India desperately needs new laws on exotic species

A restaurant in Lokhandwala, Mumbai  has a large cage at the entrance with two pygmy monkeys in it. I sent a member of the state animal welfare board to arrest the owners. The forest department refused to help saying 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. It displayed exotic birds, fish and pedigreed dogs. It had no permissions and yet the police and the forest department took no action. Why? Because they claim there is no law that protects foreign species in India. The smugglers who ran the fair looked on smugly as animal activists cried themselves hoarse. The new Chairman of the Animal Welfare Board had given them permission – which has never been given before – to hold the "exhibition".  As long as they did not sell foreign animals they could display them. So they secretly sold the animals in black. 

Three months ago a person’s house was raided in Bangalore. He was found with three ball pythons. The forest department refused to register a case saying there was no law which covered foreign snakes. The man absconded with the snakes and released them in the open, while the inspectors were still arguing.  So, now you have exotic snakes in the wilds in Bangalore. In Uttar Pradesh a man recently died of snake bite – from an African pit viper brought illegally into this country as a pet and then released when the owner got bored.

Go to a normal illegal petshop – 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. Look at the Net – hundreds of exotic fish, birds, animals, are for sale. Macaws from Bolivia, Argentina and Mexico, fish and  turtles from all over the world, fox squirrels, ferrets, frogs, snakes, sharks, monkeys, lizards and iguanas. One businessman in Chennai was found with two chimpanzees in his garage.

How did these get into India? There is a direct nexus between smugglers and our Indian customs departments. They come in containers from Singapore and pass easily through customs at the ports, specially Kolkata, Mumbai and Chennai. The smaller animals come even through airports. Bangalore is notorious for its customs officers. One woman officer from the Northeast was caught running an illegal smuggling ring herself, in which her partner would go to Thailand, pick up animals and bring them in, on the days she was on duty. After I complained, she was removed from there but still holds her job somewhere and is probably doing the same thing.

The fault is with the Ministry for Environment, which ceased to exist as a functioning body 20 years ago and is now just another dead body whose officials go abroad once a week to waste India’s money. The Wildlife Crime Bureau, which was invented to fight these kinds of crime, has repeatedly asked the Ministry to amend the laws and put the smuggling/sale/buying of exotic species as a criminal offence. They do nothing. 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, some from jail itself, that it would hamper their right to earn money !). Dr Manmohan Singh put Sunita Narain, who took years and did nothing of any value. 15 years have passed and now another committee has been made under Dr Rajesh Gopal.  He himself 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. Not if you keep Cockatiels, African Grey Parrots or Lorikeets.

All these exotic species, that are smuggled into India, are endangered species of which there are only a few thousand left. They are banned for capture in their own countries and are on the prohibited list of CITES. The International Union for Conservation of Nature ( IUCN) lists all of them as endangered species. The Military Macaw is found only in a few miles of forest between Argentina and Mexico. Even the Lovebirds are little parrots brought in from Australia. They die en route in the thousands. The rest last less than a year, as they cannot take any temperature variations and no form of cold. Yet you continue to buy them. 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. Some buy to keep them for a few months till they die . Others buy out of pity and "release" them. Thousands of miles away from home, they die in foreign skies.

According to a correspondent who posed as a buyer in 2013 : In Mumbai, Mausam Patel’s Baba Aquarium proudly sells soft-shelled turtles. "This is imported from China. We can ship them to any part of India" he said. This turtle pair costs Rs. 4,000. 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. Some of them include Yellow Collar macaw, Scarlet Blue Gold and Blue Gold macaws. “Each pair of macaws costs 2 lakh. While openly advertised, the trade is entirely in black.”

A reporter from The Sunday Guardian recently contacted an online seller who openly displayed pictures of exotic wild animals - iguanas, chameleons, snakes, monitor lizards, spiders - and 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 Rs 18,000, while a Tarantula costs Rs 16,000. Chameleons are sold at a price of Rs 12,000.

The Zoological Survey of India, the Central Zoo Authority, the wildlife department of each state, 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, the Capital of India where all the lawmakers live, you can get anything easily. We have one Chief Wildlife Warden whose entire office consists of two inspectors and none of them will stir out of their offices no matter what the crisis. 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 partners a politician, 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 etc., is in complete violation of national and international guidelines such as CITES and legislations such as the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 and Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960 etc.

None of the dealers have any licences, permits - and they don’t need them because all the authorities look the other way using the loophole in the Wildlife Act 1972.

We have signed the CITES treaty but we still don’t have an office 40 years later and the Customs people, who are raking in the money, refuse to learn or apply it. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) makes the trade of foreign birds and animals illegal, but the forest departments and Customs are blasé about it. Their attitude is that India signs treaties  because it looks good. Honouring them is irrelevant as the world is happy simply when the treaty is signed.

We need rules on exotic species and we need them NOW. We need a strong CITES division. We need to catch and sack corrupt customs officers. We need 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.

Maneka Sanjay Gandhi
Pl. add: To join the animal welfare movement contact,

*Proper wildlife rehabilitation is an extremely biologically and ecologically responsible attitude toward all living things.*