A THRIVING WEB OF SKINS, SCALES & TUSKS
A single agency is battling illegal trade of animals on mobile apps, e-commerce sites and darknet
Online wildlife trafficking is the kind of easy crime these days that does not need to bury itself in deep layers of the Web to stay concealed. For a host of reasons, it is readily facilitated even by the surface net. For in any tier of the Internet, regulation is scarce, enforcement tough. Business is swift, its platforms many. Traders are anonymous, their reach vast. And the returns are invaluable.
It is a field day for poachers.
Over the past year or so, they have shifted focus to social media, e-commerce platforms and mobile apps to conduct their brutal business. Dating as far back as Orkut and going as deep as the darknet, smuggling of endangered species is conducted most conveniently now through transactional sites like eBay, and even WhatsApp.
To get a grip on the situation, a new unit has been planned at the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB), which operates under the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests. The bureau itself was constituted over a decade ago by amending the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, to combat organised wildlife crime in the country.
It collects intelligence on wildlife crimes and shares it with states and law enforcement agencies — both overseas and at home — to help them control wildlife crimes in a coordinated manner.
For the Bureau, the biggest challenge currently lies in stopping illegal trade on the darknet, which is the hidden reaches of the Web inaccessible by search engines like Google. “There’s evidence of criminals using darknet widely to sell illicit wildlife products from critically endangered species such as rhino horns, elephant ivory, tiger parts and other products,” said a senior officer at the Bureau on the condition of anonymity as he is not authorised to speak to the media.
But even smugglers who use apps such as Telegram, WhatsApp and Signal are difficult to nail. “These are close-knit groups. It is tough to gather intelligence about them,” the officer said.
Another blatant trend in animal trafficking is the use of e-commerce sites, where protected species and their parts change hands as neatly as ordering shampoo online. Investigatigators have been forced to step up their game. A cyber team set up two years ago has had some success in monitoring illegal animal trade. “Cyber patrolling bore fruits with detection of 200 cases since it began,” said RS Thakur, the Bureau’s deputy director.
After flagging 129 websites including Flipkart, Amazon, Snapdeal, Infibeam, Bay, Olx and YouTube, the officers called a meeting and asked them to set up “internal mechanisms” to detect and put a stop to the sale of endangered species.
Others were informed through letters that spelled out how the Wildlife Protection Act was being violated through their platforms.
There was some respite, but the problem persisted.
The agency has its limitations. It has 79 officials against its sanctioned strength of 109 and they are not cyber experts. Even if they were, it is too small a number to square up to the army of poachers online. Moreover, when an offender is barred on one platform, they simply move to another.
The proposed unit is needed more than ever, not just to suss out digitally savvy poachers across platforms, but also to decode criminal trade.
Cutting through the code
The Bureau has curious tales to tell about what’s hot and what’s not among online traffickers. Not so long ago, Chocolate and Trophy were trending. It didn’t take time for investigators to realise that the former refers to a boa constrictor, which is dark brown in colour; the latter is the pelt of the Bengal tiger.
Poachers use an extensive trade glossary, mostly composed of colloquial Hindi terms, which they keep revising every now and then, to escape detection by international law agencies like Interpol and e-commerce giants based in the US and EU.
The officers must keep up, and keep everybody else involved in checking wildlife crimes, looped up with its database of codes.
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And the database is expansive, thanks to the subcontinent’s rich and diverse wildlife.
The bits harvested from this wealth of endangered species are smuggled out to China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand and South East Asian nations, which favour skins and snake venoms, other than the United Kingdom and the EU.
China, where pangolins and tokay geckos are in huge demand for medicinal purposes, is the biggest buyer of endangered species. But since 2016, the Bureau, in tandem with the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI), has been able to arrest all of two Chinese nationals for wildlife trafficking.
The traffickers use specific channels, where it is easiest to avoid being caught (see map). The most popular are Uttar Pradesh-Nepal-Tibet, Kolkata-Manipur-Mizoram-MyanmarLaos and Uttarakhand-Tibet.
In east India, Siliguri has become the convergence point to smuggle endangered species and their parts out of India to Bangladesh, Nepal, China, and Southeast Asian countries.
In the northern part of the country, Nalagarh in Himachal Pradesh and Pithoragarh in Uttarakhand are convergence points for smuggling out endangered species. In southern India, Ramanathapuram in Tamil Nadu is where sea horses, sea cucumbers and sea fans are sourced and traded to Hong Kong, Singapore and Vietnam.
In western India, the megapolis of Mumbai is a convergence point. Apart from the border areas, poachers have begun using airports and foreign post offices extensively to smuggle out wildlife. Chennai airport is used to the fullest by smugglers who pack creatures in luggage which goes through scanners at security checkpoints. “They easily manage to smuggle out endangered species in connivance with airport staff,” Thakur charged.
Bureau fights back
The Bureau has, in its turn, strategised missions to eliminate smuggling rings. Among these, two big campaigns stand out in that they have had the most success in zeroing in on poachers.
Operation Wild Net, a month-long operation carried out in May 2017, led to the detection of 37 incidents of online poaching. After the bust, seven cases were registered under wildlife protection and technology laws.
Two months later, Operation Lesknow was launched. This time, the mission was more complex. The Bureau wanted to check illegal trade of lesser-known animal species, and bust international poaching rackets by roping in law enforcement and investigative agencies from the world over. These included the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in the US, and the International Criminal Police Organisation, or Interpol, which consists of 188 member countries.
Throughout the month of August, the Bureau detected around 100 incidents of illegal wildlife trafficking.
The success of the project has spurred another monthlong operation this year, and it concludes today, on the last day of September.
Other than that, the WCCB engages in capacity-building programmes around the year under which local police and forest officials are trained in handling endangered species and their transgressors. Frontier-guarding forces such as the DRI, Customs, Railways and CBI also get training as part of the programmes.
Last year, 22 such workshops were organised and 40 officials from the police and forest departments were equipped with tools to detect violation of regulations surrounding endangered species.
“The training sessions were spread across the states. Our job is to make the authorities aware of the existing laws and endangered species and the ways in which such cases should be dealt,” said a senior officer, adding that the focus of the initiatives is on identification and investigation.
For all the threats and challenges it needs to tackle, the WCCB is in bad shape. Its rundown headquarters in New Delhi is not only short-handed but also toothless, cramped, and cash-strapped. The unit needs a lot of attention from the government, especially in terms of funding, if it is to be overhauled, staffed well and brought up to speed.
The ramshackle state of the Bureau is depressing for conservationists.
Tito Joseph of the Wildlife Protection Society of India says that for the bureau to function properly, it needs sufficient staff. It also needs to be allocated a bigger budget so it can hire experts, function efficiently, and plan its activities to meet emerging and ever-evolving challenges of the cyberspace.
Suggesting ways to combat wildlife crimes, Joesph said that not just the WCCB but local agencies too have to be given teeth.
“The government should think of strengthening state enforcement agencies, so trafficking can be stopped at the source itself. It is not possible for a central agency to handle wildlife crimes in a country like this,” he says.
As for what the WCCB can do, Joesph says it should focus more on organised crime. “Most criminals are highly organised and are part of international syndicates. The Bureau should come up with proposals and plans to deal with trafficking on mobile applications and darknet, and bust global animal trafficking rings.”
1. In a joint operation on September 16 with the West Bengal forest offiicals, the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau arrested a man from Kolkata with 14 live star tortoises 2. An undated photo of parrots recovered by the officials from an undisclosed location3. The Bureau arrested three people in Guwahati last Wednesday for trying to sell nine tokay geckos4. Sea horses are routinely harvested from the coast of Tamil Nadu and smuggled out5. In coordination with the Himachal state police, the Bureau recently nabbed four people with a leopard skin