Friday , 22 March 2019

Penchant for the exotic?

Maneka Sanjay Gandhi

A restaurant in Lokhandwala, Mumbai has a large cage bearing two pygmy monkeys. When I sent a member of the State Animal Welfare Board to arrest the owners, we were told by the forest department that there was no law to confiscate foreign monkeys or arrest the owners. These smugglers will continue to display these severely endangered monkeys till I find a way to shut them down.

Last month a ‘pet fair’ took place in Pune, with exotic birds, fish and pedigreed dogs. Though it had no permissions, the police and the forest department took no action because there is no law that protects foreign species in India. The new chairman of the Animal Welfare Boarad had given the permission to hold the ‘exhibition’ as long as they did not sell the animals. (They secretly sold the animals in black.)

In Bangalore three months ago, a house was raided and three ball pythons were found. The forest department refused to register a case and the man then absconded and released the snakes in the open.  So, now you have exotic snakes in the wild in Bangalore. In Uttar Pradesh a man recently died of snake bite from an African pit viper brought illegally as a pet and then released here.

Go to a normal illegal pet shop – illegal because no shops in this country are licensed to sell animals – you will find dozens of exotic species, from macaws to snakes and snails and spiders. The Internet has hundreds of exotic animals on sale: macaws from Bolivia, Argentina and Mexico, fish and turtles, fox squirrels, ferrets, frogs, snakes, sharks, monkeys, lizards and iguanas.

How did these get into India? There is a nexus of smugglers and Indian customs departments. Animals come in containers from Singapore and pass easily through customs at the ports especially Kolkata, Mumbai and Chennai. The smaller animals come even through airports; Bangalore is notorious for its customs officers.

The fault lies with the Ministry for Environment, which ceased to exist as a functioning body 20 years ago. The Wildlife Crime Bureau has repeatedly asked the Ministry to amend the laws and label the smuggling/sale/buying of exotic species as a criminal offence, to no avail. In order to delay any action, and perhaps protect smugglers, they keep making committees to review the Wildlife Protection Act 1972. (During Jairam’s time, no matter how he poses as a great environmentalist, he refused to take action and stop illegal bird markets on the written ‘recommendation’ of 22 large criminal smugglers who protested that it would hamper their right to earn money). Sunita Narain took years and did nothing of value. 15 years have passed and now another committee has been made under Rajesh Gopal who says that it will go nowhere.

In the meantime smuggling and transactions of foreign species worth 8-10 crores take place every day. You can go to jail for keeping a rosy ringed parakeet or a myna in your house, and not if you keep cockatiels, African grey parrots or lorikeets.

All these exotic species smuggled into India are listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as endangered with only a few thousand left, and are banned for capture in their own countries. The Military Macaw is found only in the forest between Argentina and Mexico. Even the Lovebirds, the little parrots brought in from Australia, die en route in the thousands; the rest last less than a year, as they cannot take any temperature variations. Australia has put them on the endangered species list and no one in that country can buy them; but China and India are swallowing them wholesale.

According to a correspondent who posed as a buyer in Mumbai, at Mausam Patel’s Baba Aquarium that proudly sells soft-shelled turtles in pairs for `4000, this is imported from China, and we can ship them to any part of India.

When asked about legalities of importing these turtles, he said, “Importing requires permission, that we have ways to deal with. Once they reach India, there’s no problem.” S Siva has posted more than 40 different types of macaws on his website for sale including the yellow collar macaw, scarlet blue gold and blue gold macaws. Each pair costs ` 2 lakh. While openly advertised, the trade is entirely in black.

A reporter from The Sunday Guardian recently contacted an online seller of exotic wild animals – iguanas, chameleons, snakes, monitor lizards and spiders – and was guaranteed home delivery after half payment. In fact, if you joined his club, you would get one exotic wild animal every month. The price of an iguana is about `18,000, while a tarantula costs `16,000. Chameleons are sold at a price of `12,000.

The Zoological Survey of India, the Central Zoo Authority, the wildlife department of each state and the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau sit by and watch silently. No action is taken on this massive criminal activity because the Ministry for Environment and Forests will not make rules.

In Delhi where all the lawmakers live, you can get anything easily. I can pick up any exotic species I want – from tarantula spiders, black squirrels, rattlesnakes from the American desert, any kind of wild cat, turtle or emu. There is a person in Mehrauli who sells these from his basement. When he was raided, the forest department refused to arrest him on the grounds that all these were exotic.

This trade in wild animals, their articles, trophies cured/uncured, is in complete violation of national and international guidelines such as Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and legislations such as the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 and Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960 etc.

We have signed the CITES treaty making the trade of foreign birds and animals illegal but we still don’t have an office 40 years later and the Customs or the Forest department, who are raking in the money, refuse to learn or apply it.

We need rules on exotic species and we need them now. We need a strong CITES division; to catch and sack corrupt customs officers; and to strengthen the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau. There are three nations that are destroying all the species of the world by encouraging and allowing foreign species to come into their countries: America, China and India.

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