Assam News – Where have all the smuggled wildlife gone?

by Guwahati_City

Police rescued seven rare and exotic animals during a routine check at Lailapur Gate, in Northeast’s Assam-Mizoram border on September 24. The rescued animals included one White-faced Capuchin, four Black Macaques and two Common Opossum. The animals were shifted to the Assam State Zoo in Guwahati and a case was registered against the five accused under the Wildlife Protection Act.

The consignment that originated in Indonesia and came through Myanmar to Champhai in Mizoram was being taken to Meghalaya, said police sources.

Conservationists reacted with outrage at the inability of concerned authorities to check the increasing wildlife trade by organized gangs operating in the same route.

From the rainforests of South America and islands of Indonesia and Madagascar to zoos in India

Earlier, in April this year, seven Spider Monkeys and two Black-and-White Ruffed Lemurs were rescued from a vehicle near the Assam-Mizoram border.

Last November, seven moor macaques– a threatened species in the IUCN Red list –were rescued during a police checking at Jamira Police outpost in the Hailakandi district. The macaques were hidden in four boxes inside a truck was coming from Mizoram. Police seized the animals and arrested two people who revealed that the truck was bound for Shillong in Meghalaya from where the macaques would have been delivered to another destination.

In September last year, Assam Police seized 40 rare exotic animals, including 19 primates and two baby wallabies, from two West Bengal-bound vehicles at Rangia in Kamrup district. In March, another consignment of marmosets, macaws and tamarin monkeys were caught during routine checks in Golaghat district that came from Moreh in Manipur.

India’s northeastern states have remained a source for wildlife products like rhino horns, pangolin scales, and tiger parts as well as organs of various cat and civet species and ivory. The Dimapur-Moreh-Myanmar route that links international markets of Southeast Asia is known for trafficking of wildlife parts and trade in small animals like red-crowned roofed turtles and Indian star tortoises, pangolins and monitor lizard, geckoes as well as all species of nocturnal Asian lizards. Now trafficking gangs have been using the same route to supply endangered wildlife into mainland India.

Recent years saw a spurt in the illegal import of exotic wildlife into India through the same route with some variation. Champhai in Mizoram has now gained notoriety as a transit point which would earlier had been Dimapur in Nagaland with Shillong now being added as a destination. Most of the exotic wildlife rescued in Assam — baby Orangutans, kangaroos, chimpanzees, macaques, birds and turtles–many of them belonging to the IUCN’s threatened, endangered and critically endangered list–travelled through Mizoram. Investigations reveal of a huge inter-continental racket with different operating zones right from South America, Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Myanmar, Bangladesh and India.

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Police sources said the trafficked animals were taken to Siliguri in West Bengal from where they are sent to private zoos and amusement parks or to be sold as pets. But the majority of this wildlife was found to be heading to Gujarat.

 “Smuggling of exotic animals has been continuing unabated despite occasional seizures of exotic animals. The growth of private zoos has become a threat to wildlife and actually become the reason for the spurt of illegal wildlife trade. The role of the Central Zoo Authority of India is also questionable,” feels Jayanta Kumar Das, a wildlife activist who also served as an honorary wildlife warden.

Where have all the “rescued” wildlife gone

According to reports, more than 200 people have been arrested and over 150 cases have been registered in Assam in the last couple of years but to impose legal action against illegal transit/trade of exotic species, provisions in our law seem insufficient.

 “When it comes to cases of seized exotic animals, provisions in Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is vague making them prone to trafficking,” most of the forest officials I reached for comments seemed to be unanimous. They also question the role of national/international agencies and NGOs working as wildlife watchdogs.

The “rescued” animals shifted to the Assam State Zoo and Botanical Garden for further identification and treatment have been transferred to The Greens Zoological Rescue and Rehabilitation Kingdom in Jamnagar in India’s Gujarat state.

Although there have been several protests in Assam against the transfer of “rescued” exotic animals to Gujarat, along with some endangered and endemic wildlife, the zoo authorities responded by saying that there has been nothing illegal in the relocation process.  The Assam Zoo’s Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) Ashwin Kumar told journalists that the Assam zoo had written to the Central Zoo Authority to transfer some exotic animals to a different location citing a lack of expert veterinarians and insufficient infrastructure needed to hold the exotic species. However, he refrained from mentioning the location. 

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The Chiriyakhana Suraksha Mancha (CSM- a local NGO monitoring the safety of zoo animals) came down heavily on the state forest department over the “illegal transfers”. The NGO, giving details on how the Assam State Zoo has allegedly become a transit for illegally traded wildlife, alleged that many violations have been made during these exchanges. Rescued exotic animals as well as the state’s rare and endemic wildlife have been landing in the Greens Rescue and Rehabilitation Kingdom in Jamnagar in the guise of animal exchange programmes. Rajkumar Baishya, general secretary of the CSM, said that “according to the Central Zoo Authority rules, the animal exchange can take place only between government zoos and not between a government and a private zoo”.

Meanwhile, Rudrankar Hazarika, convenor of the youth wing of the Aam Admi Party (AAP) in Assam lambasted the ongoing “illegal process under the guise of zoo exchange”. “It is pertinent to mention that most of the animals being allegedly transferred are of “rainforest and grassland” origins and are not accustomed or known to exist/survive in the harsh arid desert-type climate in Gujarat. No assurance has been made as to how the survival of such endangered animals is ensured in a habitat, they are not suitable for,” AAP’s letter to the Chief Justice of Gauhati High Court asks.

The Greens Zoological Rescue and Rehabilitation Kingdom in Jamnagar in India’s Gujarat state over a 250-acre swath has come to be reckoned as one of the world’s largest zoos. The immersion exhibit developed by Reliance Industries promises the world’s biggest wildlife showcase hosting some most majestic, exotic, and endangered animals of the planet like African lions, Royal Bengal tigers, American bears (grizzly and black) to jaguars, ocelots, pygmy hippos, giraffes, zebras, kangaroos, white rhinos, Malayan tapirs, meerkats and marmosets.

“The state forest department has already filed cases against the offenders for illegal transportation of wild animals. Once the case has been registered, the seized animals need to be in government custody till disposal of the cases. In such a situation how all these animals can be shifted to a private zoo?” asked R C Goswami, a retired forest officer with the Assam government.

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“It is not hard to understand where all these “rescued” animals had gone”, said Jayanta Kumar Das. “But it has indeed become hard to fathom the role of agencies responsible for curbing the menace of illegal wildlife trafficking worldwide,” he added.

 “The Detailed Project Report (DPR) and the Master Plan for the Greens Zoological Rescue and Rehabilitation Kingdom at Jamnagar by Reliance Industries Limited was approved by the 33rd meeting of the Central Zoo Authority (CzA) held on February 12, 2019, according to the CzA website and we have actually seen such exotic animals being rescued in large numbers after 2019,” Dilip Nath, an RTI activist said and added “wonder why there have been no investigations linking this sudden spurt in exotic wildlife seizures and ‘rescue’ followed by the relocation of animals to the Jamnagar zoo!”

“The frequent seizure of consignments of live exotic wildlife followed by their transfer to the zoo in Guwahati and their final relocation to artificial enclosures thousands and thousands of miles away from their original homes—all this has been happening under the very nose of international agencies monitoring global wildlife trade. Their silence is quite baffling,” said Chandan Kumar Duarah, journalist and member of Kaziranga Wildlife Society.

Activists and conservationists reacted with outrage at the inactivity of wildlife crime control agencies but more than that it has been the failure of international treaties and conventions to address the plight of the rare, endangered and critically endangered wildlife that has raised questions on conservation objectives of wildlife trade conventions and their effectiveness in curbing international wildlife crime.

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