As India went into lockdown, poachers were seen blatantly killing the animals and birds in the wild. Could illegal wildlife trade be an actual never-ending ordeal?
While the country was trying to curb the spread of coronavirus, poachers and illegal wildlife traders exploited the jungles like never before. Over the last year, the rise in illegal trafficking has become one of the most pressing threats to the animals and birds in India that may lead to the unprecedented loss of many species. Many of these animals remain endangered, or worse, are nearing extinction. Not just that, killing and consumption of these animals can also potentially spread the zoonoses, such as SARS-CoV-2
An Indian pangolin seen in the wild
TRAFFIC, an NGO formed by World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the International Union for Conservation (IUCN) that keeps a check on wildlife trade activities around the world conducted a study to compare the occurrences of hunting/killing/poaching of wild animals in the pre-lockdown and post-lockdown period in India. In 2020, when India went into a pandemic-induced lockdown, as many as 88 cases of poaching were reported over a period of three months, as opposed to 35 cases being reported before the lockdown was imposed.
As one can see, the illegal hunting and trade of endangered animal species and rare birds have known to be more than doubled. Despite having many laws in place, the enforcement agencies have not been able to keep a check on the many hunting practices that go on in the jungles around the country. Poaching is a lucrative business, given that the demand for animal products in the local and international markets never falls. And poachers seem to have made the most of the lack of activity in the forest departments during the covid-19 lockdown in India.
The Rise in Poaching Cases in India
Ungulates (large mammals with hooves) like the chital, sambar, nilgai, gaur, and wild pig saw the highest number of reported killings. The percentage jumped from 22% reported cases to double of 44% reported cases during the lockdown. These animals are mostly killed for their meat. Plus, losing livelihood seems to have led the poachers to kill and trade animal parts in an attempt to make a quick buck.
The second-highest number of reported poaching cases were seen in small mammals like pangolins, hares, rabbits, porcupines, and giant squirrels. Some of these animals are also in high demand in international markets. For example, pangolin meat is considered a delicacy in many countries and its scales are used in making folk remedies and other traditional medicines, predominantly in Asia. Apart from their demand in the market, these animals are also believed to be killed for meat and other local trade. With the big cats, tiger and leopard poaching in India saw an increase of 20% during the lockdown. Nearly 9 leopards were reported killed during the lockdown. The local and exotic birds on the other hand saw a slight decrease in the capture and seizure. The reported cases went down from 14% to 7%.
Some Poaching Incidents in India During Lockdown
- A video shared on social media shows a group of hunters from Arunachal Pradesh posing with a 12-feet-long King Cobra that they killed for its meat. The hunters claimed that they had no food left and hence had to kill an animal. The state government however denied the claim.
- In Nagaland, four persons killed wild animals and devoured their meat inside the Intanki National Park to celebrate the ‘Lockdown Festival’
- Four persons were arrested for poaching three chinkaras (Indian Gazelle) in Rajasthan. Further investigation revealed that they were also trafficking spiny-tailed lizards to the southern part of the country. The local forest rangers also confirmed that 25 peacocks were found killed during the lockdown, as opposed to the otherwise 12-13 reported cases.
- During the lockdown period, 17 and 12 seizures of (either dead or alive) pangolins and pangolin scales respectively were reported from 19 states across India.
- While the rare mountain Himalayan Monal bird was snared in Himachal Pradesh, several Indian Peafowls were poached in Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Karnataka, and Tamil Nadu.
- Leopard skin was recovered, and three poachers were arrested in Assam.
All these incidents tell you that there is an urgent need to address this problem. India's biodiversity will continue to dwindle unless the law enforcement agencies and civil society join hands. People living near forest areas need to be educated about the importance of wildlife species. This will demotivate them from illegal hunting and killing of animals and birds and also minimise the monetary benefit of poaching.
Let us also take a look at some animal species that are a target of the illegal wildlife trade in India:
- Tigers, Leopards, and Snow Leopards
Big cats have been hunted in India since the British Raj. But today, the tigers, leopards and snow leopards in India are mainly poached for their skin, which is used for making high-end luxury apparel and décor products. Apart from their skins, tiger bones and claws are also illegally traded all across the world.
Asian elephants in India are poached for their ivory, which is used in the making of several handicraft items. Unlike their African counterparts, only the male Asian elephants have tusks and are hence at an increased risk of getting poached and killed. This also leads to the skewing of the sex ratio among Asian elephants. In the past 10 years, India has lost close to 430 elephants to poaching.
Rhino horns make for a status symbol for many. A lot more others use rhino horns - which is made of keratin - in treating everything from cancer to rheumatism. Poachers usually tranquillise rhinos and hack off the horn, leaving the animals to bleed to death. Rhinos get particularly hit hard by the illegal wildlife trade in India, especially in North East India.
- Turtles and Tortoises
The scale of poaching, killing, and trade of turtles and tortoises in India is enormous - running into tens of thousands. Despite many laws in place, the decimation of these freshwater reptile species is on the rise. As many as 28 species of freshwater turtles and tortoises are found in India. Unfortunately, myths associated with the use of their body parts in making traditional Chinese medicine and turtles used as pets are the two main driving forces that lead to their illegal trade.
In India, these scaly mammals are distributed throughout the country - typically to the south of the Himalayas. Throughout history, all eight species of pangolins have been exploited for food and traditional Chinese medicines. And so, the demand for their scales and meat makes pangolins one of the most trafficked wild mammals in India. Pangolins are the only mammals that are wholly covered in scales. As much as 13 body parts of pangolins are used to treat medical ailments.
- The Tibetan Antelope
Chiru, or the Tibetan Antelope, are native to the Tibetan plateau and in India, they are found in the regions of Ladakh and Jammu & Kashmir. Due to the harsh and cold climate conditions that they survive in, Chirus keep themselves warm by a layer of wool. And this wool is the very reason Tibetan Antelope get poached. Chiru wool is called "Shahtoosh" and it sells more expensive than gold. The wool consists of distinctive long guard hairs while the undercoat is silky with shorter fibres. For centuries, Shahtoosh was considered a luxury item in India and Pakistan. And today, the demand for this wool is on the rise in Europe and America as well. The Shahtoosh shawl can cost anywhere between USD 20,000 and USD 40,000 per piece.
- Corals and Seashells
Did you know corals and seashells are protected under the Wildlife Protection Act in India? And yet, they continue to sell openly in many markets - mainly the Pearl Oysters, Conches Top Shells, and Sacred Chanks. The collected corals and seashells are used for making decorative items, handicraft trade items, and fashion accessories among others. The trade of marine molluscs in India is on the rise, and this is leading to the destruction of the ocean ecosystems. Traditionally, corals and shells were collected by diving into the sea, but today, they are collected as bycatch by the trawlers. And this is destroying the seabeds, leading to the destruction of ecologically fragile ecosystems.