Kangaroos. Lemurs. Rhinoceros iguanas. The native habitats of these wild animals lie thousands of miles away from India, in Australia, Africa and the Americas, respectively. All of these and other exotic bird, reptile, amphibian and mammalian species, including critically endangered ones, are in the possession of private individuals in India, according to the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change data accessed by IndiaSpend.

A voluntary disclosure scheme announced by a central government advisory in June 2020 urged Indians to declare possession of any exotic live species, ie any animal or plant species moved away from their native region. No action would be taken even if the owners lacked proper documentation. By February, the ministry had received disclosure applications from 32,645 Indians, from 25 states and five Union Territories.

Parrots, cockatiels, macaws and lovebirds are some of the most sought-after exotic live species, the disclosures indicate.

Among states, people from West Bengal made the highest number of disclosures, at 9,764 or 30%, of all disclosures. Next came people from Kerala, with 8,460 (26%), Tamil Nadu with 4,213 (13%) and Maharashtra with 2,623 (8%) disclosures.

The scheme came in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, a zoonotic disease that is likely to have jumped to humans from an intermediary wildlife host species, according to a World Health Organization study on the origins of Covid-19. Unregulated trade of exotic wildlife carries the risk of disease spread, say ministry officials and zoonoses scholars.

While government officials told us the advisory was issued to control the trade in exotic species in absence of appropriate laws, conservationists hope that the scheme is the first step toward strengthening wildlife conservation laws.

Endangered species

The ministry had announced the scheme on June 11, five months into the spread of Covid-19 in India, as part of a plan to track and regulate import and possession of exotic animals “considering the significance of import and export of exotic live species”.

“We have actively included all stakeholders – the state governments, central government and owners,” Soumitra Dasgupta, Additional Director General of Forests (Wildlife) in the environment ministry, told IndiaSpend. “The idea was to streamline the whole process, which will ensure proper documentation of imports in the future too, including registration of progeny as well as transfers from one location to another. This process is also important from the point of view of wet markets and the threat of emerging diseases.”

Indians were given a six-month window to voluntarily disclose possession of any exotic species, to the Chief Wildlife Warden of their respective states, even without any procurement documentation. Initially open till December 15, 2020, the window for the declaration was extended to March 15, due to the disruptions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and requests from state governments.

The scheme includes only those ‘exotic live species’ that are listed under the three appendices of the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, an international agreement ratified by 183 countries, including India. The convention aims to regulate the trade of wild flora and fauna to ensure their survival is not threatened. Native species protected under India’s Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 were excluded from the amnesty scheme, since their trade is already prohibited.

The rhinoceros iguana is an endangered species that is primarily found on the Caribbean Islands. Photo credit: Tim Ross, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

While a full list of the species declared under the scheme was not available at the time of publishing, data reviewed by IndiaSpend showed that the disclosures included possession of endangered species, whose commercial trade is prohibited, and trade is only allowed in exceptional circumstances, such as for research. For instance, the black-and-white ruffed lemur endemic to Madagascar is critically endangered, per the Red List of global conservation network International Union for Conservation of Nature.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List notes the global extinction risk status of animal, fungus and plant species. This primate is also listed under Appendix-I of the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, which bans its trade for commercial purposes. Yet it is one of the species declared under the Indian scheme.

The beisa, an antelope endemic to East Africa, is another species that is endangered, per the IUCN Red List. Only 11,000-12,000 beisa survive in the East African savannas and grasslands. This endangered animal also figured in the list of disclosed species.

Why the advisory?

All signatories are bound to implement the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora and adopt domestic legislation accordingly, but India is yet to do so, say conservationists. The Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 protects only native species, and not exotic flora or fauna.

For now, the import of the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora-listed exotic species is regulated under the export-import policy and Customs Act, 1962, and conservationists say these laws are inadequate to police the exotic wildlife trade.

“Exotic animals have a sizeable demand in our domestic markets and a lot of the trade happens through barter of wildlife,” Jose Louies, chief of the wildlife crime control division of conservation non-profit Wildlife Trust of India, told IndiaSpend. “There are also practical difficulties involved in monitoring consignments that arrive at our ports, due to their sheer volume. Often, animals are sneaked in without permits along with the main consignments, which have permits. The hope is that this new system will encourage legal trade, and will be supplemented later by appropriate changes in existing wildlife protection laws.”

“CITES [the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora] species are coming into India but we do not have any CITES law at present, so naturally we needed some control, and this (advisory) will help government authorities have some control,” said Dasgupta. “This will also give a status of ownership to the legitimate owners. If there is progeny born from a legitimate imported exotic species, the owner will be able to register it. This process was missing before. Even the honourable Supreme Court has lauded this action taken by the ministry.”

Last November, the Supreme Court upheld an Allahabad High Court order that had dismissed a challenge to the amnesty scheme. The court had noted the absence of a provision in either the Wildlife Protection or Customs laws, and any rules and procedures to regulate trade, breeding, possession and exhibition of the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora-listed exotic fauna in India. Only import, export and re-export of animals and plants not listed under the Wildlife (Protection) Act were subject to the provisions of the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora and the export-import policy, the court noted.

There is an urgent need to regulate the possession and trade of exotic wildlife, said environment lawyer Ritwick Dutta, but the appropriate route to do it is through legislation and amendments in law. “The WPA [Wildlife (Protection) Act] applies only to one exotic species, [to regulate] the ivory imported into India,” Dutta told IndiaSpend. “CITES operates through the export-import policy. So once an exotic species has crossed our borders, no law restricts their possession. This advisory is really not the way to bring about a change in a country where even statutory laws and court directions are violated with impunity.”

Dutta opined that rather than focusing broadly on all exotic animals, the government should focus on endangered species that have conservation value. “Many exotic species have no conservation value. The WPA should be amended to include at least all CITES-listed species and others which India feels needs attention from both the conservation as well as animal welfare perspectives,” he added.

The advisory is a step in the right direction towards addressing concerns surrounding the handling and breeding of exotic species, said HV Girisha, Joint Director at the environment ministry’s Wildlife Crime Control Bureau headquarters in Delhi.

“This is a welcome step since we hardly have any law for the regulation of exotics trade to date,” Girisha told IndiaSpend. “Currently, we are implementing CITES provisions at the exit points such as airports and seaports with the help of the Customs Act. It is high time we have a law in place to regulate handling and breeding of exotic species and to stop misuse.”

Domestic pet traders have been found to conceal exotic species, Girisha said adding, “Sometimes they colour the animals to mislead us, so we have to be alert about such minute details. This new process will help us keep track of breeding and progenies to a certain extent, which is crucial.”

At least 60% of about 335 identified diseases that emerged between 1960 and 2004 were transferred from animals to humans. Photo credit: Sajjad Hussain/ AFP

Threat of zoonosis

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought the licit and illicit wildlife trade, wet markets and zoonoses –infectious diseases caused by pathogens that jump from animals to humans – sharply into focus. At least 60% of about 335 identified diseases that emerged between 1960 and 2004 were transferred from animals to humans, according to a study published in the science journal Nature in 2008. Zoonotic diseases are responsible for 2.5 billion cases of human illness and 2.7 million deaths worldwide each year, IndiaSpend reported in March 2020.

“This (trade of exotic wildlife) issue has two important angles,” Abi T Vanak, senior fellow, Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, who studies zoonoses, told IndiaSpend. “One is the invasive species angle. We allow import of all sorts of animals and birds openly into the country, without understanding their potential to invade local ecosystems.”

“The second is the risk of disease spread,” Vanak added. “But even as the advisory is welcome from a species-monitoring point of view, it is only an advisory and falls short of establishing strong surveillance systems of quarantine and storage facilities.” He cited past outbreaks of Ebola, which had its roots in the trade of live monkeys, and a psittacosis or parrot fever pandemic, which was traced to the pet bird trade.

“When animals are brought into the country, they may not necessarily exhibit symptoms of sickness and could be silent hosts, even after a period of quarantine,” said Vanak. “That is why it is important for entry points such as airports and seaports to not only have better quarantine facilities, but also be world-class surveillance and testing facilities.”

This article first appeared on IndiaSpend, a data-driven and public-interest journalism non-profit.