Stringent laws alone cannot end illegal wildlife trade, mindset change of customers must to demolish multibillion-dollar market

In February this year, customs officials at Chennai International Airport heard some unusual sound from the baggage of a passenger, who just arrived from Bangkok. The officials were shocked to find a tiny-month-old leopard cub inside the bag.

This was not the first and the only instance of such seizure. On 25 March, officials seized an African horn pit viper seized along with two rhinoceros iguanas, three rock iguanas, 22 Egyptian tortoises, four blue-tongued skinks and three green tree frogs from the same airport. The list goes on and is not limited to the Chennai airport alone.

India, being home to some of the most charismatic species on the planet is becoming a major source market for this illegal trade. While China and other Southeast Asian Nations are the primary markets, the Gulf nations, Europe and North American countries also have a market for smuggled wildlife -- alive or as body parts.

“A lack of knowledge, anonymous e-commerce, greed, and low risk, high reward opportunities are coming together in a perfect storm to fuel wildlife crime globally, and India is a major hotspot,” said UN Environment wildlife campaign coordinator Lisa Rolls lately, during the launch of Wild for Life Campaign spanning airports across India.

A 2018 study by Traffic India revealed that at least 5,722 pangolins were captured in the country between 2009 and 2017 for illegal trade. The most illegally traded wild mammal is trafficked for its meat and its scales are used in traditional medicines.

For its high demand as a pet, the Indian star tortoise is the world’s most illegally traded species of tortoise. Similarly, the trafficking of Tokay Gecko lizard has been on the rise ever since false reports of it being a cure for AIDS. Other species and their parts being sea-horse, sea-cucumber, red sanders, rhino horns, mongoose hairs, deer antlers etc.

Speaking on how to reduce the demand for wildlife parts in the Asian countries, the president and CEO of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), Azzedine Downes said, “Ninety percent of problems animals face are caused by human behaviour and so not addressing the human behaviour in places particularly like China is a problem. There is so much focus on ivory that world lost focus that it comes from elephant. Stopping the trade and stopping consumerism is critically important but the animals are already dead.

“One of the important things to stop the illegal trade is to destroy and disrupt the networks of criminal activities. It’s a shift away from this notion that criminals involved in wildlife trade are ivory traders or pangolin traders, is a mistake. It’s not a product they focus on, it’s the network and the same network that trades things like drugs, cigarettes, etc. The notion you must stop one product from being consumed is not going to disrupt the criminal network. If you focus only on the product you will miss disrupting the criminal network that will move to anything else they can make money off.”

Azzedine was recently in India for the meetings with IFAW’s Indian Partner, Wildlife Trust of India.

Illegal wildlife trade is a multibillion-dollar criminal venture and is devastating wildlife species across the world. It’s one of the major threat to the existence of several species.

Very recently, in an operation conducted by Interpol and World Customs Organisation, more than 10,000 wild animals and their parts were seized. Among the animals recovered were 10,000 live turtles and tortoises, some 4,300 birds, 23 live primates, 30 big cats and tons of parts including 440 ivory pieces, pangolin scales, were also seized. Dubbed as Operation Thunderball, the operation traversed 109 countries and was the most widespread wildlife raid ever.

One of the main problems being faced by investigators around the globe is the difference in the legal status of wild animals in different countries. But, does that mean we need more stringent laws to tackle the problem?

Azzedine made an important point when he said, “It’s not necessarily the lack of law. We need the laws but it’s more about how can we educate people about the intrinsic value of animals. How do you convince people that if don’t have them, we may not be able to breathe? Are people willing to share the earth? If the answer is NO, then, unfortunately, it’s the end of our own species.”

He accredited the change in the attitude of the majority of people in China, to public awareness program by IFAW. “One of the interesting things we have found is that the majority of people there think that ivory comes from the animals that die naturally and not from animals that were killed. Once the people started understanding this, the percentage of people willing to buy ivory has decreased from 80 percent to 36 percent. And, so the consumerism of ivory in China has decreased.”

He also made it a point to mention that “At IFAW we focus on individual animals. The argument against us is that Individual animals don’t matter but individual animals are the ones who can really convince people to change their behaviours. No one really cares if you say there are hundred thousand animals dying, but if you say this baby elephant is dying because we have taken their home, a personal connection can change a lot of things.”

Speaking particularly on the wildlife laws of India, WTI’s executive director Vivek Menon said, “It is always an up and down thing. In 1991, when we formed Traffic India there was nobody looking at the wildlife crime. Our punishments for wildlife crime are strictest in the world, where in the world do such punishments occur. Here, you can lock up a human being for 3 to 7 years for killing an animal and it is quietly unique. If you see the recent pronouncements by the Supreme Court and several high courts, they are extraordinary.”

Updated Date: Jul 26, 2019 15:54:07 IST