On April 2, there was widespread sensation in the Dooars region of West Bengal over the sighting of kangaroos in different parts of the area. Initially, a team from the Belakoba forest range spotted two kangaroos roaming around on the Gajoldoba canal road near the city of Siliguri.

Another kangaroo was later rescued from the Nepali Busty area, and a carcass was found in a locality on the outskirts of the city. The rescued animals were sent to Bengal Safari Park in Siliguri. This was the second incident of kangaroos rescued in north Bengal in 2022.

Earlier in March, an adult red kangaroo was rescued from Kumargram near the West Bengal-Assam border in the Alipurduar district. In that incident, two people from Hyderabad were nabbed with the consignment. It is not the first time authorities have seized a kangaroo in the country.

Two years ago, exotic species, including kangaroos, were seized from Lailapur, a small hamlet on the border of Assam and Mizoram. However, investigations of the recent twin incidents of kangaroo rescues in north Bengal reveal that the consignments were meant for a zoo.

The arrested duo (from the March incident) had a purchase order which showed that the kangaroo was going to Kamala Nehru Prani Sangrahalaya, a municipal zoo based in Indore.

Speaking to Mongabay-India, Agni Mitra, Regional Director, East Zone, Wildlife Crime Control Bureau, said, “It looks like both incidents in north Bengal were linked. After the first consignment was caught, the traffickers thought that they would not be able to transport the remaining kangaroos and so they released the animals. The people who were arrested in the first incident had a purchase order from Indore Zoo, and the zoo also confirmed that they had issued that order.”

Jimmy Borah, Senior Manager, Legal and Advocacy Division from the non-profit Aaranyak, said that many of these exotic animals are going to zoos, including private ones. “The seizure of the consignment in Jalpaiguri is important because it establishes a connection between the trafficking of exotic animals and zoos,” he said.

Indore zoo under scanner

Kamala Nehru Prani Sangrahalya in Indore, the destination for the trafficked kangaroos, is currently under the spotlight. The purchase order showed that the animal was sourced from Brunnel Animal Farm in Mizoram. Even in the past, this farm had sent exotic birds such as shelled parakeets to Indore Zoo.

Nihar Parulekar, Curator at Indore Zoo, denied purchasing the animals from the farm. “They sent these to us as a gift like they had sent the birds in the past. We don’t have any knowledge about the two persons arrested with the consignment. We had told the farm that we would accept the gift only if it came with proper paperwork. We told them we will bear the transportation cost once the consignment reaches us,” Parulekar told Mongabay-India.

Mitra, however, said that Indore Zoo didn’t have permission from the Central Zoo Authority to procure kangaroos from the farm. “Indore Zoo is a municipal zoo. As per CZA guidelines, a zoo can procure animals only through exchange or donation. Indore Zoo supposedly issued a purchase order to Brunnel Farm in Mizoram. The stock of all exotic animals has to be declared on the Parivesh website. The Mizoram Chief Wildlife Warden has confirmed that there is no such declaration of kangaroos from any farm in Mizoram. So these can’t be legally bred kangaroos. The very existence of this farm is in question.”

The Indore Zoo. Credit: VikramSingh Valera, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The Indore Zoo has been under the scanner for many reasons. The zoo, located on an area of 52 hectares, is categorised as a medium zoo. Madhya Pradesh-based wildlife activist Ajay Dubey said, “There are allegations of mismanagement against the Indore Zoo. In 2019, CZA issued an order to initiate action against Indore Zoo for violation of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 and Recognition of Zoo Rules, 2009. I had filed a complaint against the zoo.”

“A pet dog and a journalist were allowed to play with a tiger in captivity; visitors were allowed to click photographs of captive animals and feed them. Some visitors were allowed to touch the enclosure and take photographs which were later posted on social media. The allegations were found to be true and disciplinary proceedings were initiated against the zoo, and the zoo director was asked not to repeat the violation in the future. However, they didn’t learn from their past and are still indulging in unlawful methods of procuring animals,” he said.

Dubey said that the zoo couldn’t procure exotic animals from private farms, and he would take up this matter with the higher authorities.

Procuring exotic animals

Not much information is available on the Brunnel Animal farm in Mizoram, which supplied the animals to Indore Zoo. Wildlife crime investigator Rahul Dutta said, “I doubt whether such farms exist in Mizoram. It is unlikely that exotic animals such as kangaroos will be bred on a farm in Mizoram. These kangaroos were probably bred on a farm in a southeast Asian country because bringing a kangaroo from Australia will cost a bomb.”

“There are some breeding farms in Maharashtra and Karnataka where exotic animals like reptiles and even birds like ostrich are bred illegally. However, a facility with a large area is required to breed a kangaroo. So, if such a facility existed in Mizoram, then the authorities would have noticed by now,” he said.

Dutta said that many such consignments are being seized, and they are also getting away. “Most of the time, the address given to the people carrying the consignments is false so that they can’t reveal much even if they are arrested. Sometimes, they change vehicles in Guwahati so that someone following them can be confused,” he added.

Dutta said that while a breeding facility for kangaroos in Mizoram was unlikely, it might be possible that the Mizoram-based farm might act as a middleman in this case.

“So, this kangaroo might have entered India through the Mizoram border from a country like Myanmar or Thailand. However, in the purchase order, it is written that the consignment is from Mizoram, so the real source is hidden from the authorities. So, it is possible that the kangaroo was kept for a few days at Brunnel Farm in Mizoram,” he said.

An internet search shows the existence of a Brunnel Goat Farm in Mizoram though it cannot be ascertained whether this is the particular farm that sent the kangaroos to Indore.

Commenting on this, Dutta said, “Sometimes a goat farm might act as cover for bigger things going on inside. In 2000, I led a major operation in Khaga, Uttar Pradesh. From the outside, the place was a tannery where goat skins were being dried. However, raiding the facility, we recovered four tiger skins, 70 leopard skins, 150 kg tiger bones, 220 blackbuck deer skins, and 18,000 leopard claws.”

On conditions of anonymity, a retired official of the Central Zoo Authority said that the practice of procuring exotic animals via illegal channels is a reality. “It occurs in many other zoos. As zoos are not supposed to buy animals, the cost of the animals is generally included in the transportation cost. Another way of procuring exotic animals is by seizing consignments. So, for example, if the kangaroos are coming from Mizoram to Madhya Pradesh, the consignment will be seized in Indore, and they will be sent to Indore Zoo,” he said.

In an earlier interview with Mongabay-India, Agni Mitra explained that the CITES, or Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, says that the source country of the animal is supposed to take back the animal and also bear the transportation cost.

“However, many of these seized animals are farm-bred. For example, if a kangaroo is seized in India, it doesn’t mean that the animal has come from Australia. There are more chances of it being bred on a farm in a southeast Asian country. As these farm-bred animals might be genetically mixed as well, their source countries might not be interested in taking them back, especially in a post-Covid-19 scenario. Also, if the source country is not economically strong, they might be disinterested for financial reasons. So, in that case, these animals will have to spend the rest of their life in a zoo.”

Jimmy Borah adds: “To stop the trafficking of exotic animals, we need to know where the trade is originating from. Currently, we know that these animals are being bred on some farms in southeast Asia but to block this trade, we need to know the exact route. Also, our law enforcement agencies need to be more vigilant.”

This article first appeared on Mongabay.