely affected the animalÕs sex ratio. During 1994-1998, more than 100 cases were reported from the Southern States of India alone. Several other species such as the pangolin and civets are killed for their parts to be used in tribal medicine.

The trade in live mammals is another area which demands greater attention. Wild species of mammals such as the blackbuck, the giant squirrel, the Slow Lorris and several species of primates figure in the domestic as well as international trade from India. They are used in private collections, zoos, and in circuses. Rhesus monkeys are needed for some biomedical researches. Endangered species such as the red panda, golden langur, Hoolock Gibbon and the lion-tailed macaque are all reported to be in trade.

The trade in live birds, however, is one of the most widespread areas, in terms of diversity and species involved. At a conservative estimate, atleast 1.5 lakh birds of heavy 300 species of indigenous wild caught birds are captured and traded. Species such as parakeets, mynah and munia are traded as pets; ducks, storks, waders, partridges, quails and buntings for food; and falcons for sport.

In the last category, several more species such as the Peregrine and Saker Falcons are regularly smuggled to West Asia, to end up with wealthy Sheikhs, who use them for hunting the Houbara bustard. Several hundred bulbuls end up in "bulbul fights" in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, which are then said to be released. Birds are also used in black magic and for their supposedly medicinal properties. The horned owls, hornbills, egrets, and hoopoes belong to this group. Following the ban on exports, traders have resorted to the bird release business. Several sects and communities, including the Jains and Sindhis, buy birds and free them as an act of doing good.

Trade Survey

According to the recent trade survey carried out by TRAFFIC, the trade in marine species also warrants a special attention. Besides turtles and tortoises slaughtered for meat and for the pets business, the unchecked trade in sharks is also alarming. Products made of turtle shells are freely available in states like Orissa and other areas.

Several species of snakes such as the python, cobra and sand boa are caught in the wild by snake charmers for street performances. Snakes are also skinned alive for making shoes, purses and fashion apparel. Similarly, monitor lizards are killed for their skin, which finds application in drums. Several hundreds of Uromatrix or Sanda are collected from Gujarat and Rajasthan and their oil is sold as aphrodisiac. This illegal trade is particularly prevalent in the lanes of Old Delhi.

Insects such as butterfiles are regularly collected from Himachal and the North-East, very often by foreign tourists. They are then sold to museums and private collectors for a premium, or end up as ornamental drawing room hangings.

Unless the ongoing trade in wildlife and its derivatives is stopped, most species-faced as they are with problems of habitat loss, fragmentation and inbreeding - will be lost forever. The cheetah is a classic example, a species hunted to the dead end of extinction in India. A beginning can only be made if the consumer is sensitised to the issue. And only if demand is curtailed will the illegal trade of our invaluable flora and fauna stop.

Sensitising the Place

A major initiative by TRAFFIC-India has been its "Don't Buy Trouble" Campaign through which it has been attempting to sensitise the general public and the major enforcement agencies to the need of acting now, and for more effective implementation of laws. As part of the campaign, a series of workshops has been organised throughout the country for organisations such as the police, the ITBP, Coast Guard, forest officials, the CBI, the Customs and school and college students. Through these campaigns, the people are also becoming aware of the modus operandi of the wildlife traders.

Much of the wildlife trade takes place through the porous borders and unless our neighbours cooperate, the illegal trade will go unabated. Greater cooperation among the SAARC countries is called for to arrest this illegal activity. Our tribal people involved in the wildlife business need to be rehabilitated and offered alternative livelihood opportunities to lessen their dependence on wildlife. No doubt, this can be achieved only in a phased manner. It is indeed sad that the kingpins, who reap the maximum profits in this business, still elude the law, or get away with practically light punishments. By all accounts, there is every need for better enforcement, which is perhaps the only ways to control this shameful harvest.