By Aristo Mendis
Illegal wildlife trade (IWT) has been around for a while. Considered as one of the top five illegal transnational trades, alongside drugs and arms, IWT is a threat to biodiversity and the environment. But dialogue concerning IWT became a global talking point only after it emerged as a human health hazard with the outbreak of COVID-19, that is speculated to have linkages of spreading from a wet market in Wuhan city, China. The same market has also reportedly been documented for selling illegal wildlife species. China has increasingly been blamed for its significant role in driving such trade, due to the heavy demand for wildlife-based products.
State in India
Likewise, India has, as well, observed it’s fair share of IWT. And it has very much persisted in our country, with an expanding list of wildlife species that are severely being affected by it, including pangolins, rhinos, elephants, star tortoises, tokay geckos, sea cucumbers, seahorses, parakeets, red sanders, leopards, as well our national animal, the tiger. A notable investigative story concerning IWT in India is Jay Mazoomdar’s work on the rampant poaching of tigers in Sariska National Park from 2005, which revealed that the park lost its tigers to organized tiger trafficking syndicates. This was followed with compensatory measures in the form of the tiger reintroduction program initiated by the National Tiger Conservation Authority in 2008. This investigative story was critical in terms of bringing the country's focus on tiger trafficking as an immediate concern back then.
Recent stories from 2019, reveal how Chennai is emerging as a hub for illegal wildlife trade. The stories include records of wildlife trafficking incidents involving a leopard cub, an african horned pit viper, iguanas and tortoises, all smuggled from Bangkok (In separate events). Notably, the story also mentions how young students were lured into smuggling wildlife, in exchange for a quick buck, along with an international trip. Some of the recent enforcement action in 2020, at Chennai, include seizure of red sanders (11 tonnes), marmosets, red-handed tamarin, tricolour squirrels and iguanas, meerkats, fat-tailed gerbils, tarantula spiders, a chameleon, among other wildlife species (involving two separate incidents, again reportedly smuggled from Bangkok, in varying numbers). These stories help highlight the steps taken by enforcement to curb wildlife crime. But these shouldn’t stop with just reporting of seizure incidents. Rather they could be considered as starting points for journalists and enforcement to work together towards wildlife crime investigation.
In a country like ours, with 22 recognized official languages among multiple dialects, a singular news report on a trafficking incident involving a single pangolin may easily get ignored and lost in the enormous bubble of crime reportage, despite its potential in being vital evidence that could help to elaborate on the organized nature of such crimes. Since most wildlife trafficking reportage are incidental in nature, and ends at this stage, it often ends up demonizing underprivileged communities, and paints them almost entirely as scapegoats of the IWT issue. Members of such communities are quite likely just the foot soldiers of wildlife trafficking, and easily replaceable. While the key players of IWT, due to lack of collaborative media attention, continue to operate without gaining the enforcement spotlight. Other problems with such ‘one-off’ wildlife trafficking incident reportage, is that they may not be able to reach out to distant states and regions, due to limitations in regional coverage of media reports. The popularity of wildlife species also differs with every state, city, and region. Rhino poaching incidents are diligently reported by Assam. And strangely this might also have played in a role in reducing poaching of rhinos in the state. But this fate is not necessarily shared with other vulnerable species that are found in Assam.
Photo Credit : Gilles Sabrie for The New York Times
While enforcement agencies are putting in their best efforts to curb IWT, wildlife traffickers are getting smarter, making use of newer, advanced, and harder-to-trace technology to operate. A recent inter-state pangolin smuggling bust in Odisha revealed the rising use of Whatsapp by dealers and customers to communicate. Wildlife traffickers are also rapidly moving to social media platforms to sell wildlife contraband. With such digital interfaces turning into common marketplaces for selling IWT, it becomes all the more important for enforcement to collaboratively work alongside journalists, NGOs, academics, tech companies, and experts from miscellaneous fields.
Stitching stories of wildlife trafficking
Keeping the complexity of IWT in mind, there has also been a growing emergence of collaborative investigative efforts. One such example is the Pangolin Reports - an international network of journalists, who have helped join the dots of how prominent pangolin trafficking syndicates operate in parts of Europe, Africa, and Asia. Similar initiatives to counter wildlife are Wildeye and Wildeye Asia, both of which are collaborative media tools that are bringing journalists, researchers, and policy-makers together to highlight organized wildlife crime across Europe and Asia. Other investigative pieces that worked towards gathering evidence on wildlife trafficking include Al Jazeera’s investigative unit that explored international rhino horn trade. Such initiatives bring focus, and help in identifying the real ‘bad guys’ who orchestrate IWT. All of this is possible when journalists move beyond superficial reporting, and instead begin to harness data that is collaboratively collected with the intent to curb IWT.
Journalists have always played the role of whistleblowers, shaping society. While we continue to live through a pandemic that has its linkages to IWT, now may be the best time to ask the right questions. Speculative reports indicate that pangolins may have been intermediate hosts carrying the coronavirus. Which is why the question that journalists, enforcement agencies, and every other concern citizen should be asking is, who particularly smuggled these pangolins in the first place?
Read more : Webinar: Investigative Wildlife Trafficking & Conservation Reporting