Wildlife Week Special: Wildlife trafficking has seen a million pangolins killed, around 7000 Asian big cats have been slaughtered for body parts since 2000, 14 million reptiles traded in a decade and so on. In India, the trade is focussed on tigers, leopards, rhinos and pangolins. The networking among the crime syndicates calls for coordination between many agencies that can detect and block the transit routes.
The transnational trade in wildlife and forest products is estimated to be the fourth largest illegal crime globally with a growth rate that is 2-3 times higher than the global economy. A spike in demand from an increasingly affluent middle class in Asia coupled with weak law enforcement continues to push species to the brink of extinction. The current international concern about wildlife trafficking has been partly triggered by the 100,000 African elephants killed for ivory in 2009-2012. The numbers of other wildlife involved in transborder trade are equally staggering — with a million pangolins estimated to have been killed globally for trade in the past decade, 6900 Asian big cats recovered through seizures since 2000, 14 million wild sourced reptiles traded within a decade since 2005, and estimates of 100 million sharks killed annually partly for the shark fin trade.
India is a major source for tigers, leopards, rhinos, and snow leopards, with almost 1300 wildlife seizures since 2013. Exploiting weak governance systems, intermediaries move contraband such as tiger fur, pangolin scales, leopard bones and claws, rhino horn, bear bile etc. among logisticians, and launderers to vendors in Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and Myanmar and eventually to Chinese and southeast Asian markets. Despite multiple international level policies and bodies such as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ Wildlife Enforcement Network (ASEAN-WEN), and South Asian Wildlife Enforcement Network (SAWEN), illegal wildlife trade continues to grow at an unprecedented rate.
A wildlife trafficking network is composed of multiple inter-linked components that carry out different functions in the chain.
Criminal syndicates trafficking high-value wildlife are clandestine networks that also engage in other illegal activities such as document fraud, money laundering, arms smuggling and various import-export offences. Greater coordination among agencies can help strengthen wildlife crime investigation and provide opportunities to effectively tackle wildlife trafficking. India already protects wildlife under multiple laws, and empowers multiple agencies to detect, investigate and prosecute wildlife and ancillary offences committed by wildlife crime syndicates.
The Wild Life Protection Act, 1972 (WLPA) is the umbrella legislation for protection of wildlife and their habitats in India. Section 49 of the WLPA prohibits trade in wildlife and its derivatives. Section 50 empowers forest officers, and police officers above the rank of sub-inspector to seize wildlife contraband, search, detain and arrest individuals engaged in wildlife crimes. Officers are expected to follow the procedure laid down in the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 during wildlife seizures and subsequent investigation including ensuring the presence of independent witnesses, evidence collection protocols, and interrogation guidelines. Section 51 of the WLPA constitutes penalties that include jail term up to 7 years and fine of at least INR 10,000, especially when the offence involves species in Schedule I, or poaching in a protected area. The WLPA also empowers the police and/or State Government to freeze assets acquired from the proceedings of illegal hunting and trade.
In addition to the WLPA, the Customs Act 1962, Foreign Trade (Development Regulation) Act 1992, and the Foreign Trade Policy of Government of India provide penalties for import and export offences including transport of wildlife without authorization, export of protected species, and misclassification of exports. This legislation is especially important for controlling international trade in exotic species listed under CITES. The Import-Export Policy also restricts trade in species covered under the WLPA and in Appendix I and II of CITES, and empowers Customs officers and the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence to deal with violations of the law.
Wildlife traffickers typically also engage in document fraud to conceal the authenticity, volume, origin and destination of smuggled goods. They may also provide false information to government officials to acquire licenses, or to evade arrest when caught with contraband. The Indian Penal Code, 1860 provides a jail term of two years and/or fine for individuals found to commit forgery.
Poachers may use illegally acquired firearms to hunt down wildlife such as rhinos. The Arms Act, 1959 empowers any magistrate, police officer or public servant to arrest individuals without a warrant, when it is suspected that the accused plans to use them for illegal purposes, and provides punishment of three to seven years and a fine for possession of firearms without a license – and can be used to deter poachers.
Trade in wildlife and forest products generates significant profits whose illegal origin needs to be disguised. Following the money trail by tracing the proceeds of wildlife crime, and identifying financiers can help dismantle organized trafficking chains. India enacted the Prevention of Money Laundering Act, 2002 (PMLA) to prevent the transfer, concealment or possession of income from illegal activities. The Enforcement Directorate (ED) investigates offences under the PMLA and can proceed to investigate and book cases of money laundering provided an offence is registered under the WLPA. Section 4 of the PMLA provides for a punishment of 3 – 10 years with fine. Besides, money laundering is a cognizable and non-bailable offence, and provides police officers the powers to arrest without warrant. Under Section 5, the investigation officer also has the powers to provisionally attach property suspected to be proceeds of crime making this one of the strongest legislation to tackle organized wildlife crime.
Countries in Africa, and Asia, UK and the US are establishing national multi-agency mechanisms to address wildlife crime and trafficking. In India, the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau is the principal agency under the Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate Change with representatives from the Indian Police Services, Indian Forest Services and Customs. It has the mandate to collect intelligence, establish a centralized criminal database, coordinate actions with different state, national and international bodies, and build capacity of ground staff to detect, investigate and prosecute wildlife crimes.
Security agencies including the Border Security Force, Assam Rifles, Saharashtra Security Bal etc. have the mandate to prevent smuggling and are often willing partners in the fight against wildlife trafficking. Central Industrial Security Force at airports, Government Railway Police, Railway Protection Force at railways and Department of Posts at postal offices can also provide strong checks by detecting wildlife contraband during transit.
Tackling organized wildlife trafficking requires a recognition that protection of wildlife needs engagement with a diverse set of government players, and dependence on a suite of legislative powers enshrined in the Indian constitution. A multi-scale multi-agency approach that facilitates increased dialogue and cooperation among different detecting and investigating government agencies, recognizes needs and motivations of frontline staff to combat trafficking and improves inter-agency capacity to leverage existing laws for protecting India’s wildlife heritage is the need of the hour.
Written by Sahila Kudalkar