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Early morning on May 25, a Tata Sumo “maxi cab” – an SUV commonly used for long distance travel across Mizoram – was stopped at the Khankawn police check gate in Champhai district. Suspicious to find the taxi empty given that passengers generally onboard at Champhai town, the cops interrogated the driver.

According to the driver, the cab had been hired at Champhai by passengers who were supposed to board mid-route. Following the lead from the taxi driver, the police succeeded in intercepting one of the biggest consignments of live exotic animals seized in northeast India.

The seizure took place at Chalbawiha Junction near the check gate. Cops arrested Gospel Chanchintha, from Hmunlai in the Lawngtlai district, and his four accomplices from Zokhawthar in Champhai. The accused first crossed the Tiau river, carrying the boxes of smuggled animals on head load and then planned to evade the check gate by walking on foot. The seized animals included 442 lizards, 11 snakes, four three-toed sloths, four tortoises, four pottos (a primate found in tropical Africa), two beavers and a wild cat.

Just two weeks before this incident, another significant seizure of exotic wildlife had been made at the same location. Among the rescued were four white cockatoos, eight Guinea pigs, five monitor lizards, three kangaroo rats, two Burmese pythons and one meerkat.

Vulnerabilities near the border

The Khankawn check gate is located at a strategic location on National Highway 6, which connects Champhai with state capital Aizawl, approximately 30 kilometres from the Indo-Myanmar border. Surrounded by forests on both sides, it falls under the jurisdiction of the Champhai police station which is led by one Duty Officer, one Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO) and four constables.

A police official posted at the check gate told Mongabay-India, “As this place is not very far from the Myanmar border, smugglers always try to take this route. This is a hotspot to transport smuggled drugs and we catch a sizable quantity of heroin too, at least thrice a month. So, we have to remain vigilant round the clock.”

The bridge on the Tiau River in Zokhawthar which separates India and Myanmar. Credit: Gaurab Talukdar/Mongabay.

Smuggling of wild animals has always been rampant across the porous border between India and Myanmar. However, since the pandemic, there has been a new trend of smuggling exotic species found in Africa, Australia and South America India via Myanmar.

In a major seizure which took place in 2020 at Lailapur, a small hamlet in Assam on the border with Mizoram, among the many rare species found was a kangaroo. After the military junta led by General Min Aung Hleing seized power by overthrowing the democratically elected government in Myanmar last year, the volume of exotic animals being smuggled to India has increased significantly.

Jimmy Borah, Senior Manager, Legal and Advocacy Division of the nonprofit Aaranyak, regarding this situation said, “With 1,600 kilometres of ‘unfenced’ porous borders with Myanmar, smuggling, including those of illegal wildlife products, has become easier. The political situation in Myanmar has probably weakened the border further and traffickers are taking advantage of the situation for easy money.” The nonprofit works to foster biodiversity conservation in northeast India.

In the past, Moreh, the Indo-Myanmar border town in the Churachandpur district, was the primary transit route to bring in smuggled goods, including wildlife. However, as one enforcement official who prefers to remain anonymous for safety reasons pointed out, Champhai has now taken over as the main route.

“In the past year, there have been many seizures of exotic animals in Assam, West Bengal and now recently in Meghalaya. In most cases, the consignment has been traced back to Mizoram or to be specific, Champhai,” he said.

A new route

A hilly district tucked in the northeast corner of Mizoram, Champhai or “the rice bowl of Mizoram” is bound by Myanmar from east and south, around 28 kilometres from the Immigration Check Post in Zokhawthar, where a bridge on the Tiau river separates India and Myanmar. On the other side of the bridge is Rih village, which falls under the jurisdiction of the Chin State in Myanmar.

Of the 1,643 kilometre-long border that India shares with Myanmar, about 510 kilometres lies in Mizoram. Six districts of the state, namely, Champhai, Siaha, Lawngtlai, Serchhip, Hnahthial and Saitual share a border with Myanmar.

Since the coup, more than 30,000 people from Myanmar have fled to Mizoram. While they are spread across the 11 districts of the state, a report from the Press Trust of India claims that Champhai has seen the highest influx.

A girl who fled with her family from Myanmar walks outside a temporary shelter at Farkawn village near the India-Myanmar border, in Mizoram in November 2021. Credit: Reuters.

Many currently taking refuge in Zokhawthar belong to the Chin community, also known as Zo. They share strong ethnic ties with the Mizos, speak the same language and many families are scattered on both sides of the border.

A middle-aged man in the Rih village running an eatery, told Mongabay-India on condition of anonymity, “I have relatives in Zokhawthar. In fact, earlier this year, I had to cross the border with my family and put up with them as the situation in our area had worsened. Now, it is a little better and as I have a business to run in my village, I have returned. But some of my family members are still in Zokhawthar. Again, if the situation becomes bad, I will cross over to the other side.”

In fact, when clashes between the military in Myanmar and Chin National Defence Force intensified in March many people from Khawmawi, another bordering village in Myanmar fled to Zokhawthar.

Champhai is considered to be the entry point for smuggled goods from Myanmar to India, including drugs, areca nuts, foreign cigarettes and wildlife.

C Lalingliana, Additional Superintendent of Police, said that since the exodus of Myanmarese nationals in India after the coup, many poor people are living a hand-to-mouth existence. “These are just cadres or foot soldiers for smugglers who lure them with easy money. They are asked to deliver a package, or a parcel and they do it for money, many times not being fully aware about the content of the package. The people whom we caught with exotic animals in Khankawn check gate were in fact doing this for the first time. They told us that the consignment came from Myanmar but couldn’t give us much detail. They said they were supposed to deliver the consignment to Aizawl. From Aizawl, another party would have taken it to the mainland. We later handed them over to the Customs Preventive Force,” said Lalingliana.

While both drugs and exotic animals have been often confiscated along the route of Zokhawthar-Champhai-Khankawn, Lalingliana denies that both these trades might be linked. “Till now in our investigation, we have not found any evidence which suggests that the same group is smuggling both drugs and animals,” he said.

Some reports in the past mentioned Brunnel Farm in Mizoram, probably located in a district bordering Myanmar. The farm had allegedly donated some exotic animals including kangaroos to the Indore Municipal Zoo, which were ultimately intercepted by West Bengal police in Jalpaiguri district. However, both the forest department and police refuted the presence of any such farms in Champhai district.

Speaking to Mongabay-India, Lalduhthlana, Divisional Forest Officer, Champhai said, “We read about Brunnel Farm being run by a person called Thugtee in news reports. So, we carried our own investigation in Champhai. However, we haven’t found any Brunnel Farm or any person called Thugtee. Also, if such a facility which can house big animals like kangaroo existed somewhere, it would have been known.”

Where do rescued animals go?

While many consignments of exotic animals are intercepted at the start of the route in Champhai, there are some which manage to reach the mainland. Lalingliana said, “The smugglers try to avoid the main road as much as possible. The border in Champhai is very porous. There are many villages on the fringe of the Tiau river which separate the two countries.”

He assured that the police was working with other stakeholders to improve their intelligence network. “There is a Wildlife Unit in every district, with representatives from the police, forest department, Assam Rifles, Customs and also NGOs working on conservation. The unit in Champhai generally meets three to four times a year and shares inputs and intelligence. Our last meeting was in June.”

One major challenge for the authorities is the absence of rehabilitation centres to shelter the rescued animals for a temporary period. DFO Lalduthlana said, “Whenever we seize a consignment of exotic animals in Champhai, the articles and the offenders are produced in Champhai District Court. Now, when we get an order from the court, we send the animals to Aizawl Zoo. However, we need a rehab centre in our district where we can keep the animals for a temporary period before sending them to Aizawl. I have also written to the PCCF office in Aizawl requesting for a rehab centre in Champhai.”

Aizawl Zoological Park, where these animals are sent generally, is also facing a space crunch.

Speaking to Mongabay-India, Lalnunzira, Director of the park, says, “Aizawl Zoo is supposed to be the temporary custodian of these rescued animals. However, once they arrive, they generally stay because there is no clear policy on what is to be done with an exotic animal. Right now, we are facing a shortage of space as we don’t have enough enclosures to keep these animals. Then there is also a shortage of zoo feed. I have written to the PCCF requesting for more zoo feed and also temporary enclosures to keep these animals. With the volume of seizures of exotic animals increasing around Mizoram, if you do a head count, you will find the number of these rescued animals is more than that of the regular inmates of the zoo. If we get birds and small reptiles and mammals, it will still be possible to keep them but if we get bigger animals like kangaroos in the future, I don’t think it will be possible to keep them in our zoo.”

Aizawl Zoo is now looking to expand itself which will resolve the space issue to some extent. Lalnunzira said, “Currently, the area of our zoo is 27 hectares. We are proposing to extend it by acquiring the adjacent land which belongs to the Home Department. If the expansion happens, then our zoo will become much bigger and will be able to house more animals.”

Meanwhile, in neighbouring Myanmar, an upward trend in wildlife smuggling has been witnessed, much of which happens online. According to the World Wildlife Fund report Going Viral – Myanmar’s Wildlife Trade Escalates Online published last year, the number of wildlife items for sale on Facebook in Myanmar increased by 74%.

The report says that following the political crisis in Myanmar last year, environmental regulation and law enforcement has been severely hampered. Taking advantage of the situation, live animals or body parts are sent across Myanmar, quite openly, often on public buses and in flimsy packages.

Lalawmawia Sailo, Secretary of the non-profit Conservation Mizoram, which has been vocal on the issue of wildlife smuggling across the state, said, “There is a demand for exotic animals in Mizoram and mainland India. Even in Aizawl, there are people who keep these animals, birds and reptiles as pets at their home. These animals are made to travel long distances in small crates or cartons, which is very cruel. There have been cases when a consignment which started from Champhai was intercepted at Vairengte, a small hamlet on the Mizoram-Assam border, which means the animals had to travel a distance of more than 300 km. While we appreciate the government’s effort in seizing the exotic animals, we feel more needs to be done, and awareness needs to be spread on the issue among the people of Mizoram.”

This article was first published on Mongabay.

Also read: How the pandemic has driven a surge in wildlife smuggling through North East India