The Maneka Gandhi column: It's time we took note of the scourge of rare animals' trade on the Internet - Firstpost
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The Maneka Gandhi column: It's time we took note of the scourge of rare animals' trade on the Internet


Two months ago the Ministry of Health raided the kingpin of the illegal oxytocin trade in India. He is a lowly employee of the Municipal Corporation of Kolkata with five houses, and many godowns stuffed with oxytocin, and another illegal drug codeine. Both items have been flown in for him from China regularly by FedEx which has been doing a roaring business in shipping illegal drugs and wildlife trophies across the world. FedEx has not been hauled up as yet. If they are, they will blame a single employee. In July 2015, an American dentist from America went on holiday to Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe and shot the national animal, a lion named Cecil, which he then cut into parts and sent to himself through UPS.

Both FedEx and UPS have facilitated wild life crime across the world. More than 26,000 wild hunting trophies were shipped around the world between 2010 and 2014. This includes thousands of wild animal heads, elephant ears, panther skulls, black bear claws and monkey bodies. Other items include turtle eggs, snake skins, panther skulls, alligator skins and rhino horns and leather. These trophies do not include the millions of insects that both these companies have been handling. From India, lakhs of butterflies have been sent through these international shippers and three species have become extinct. Snake skin exports are common. Foreigners come, pay locals to catch the animals and send them through parcels to foreign countries — unchecked by customs and usually mislabelled. Mongoose hair, pangolin scales , star tortoises, even tiger parts – all these are shipped through by the single worst poachers on the planet – UPS and FedEx. I am surprised that they have not been banned from most countries.

After Cecil, the Lion case, they were asked to stop shipping animals and their parts. Both shippers have refused. Over three lakh people have signed petitions saying that they will not use these delivery firms in future. It makes no difference to them. Even after the lion case, they have shipped another couple of hundred trophies of elephants, wild buffalo and leopards out of Africa to America. A spokesman for UPS said that it “is strongly against the trafficking or trade of endangered species” but “accepts for shipment taxidermy items that are legally obtained and appropriately documented”. That is an outright lie. No documentation is given or asked for any illegal shipment of wild animals or drugs by either of these two firms. The dentist has also killed a leopard and an elephant.

Blackbucks in a field. Image courtesy: Jay Mazoomdar

Blackbucks in a field. Image courtesy: Jay Mazoomdar

Keng Liang Wong, a Malaysian wildlife smuggler has been sentenced in federal court in San Francisco to 71 months jail and a fine of $60,000 for trafficking in some of the most endangered reptile species in the world. The species involved ranged from Komodo Monitors and Plowshare Tortoises which are on the brink of extinction. Wong also trafficked in such rare species as the Chinese Alligator, the False Gavial and the Radiated Tortoise, Gray's Monitor, Spider Tortoise, Burmese Star Tortoise, Indian Star Tortoise, Boelen's Python, Timor Python, Green Tree Python, and Fly River Turtle. He sent regular shipments to the US through Fed Ex. Seven other defendants have been convicted for sending or receiving FedEx consignments, including a FedEx employee Robert Paluch. Wong spearheaded an international smuggling ring that illegally imported and sold more than 300 protected reptiles native to Asia and Africa. None of this could have happened without Fed Ex, who brought the reptiles in express delivery packages and large commercial shipments of legally declared animals.

The United States is the biggest customer for all illegal wildlife. But while special agents in the Wildlife Service patrol the major air and seaports, no one is paying attention to FedEx, Airborne and other mail carrier hubs. In fact the number of agents has decreased over the last 25 years while wildlife crime has exploded in sales and revenue across the globe. The staggering profits which now run into billions have engaged international organized crime syndicates like the Russian mafias. The growth has been fed by the internet and the parcel carriers. The net is an unrestricted shopping mall for natural resources and has enabled thousands of illegal transactions from one side of the world to another. Global shipping services are a smugglers’ best friends. They don’t screen packages but do provide online tracking and delivery confirmation. Dealers use their services regularly as the animals and their parts arrive safely. In one DHL package from Singapore, labelled as toys addressed to a dealer from California, US wildlife officials found 51 Indian star tortoises smuggled out of India. Caviar, eggs taken from the slit bodies of live protected sturgeons, is a commonly smuggled item.

India is one of the major victims of the parcel trade. We have no sniffer dogs at parcel venues. Even though DHL, FedEx, UPS have been caught many times in both drug and animal smuggling, no action is taken against them and they are left to “self regulation”. Our Home Ministry has no one patrolling the internet for wild animals / fish / birds being freely advertised by Indian sellers. Some instances are the thousands of painted glass fish being offered, dried seahorses, shark fins, dried fish bladders, butterflies, and scorpions – all these will be exported illegally through the parcel companies. Even though there is a ban on all ivory advertisements, code words are common on the Net and in the shipment service. As soon as a law enforcement agency catches on that “white gold” is code for “ivory,” a new code word pops up.

Sites like Yahoo openly advertise ivory. More than 12 tons of ivory exchanged hands from 2012 to 2014 on Yahoo Japan. With more than 30,000 elephants being killed for their ivory each year, Japan and China have emerged as the drivers of the illegal trade. How did the ivory reach Japan from India and Africa? FedEx zindabad. While Google has technically banned ivory sale on its platform, it still has advertisements for ivory products on its shopping site in Japan. The advertisements are for hanko, ivory Japanese stamps used as signatures on contracts.

eBay has been identified as the worst offender in the online trade of endangered wildlife products. The International Fund for Animal Welfare found that 4,300 of 5,200 tracked elephant ivory listings took place on eBay. Amazon explicitly bans ivory sales. Still, the Environmental Investigation Agency found, in 2013, that the company allowed thousands of ads for real ivory on its Japanese site. Craigslist was thrust into the spotlight in March 2015 after an investigation by IFAW and the Wildlife Conservation Society showed more than 600 elephant-related items, worth a total of $1.5 million, were advertised on the website. Only three percent were legally obtained. Craigslist is still selling ivory products and endangered animal parts. When a customer buys an illegal animal item from these sites, who do you think delivers them to your doorstep; the unhampered, unregulated parcel companies. In March 2015 UPS forfeited $40 million to the US Government for shipping drugs from "illegal internet pharmacies".

Fed Ex admitted that it had been doing the same but refused to pay the fine. A Grand Jury has indicted them for delivering drugs to vacant homes, parking lots where carloads of people are waiting, customers with multiple names and suspicious identification documents and people who are under watch by the local law enforcement agencies for criminal activities. In its defence FedEx claims that its job is to deliver packages. Not to examine packages to make sure they are legal. We are a transportation company - we are not law enforcement." is their cry. Which means they can carry on criminal smuggling right under the nose of every government!
Today, over 140 species of sharks are threatened by extinction. An estimated 73 million are killed per year for shark fin soup. 98% come from India where shark fin export has been banned. Two international shipping companies — UPS and DHL — publicly declared they will not ship shark fins any more. FedEx has refused to take part in the ban. And we refuse to do anything about it.

To join the animal welfare movement contact gandhim@nic.in, www.peopleforanimalsindia.org

First Published On : Apr 18, 2016 15:55 IST

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