On the evening of August 5, Comingson Dkhar got a tip-off on a call – someone was transporting wild animals in an SUV. The 33-year-old, who lives in Khliehriat in Meghalaya’s East Jaintia Hills, decided to investigate. He set out in a car to chase the truck down the winding roads of Khliehrat.

Dkhar and his companions signalled to the vehicle to stop but it did not. “After about seven kilometres, we intercepted the vehicle near Jowai in West Jaintia Hills district,” said Dkhar, who is president of a civil society group called the Hynniewtrep National Youth Movement.

In the truck were two men and six crates of wild animals. As they could not show any permits for the transportation of the animals, Dkhar informed the police. West Jaintia Hills superintendent of police Bikram D Marak said the vehicle was travelling from Mizoram and bound for Guwahati. The two men in it – driver Kormola Bru and passenger Michael Zosangliana – were residents of Mizoram.

They were detained and handed over to forest officials after being booked under the Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972 for transporting animals without the permission of the chief wildlife warden or any other officer authorised by the state government.

According to Marak, the animals included two hoolock gibbons, a Great Indian hornbill, two grey langurs, a Phayre’s leaf monkey and an otter. All these animals are listed under Schedule I and II of the Wildlife Protection Act, which means they cannot be hunted, sold, transported or traded.

The animals recovered in the haul are found in parts of South and Southeast Asia. SM Sahai, Meghalaya’s chief conservator of forest (wildlife and biodiversity) surmised these particular specimens were not from India. “We can only guess that these animals entered India through Myanmar as the arrested people are from Mizoram which shares a porous border with Myanmar,” said Sahai.

Four days later on August 9, West Jaintia Hills police intercepted another vehicle, bearing a Mizoram registration number, with seven hornbills on board. Marak said the birds had been smuggled as no legal documents were produced for their transportation. The driver was handed over to the Jowai wildlife division.

These are not isolated incidents. Scroll.in spoke to the officials of major agencies – Indian Customs, state forest officials and police, Wildlife Crime Control Bureau and Directorate of Revenue Intelligence – all of whom acknowledged a surge in wildlife trafficking from Myanmar into India through the North East borders. These incidents appear to have increased after the first Covid-19 lockdown, which started in March 2020.

Data remains scarce but officials referred to frequent seizures by agencies in the last couple of years. Conservation activists say these animals often originate from private breeding farms in other South Asian countries. Officials and experts believe that the high demand for exotic pets, combined with major legal loopholes, has spurred this illegal trade of wild animals.

Regulating the exotic

The Directorate of Revenue Intelligence, in its Smuggling in India Report 2019-2020, noted the increase “in smuggling of endangered and exotic fauna from different parts of the world into India”. Most of them end up as pets, the report said.

India’s Wildlife Protection Act contains different schedules under which animals are listed. Various species are sorted according to the degree to which they are threatened and the level of protection accorded to them. But the legislation applies only to animals listed in the schedules of the act – with those under schedule I and II being strictly protected. Moreover, all species listed in the Act are native to India.

What laws then apply to such animals which are often termed “exotic”? According to the government, exotic live species are animal or plant species moved from their original range, or location, to a new one.

According to Debadityo Sinha, a lawyer who works with the Delhi-based think tank Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, the trade of such wild animals is regulated by the Customs Act, 1962, and the Foreign Trade (Development and Regulation) Act, 1992. “The forest department has a very limited role,” said Sinha.

This has to do with an international agreement known as CITES – or the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora. India has been party to it since 1976. It regulates the trade of wild animals to ensure that it does not harm any species deemed endangered. Like India’s Wildlife Protection Act, CITES has three appendices listing different species depending on the protection they require.

Some of the animals seized by the Mizoram Police at Champhai on May 9. Credit: Mizoram Police.

Species listed in appendix I include animals that are in danger of extinction because of international trade. They require an import and export permit and cannot be used for commercial purposes. Appendix II species require only an export permit. Appendix III lists species that are protected in at least one country. Entries in this list are made when that country needs help regulating trade in the species. The conditions for trade vary, but such animals need a certificate of origin when traded from one country to another.

According to Sinha, once such animals enter the country, it is difficult to take any legal action against the smugglers under the Wildlife (Protection) Act unless it can be proved that the animal was imported without meeting the CITES requirements.

Consider the instance on May 25, when the Mizoram Police seized one of the largest hauls of 486 wild animals. The seizure took place at the Khankawn Police Checkgate in the state’s Champhai district, bordering Myanmar. According to the police, the haul included “exotic” tortoises, snakes, lizards and sloths as well as a wild cat and four pottos, a primate found in Western and Central Africa.

Senior Mizoram forest official Pi Mawitei said the animals were not under the purview of the Wildlife Protection Act, and likely came from Myanmar. For instance, the potto falls under Appendix II of CITES but is not listed in any of the schedules of the Wildlife (Protection) Act.

The police arrested five persons in the case but then handed them over to the customs department. The animals were also taken by the customs authorities as they were of foreign origin. They were later shifted to an Aizawl zoo for treatment and safe custody after a court order.

Border routes

According to Agni Mitra, deputy director of the Wildlife Control Bureau (Eastern Region), exotic species are smuggled into India from private breeding farms in Southeast Asian countries. The North East is “naturally and geographically” the route that is used. “That’s why we are recovering the animals in Mizoram, Assam, Meghalaya and Tripura,” he said. According to him, the animals are brought to India’s border states through Myanmar and sometimes Bangladesh.

On May 9, forest officials and police made another seizure at the Khankawn police check post in Mizoram. This time, they seized exotic animals such as white cockatoos, kangaroo rats, a meerkat, and Burmese pythons, all smuggled in from Myanmar.

Mizoram forest official Mawitei said the state is a key smuggling route as the border in Champhai district is porous. “It has been on the rise in recent days, making things difficult for us,” she said. Myanmar shares a 1,600-km-long border with the Indian states of Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur.

Mawitei said smugglers transport animals using undisclosed routes. “We are not in a position to track each and every incident,” she said. “The forest department is understaffed and our forest officials are not trained to deal with the exotic species.”

Champhai Superintendent of Police Rex Zarzoliana Vanchhawng, too, said there had been a noticeable increase in the smuggling of exotic animals from Myanmar. “It does not end in Mizoram as it will further go [to] other parts of India,” he said. “The details of [the] network is not known because the arrested people are just the porters. They are not the main big players who are sitting somewhere else.”

Some of the wildlife species seized by the Cachar Police in Assam in June 2020 being released to their new facilities at the Assam State Zoo in Guwahati. Credit: Assam Police.

A Guwahati-based senior official of the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence, who did not wish to be identified, told Scroll.in that the smuggling route of exotic animals has shifted to Mizoram in the past one year and has become a major concern.

The Manipur town of Moreh, bordering Myanmar, has traditionally been used as a transit route into India. It remains a smuggling hotspot, researchers and officials told Scroll.in. “But the source of all the major seizures in the last one year is linked to Mizoram,” said the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence official.

According to the official, animal smuggling is carried out through an established and organised network. There is a chain of carriers who transport animals from Mizoram to Silchar in Assam.

From there, another set of handlers takes the animals to Shillong and Guwahati before heading to other Indian cities. The handlers change from region to region making it difficult to trace the originating point of the animals – for example, one set of handlers transports the animals for 100km or so and then hands them over to the next.

“The controlling of smuggling is a multi-agency role and smuggling is a very complex system,” said the official. “Our agency is trying our best to nab the smugglers,”

A Gujarat-based researcher, who did not wish to be identified, said there were specialised smugglers for exotic animals. According to her, the route via Myanmar has been used to smuggle animals or animal parts out of India but lately it has become an entry point for exotic animals into India.

“Usually, it has only been our animals – pangolin, rhino horns and others – going across the border,” she said. “It is very recent that animals from outside are coming.”

It is unclear how much the recent surge in the North Eastern states has to do with the February 2021 coup in Myanmar. The World Wildlife Fund’s report on April 1 had highlighted a sharp increase of 74% in the online illegal wildlife trade in Myanmar and noted that the political crisis may have “exacerbated the trade”.

The Directorate of Revenue Intelligence official, however, denied that the situation in Myanmar had any effect on the trade. Jimmy Borah, senior manager, Legal and Advocacy Division of the non-profit Aaranyak, disagreed.

According to him, it may have become easier to cross already porous international borders following the coup in Myanmar. Financial considerations are also at play. “People are in dire need of money and smuggling provides an easy way,” he said.

A flawed amnesty scheme

After the scare over zoonotic diseases raised by the pandemic, the government also seemed keen to close the legal loophole that allowed exotic animals to slip into the country unregulated. In June 2020, it issued an advisory aimed at regulating and documenting the presence of such species in India.

The advisory noted that several citizens “have kept CITES… enlisted exotic animal species in their possession but there is no unified information system available of such stock of species at the State/Central level.”

The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change sought a “voluntary disclosure” of such species and granted six months – until December 2020. It later extended the deadline to March 2021. Significantly, the advisory stated that owners of such species need not provide documentation if they declared the animals to the government before the deadline.

An IndiaSpend report noted that by February 2021, 32,645 applications had been submitted to the government under the voluntary disclosure scheme. Borah, of the non-profit Aaranyak alleged that the voluntary disclosure clause may have allowed the owners of exotic species to declare animals which may have been acquired illegally.

Agni Mitra also confirmed that the voluntary disclosure clause may have been exploited. Besides, Mitra said, a lot of people used the nine-month amnesty period to buy more animals and birds.

In January and February 2021, at least 110 exotic animals were seized in two different incidents – one at Vairengte in Kolasib district on the Mizoram-Assam border and the other in Mizoram’s Champai district bordering Myanmar. A red-eared guenon, which is a primate species found in Africa, was among the animals found.

Mitra pointed out that the Lok Sabha has passed the Wildlife Protection (Amendment) Bill, which has also prompted a rush to buy exotic animals. The amendment includes CITES species in a schedule of the Act. It will also allow for implementing CITES provisions to regulate trade in such species.

“It will be legal to keep them, but with regulatory compliances, and sources need to be declared,” said Mitra. “So before the act comes into effect, people are trying to get exotic animals.”

And a flawed law?

While the amendment to the Wildlife (Protection) Act has not yet been cleared by Rajya Sabha, conservationists and experts have mixed opinions about the new bill.

Sinha of the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy welcomed the bill saying it would also help regulate the domestic trade of such species. “It will give more teeth to the forest department,” Sinha said.

However, Borah from Aaranyak said the amendment to Wildlife Protection Act would actually favour the trade of species as it would remove certain schedules and insert a new schedule for the species listed in the appendices of CITES.

Borah pointed out that the bill allows the central government to form a management authority to grant permission for the export or import of specimens. Also, anyone in possession of a live specimen will have to get a registration certificate from the management authority – an officer not below the rank of an additional director general of forests according to the draft of the bill. “This might create a loophole as corruption can affect many such incidents,” said Borah.

But finally, there is perhaps little the bill can do to stem the demand for exotic animals in India. As a customs official remarked, the growing number of seizures indicates that the demand for such animals continues unabated.