A THRIV­ING WEB OF SKINS, SCALES & TUSKS

A sin­gle agency is battling il­le­gal trade of an­i­mals on mo­bile apps, e-com­merce sites and dark­net

DNA Sunday (Mumbai) - - THE STORY - Su­mit Kumar Singh

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.

Crea­ture dis­com­forts

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.

The In­dian chan­nel

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.

Way for­ward

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.”

—PHO­TOS: WCCB AR­CHIVES

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

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