On January 11, the Special Task Force of the Uttar Pradesh Police seized 6,430 endangered soft shell and flap shell turtles from a house in Amethi district. This is believed to be the largest turtle haul in the country so far. But, it was not an isolated case. In the first 15 days of the year, 14,000 turtles were rescued in operations in Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal, according to senior officials of the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau.

A day before the Amethi haul, the state police arrested a man in Mirzapur city in Uttar Pradesh and recovered six rare wild cats – five caracals, of which there are only 200 in India’s forests, and a leopard cat, a rare species.

These recoveries, along with the rescue of other rare species such as hedgehogs and flying squirrels in North and Central India over the past few months, have highlighted the fact that wildlife smuggling is still rampant in India. While the wild cats found in Mirzapur were bound for Hyderabad, most of the smuggled animals find their way to Southeast Asian countries such as Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. The turtles, too, were headed to that region, either through Nepal, which shares a porous border with India, or through Kolkata, which is a major transit point for turtle smuggling.

The recovery of 6,430 turtles from a house in Amethi last week is India's largest live turtle haul.

Most targeted

“Turtles are in high demand because their shells are widely used as traditional medicines, mostly aphrodisiacs, in many Southeast Asian countries,” Tilotama Varma, additional director at the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau, told Scroll.in. “They are also sold in local markets for consumption, which is popular in some parts of West Bengal, the Northeast region and Bangladesh, while a few end up in pet shops.”

Another species that has been rampantly poached and smuggled in the past few years is the pangolin – both the Indian variety, found in the forests of Central and South India, and the Chinese variety, which live in the northeastern states. Pangolins have been listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.

“It is not that pangolins have become critically endangered overnight,” said Varma. “Pangolin poaching has been rampant for some years now, despite authorities being on high alert. It is the scale of the pangolin which is high on demand for traditional medicinal values similar to that of turtle shells. The meat of the hunted pangolin is often consumed locally.”

A pangolin rescued from Gwalior in Madhya Pradesh.

A sharp rise in cross-border wildlife crimes had prompted the Union cabinet in April 2016 to give its approval to India adopting the statute of the South Asia Wildlife Enforcement Network – an eight-nation body set up to combat the illegal trade. But this does not seem to have made much of a dent in the smuggling business in India.

“Nothing has contributed much in curbing wildlife crime in India,” said Kartick Satyanarayan, co-founder of Wildlife SOS, one of the largest rescue and conservation charities in South Asia. “Other than turtles and pangolins, India still witnesses rampant poaching of tigers, lions, leopards, bears, owls, otters and scores of other varieties of endangered animals, birds and reptiles and there is no significant decline in the smuggling of their body parts.”

A caracal rescued from smugglers in Uttar Pradesh.

Tigers remain vulnerable

The tiger continues to be hunted because there is a demand for almost every part of its body – including the skin, bones, vital organs and even the blood. “While the skin is used as high-priced decorations and apparel, the bones, blood and organs are used for traditional medicines – popularly known as Chinese medication – in Southeast Asian countries,” said Satyanarayan. He added that there is also a demand for tiger genitals from which aphrodisiacs are made, and that this is true for other hunted species such as lions, bears and cobras too.

Numerous efforts to protect the tiger – of which there are 2,226 in India, accounting for 70% of the world’s tiger population – have not thwarted poachers. “Tigers are at high risk despite India having a National Tiger Conservation Authority and so much of activism surrounding its conservation,” said Satyanarayan. “When poachers fail to trap tigers, they occasionally settle for leopards and lions and try trading them.”

According to a senior wildlife official who did not want to be identified, poachers initially used jaw traps to hunt tigers. After capturing the animal, they bludgeoned it to death or killed it with a spear. These days, they have started using poison injections.

The use of firearms by hunters is also not uncommon. “In the case of rhinos, we have often come across poachers equipped with AK-47 [rifles],” said the wildlife official. “Such trends are threatening.”

A pair of flying squirrels rescued by wildlife officials.

The smuggling networks

Just as poachers have found new ways to hunt their prey, smugglers, too, have changed tactics. Wildlife officials have noticed a new trend of smugglers disguised as pilgrims who hide the animal parts in the cavities of framed photographs of Hindu gods and goddesses. “Officials who check baggage at border posts hesitate in doing a thorough inspection of such religious items,” said Satyanarayan. “However, there have been a few seizures, as a result of which this method has come to light.”

Smuggling networks are usually headed by people operating from other countries. They are in touch with traffickers in India, who in turn are well-networked with those who hunt the animals or make arrangements for them – mostly people with knowledge of the forests where the animals dwell. “Annual targets, in half-yearly or quarterly terms, are usually communicated and the catch accumulated at one point and again segregated for transport, whichever way suitable – by road, sea and even air,” Satyanarayan said.

Another network, he added, works in a bottom-to-top pattern. Here, the poacher creates demand and contacts the people abroad.

The former network is more organised, with higher investments in armed and unarmed poachers who camp near forests for weeks, cultivating sources and conducting recces in the garb of nomadic merchants. But here, detection rates are higher too.

In the past few years, India has also emerged as a source of exotic marine species such as marine turtles, sea cucumbers and various fishes. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands, which is a major hub for this illegal marine trade, is witnessing a trend where foreign poachers come there and operate directly, at times in connivance with resident tribes and at times independently.

“In the past three years, cases have been reported in the Andaman islands and arrests made too,” said Deepak Yadav, an Indian Police Service officer posted there. Police records show that between January 1, 2014 and December 31, 2016, 50 Myanmarese nationals, 14 Taiwanese nationals, three Indonesians and one person each from the Philippines and Bangladesh were arrested in connection with such cases.

A rescued hedgehog.

In-bound smuggling

While India continues to smuggle wildlife or animal parts to other countries, it is also generating demand at home for species from faraway lands. According to Satyanarayan, there have been seizures of eclectus parrots smuggled from the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific and caracal kittens from Africa. “Till now India was a source, but such seizures in the past few years show that it has begun to generate demand too, which is a dangerous thing to happen,” he said.

Tilotama Varma of the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau recalled cases where chameleons, several varieties of owls and even sand boas have been seized in Central India. Such animals are usually kept as pets.

The rehabilitation of these animals, once rescued, is a difficult task as it calls for immense research. “Without proper rehabilitation, the rescued animals die soon,” said Satyanarayan. “If the species are from the Indian subcontinent, it can still be done, but it becomes nearly impossible if it is smuggled from some far away country.”

All photographs courtesy Wildlife SOS.