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‘Illegal wildlife trade hasn’t slowed even after covid-19 outbreak’

TRAFFIC India’s head on challenges to wildlife conservation and efforts to save endangered species during the pandemic

A pangolin roaming the bush for food. Although the commercial trade of all the eight species of the pangolin is banned, it is still traded in such large numbers that it is considered the most trafficked wild mammal in the world. (Credit: iStock)
A pangolin roaming the bush for food. Although the commercial trade of all the eight species of the pangolin is banned, it is still traded in such large numbers that it is considered the most trafficked wild mammal in the world. (Credit: iStock)

When India went into a lockdown towards the end of March to deal with the covid-19 outbreak, many assumed it would lead to a drop in wildlife poaching, considering all borders were sealed and stepping out on the road was almost a crime. Surprisingly, that wasn’t the case. There was an increase in the number of cases of poaching of ungulates and small mammals. Even cobra, sea cucumber, flying squirrels were poached, consumed and traded, according to a study done by the non-profit TRAFFIC during the pandemic.

To track poaching trends during the lockdown, TRAFFIC India did a study, closely monitoring media reports and social media platforms, three weeks prior to and after the lockdown.

In an interview with Mint, Saket Badola, head of TRAFFIC India, talks about the challenges posed by the pandemic for wildlife conservation, what can be done to save endangered species like pangolins, and the need to keep a close watch on exotic animals being imported to India. Edited excerpts:

Why did wildlife poaching increase during the lockdown?

Although the link between unsustainable wildlife exploitation and various pandemics has been established, it doesn’t appear to be deterring wildlife criminals and consumers of these products. As a result, the amount of illegal trade of wildlife doesn’t appear to have come down even after the covid-19 outbreak.

Economic slowdown and rising unemployment will lead to the quest for securing food and extra income. This will put immense pressure on forests and wildlife. So, we need to be more alert now, invest more in our enforcement mechanisms, and do more research on wildlife-transmitted diseases as well.

We might also find funding becoming a challenge for wildlife conservation efforts. It has not started happening in India yet because the government is paying attention. However, we are noticing this in other parts of the world. For instance, in certain parts of Africa, a lot of funding for conservation comes from tourism. And with tourism having stopped, conservation efforts are impacted. Thankfully, our government doesn’t depend too much on tourism for conservation.

Are there any specific regions in India where there were more poaching incidents?

The record shows that areas in the Western Ghats and the North-East are more prone to such activities. Richness in biodiversity and proximity to international borders act as the main drivers of poaching and trade.

Saket Badola, head of TRAFFIC India.
Saket Badola, head of TRAFFIC India.

What role did social media play in monitoring wildlife trade and killings?

Social media has been very useful in not only disseminating crucial messages to the public, but also in monitoring illegal trade. Apart from social media, we are noticing a lot of wildlife trade happening on cyberspace. We are minutely monitoring it to gather data.

Pangolin poaching has been rampant in parts of India for many years. Despite gaining notoriety as being the carrier of the novel coronavirus, poaching rates have not slowed down. Why?

Creating awareness across other agencies like border police, customs, etc., and orienting them about the species is a major factor in reducing the trade of these shy mammals. It is being done now and there is some amount of positive results.

In fact, pangolins have emerged as a perfect representative of lesser-known species excessively targeted by poachers to fulfil the international demand for their meat and scales. Although the commercial trade of all the eight species of the pangolin is banned, it’s still traded in such large numbers that it is considered the most trafficked wild mammal in the world. The assumptions regarding its connect with the virus spread have also failed to stop their annihilation.

While we are talking about animals within the country, there is also a steady stream of exotic animals entering India.

The situation is similar for the illegal import of exotic animals into the country. Recent seizures of the Australian kangaroo, African tortoises, South American birds and a confirmed report of the presence of orangutan in the country, indicates the risk we are taking with our health. We need better protocols to quarantine these animals and monitor their entry into the country to ensure it doesn’t result in a disease outbreak. More than 60% of emerging human diseases are of animal origin; of these about 75% find their origin in wild animals. The current pandemic is an example of this.

So, we also need to frame laws that ensure illegal import of exotic animals is regulated at the borders itself because once they enter the country, you can’t do much. One good move that has come in this direction is the advisory from the Union environment ministry to streamline the import and possession of exotic animals in India in June. It’s directed at people who own these species to voluntarily disclose they own them.

What can be done to make wildlife protection agencies more robust?

Forest and wildlife are part of the concurrent list, which means that the funding and priorities vary from state to state. Few states invest heavily in this department. So uniformity in allotting funding would help. Filling up vacancies of forest staff positions, and doing something for the welfare of the forest staff, will go a long way. In many places, forest staff don’t have enough amenities to carry out even their normal activities. For instance, in some places the person has no vehicle but has to patrol a large area, or good anti-poaching chowkis or camps, some basic amenities.

Despite this, we are one of the successful stories in protection of certain species like tigers, elephants, lions, gharial and one-horned rhino. But if we need to continue this successful effort, we need to invest in the people who protect them.

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