Joint action by various enforcement agencies alone can check the organised illegal trade which also has national security ramifications.
Seized pangolin scales ©WCS-India Archives
I recently came across a powerful video called Last Days, which showcased the close link between trade in ivory and how it funds militants in Africa. It shook me, and I started to read a little more about similar patterns in India. What I found was rather unsettling.
The link between insurgency and wildlife trade has been better studied and documented in Africa for some time, but it came to light for the first time in India with the poaching of 18 rhinos in 2007, according to a UNEP Report. It says that Bangladeshi terror groups affiliated with Al Qaeda, reportedly poach tigers, elephants, and rhinos in Kaziranga National Park to raise organizational operating funds. The groups have been claimed to be linked with criminal syndicates in Nepal, Thailand, and China. Another report by the International Fund for Animal Welfare says that Indian officials, local traders and poachers have turned to the wildlife trade for financial support because the profits from poaching and wildlife trafficking are untraceable.
The impact of uncontrolled, unchecked hunting and trade of wildlife on biodiversity and ultimately the health of our forests is a more obvious impact of the large illegal trade, and though this is motivation enough to pull up our socks and act against this gigantic organized crime, the ties with militant groups is more incentive to take this challenge seriously. It is also heartening to see that The National Wildlife Action Plan for 2017-2031 drawn up by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change acknowledges reports of insurgents and extremists using wildlife trade to raise funds for procuring arms.
At the outset, I can safely say with great pride that India has one of the strongest legal frameworks for wildlife conservation in the world. India boasts of laws where wildlife offences are cognizable, and where the burden of proof lies with the accused. We also boast of a marriage between illegal wildlife trade and money laundering and the creation of an intricate setup to deal with illegal money derived from illegal wildlife trade. The 2006 amendment of the Wildlife Act, 1972 formed the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau with the intent of setting up a body dedicated to fighting the organized crime of wildlife trade. The intention of our legislature cannot be clearer. This is then also reinforced by the Apex Court, where the importance of conservation and keeping a strict check on wildlife trade has been reiterated time and again.
India has, through these various bold statements, made it clear that we recognize the magnitude of the problem – and not just in isolation as a threat to biodiversity, but even more so as a fuel for insurgency and terrorism and ultimately as a threat to national security.
That being said, we have failed to implement these laws to their full extent. According to a report by the National Crime Records Bureau, India has reported only 859 wildlife crimes in 2016. Of these, only 605 chargesheets or complaints were filed. And the conviction rate is an abysmal 17%. This is a warning of the plight of implementation of wildlife laws in India.
The challenges for dealing with wildlife crimes are many. The organized nature of the trade makes it one that is particularly difficult to tackle as it requires various enforcement agencies to come together to achieve viable results. Understaffed Forest Departments, inadequate training of officers on how to tackle wildlife crimes and lack of public prosecutors that specialize in wildlife law are only some of the challenges we face. Having strong laws is half the battle won, but the need of the hour is to bring various enforcement agencies together to fight this large international organized trade with renewed vigour.
Written by Mridula Vijairaghavan