Time for a wake-up call

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Samir Sinha

Extremism often coincides with loss of high-value forest and wildlife

By Samir Sinha

Wildlife smuggling is one of the fastest growing forms of trans-national organised crime. Interpol estimates illegal wildlife trade to be worth between $10-20 billion annually. While major markets for such products lie outside our geographical borders, India, a biodiversity hotspot, is a natural target.

While the trade in tiger derivatives is widely talked about, there are a lot more to wildlife smuggling. For example, Red Sanders (Pterocarpus santalinus), a tree species found in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, is one major target for smuggling gangs, who are pushing consignments across land borders into China. Over 250 tonnes of Red Sanders logs from India has been confiscated by authorities in Nepal in the past few years. In India, huge quantities have been seized along the border from Ladakh to Manipur, in addition to several container full consignments at our marine ports.

The trade in wild bird species across our cities and towns is perhaps the most visible symbol of illegal wildlife trade. Studies by TRAFFIC India report over 450 of the approximately 1,300 Indian wild bird species in international and domestic bird trade. Of these, many like Parakeets and Munias continue to be caught in very high numbers.

Wild elephants and rhinos are being targeted in very large numbers. An estimated 23,676 kg of illegal ivory were confiscated globally in 13 major seizures in 2011, a dramatic rise from 2010, when less than 10,000 kg was seized in six major hauls. South Africa alone lost 448 rhinos last year, up from 333 killed in 2010 and 122 in 2009. Till 9 May 2012, 201 rhinos had already been poached.

The escalation in ivory and rhino horn trade is being driven by Asian syndicates that are now focussing on Africa but the scenario could change rapidly. India’s rhino and elephant numbers are much less than in Africa, but the market forces are sitting much closer to us. While the Indo-Nepal and Indo-China borders are well-known hotspots, many wildlife consignments are now being routed through Bangladesh. Myanmar has also emerged as a major market for high-value wildlife products sourced from India.

Nepal has had good success recently and 2011 was a Zero Rhino Poaching year. This could mean added pressure on India’s rhino population. The syndicates are now targeting even museums in Europe and elsewhere. This is time for us to strengthen security of our wildlife product stockpiles across states.

Across the globe, trans-national criminal organisations involved in arms, narcotics and human trafficking are also involved in wildlife smuggling. Many such enterprises are enmeshed with insurgency. Proceeds from such illegal trade are seen as a soft option for raising resources for insurgent activities. This has major implications for national security.

There is a clear need to overhaul the prevalent institutional mindset that accords wildlife trade regulation dismally low priority across India and the region. This 21st century crime can no longer be tackled by a 19th century mindset or tools.

An IFS officer and the author of Handbook on Wildlife Law Enforcement in India, Sinha was till recently heading TRAFFIC India

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