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Nothing to be wild about

Tracking illegal trade in wildlife takes one to most unlikely places. Now going towards Nathu La Pass on Sikkim's border with Tibet, my thoughts, however, were more on the prospect of high altitude mountain sickness. Finally, I did succumb to the altitude sickness and had to turn back about 12 kilometres before reaching the destination. How sad.
But why this journey to Nathu La?
With the opening of the Nathu La Pass for international trade and tourism in 2006, conservationists fear that illegal trade in wildlife contraband will spawn further. The highly militarised zone is the closest point connecting Kolkata to Lhasa - the virtual headquarter of illegal wildlife trade according to wildlife experts. Rhino horns, hornbill skulls, tiger and leopard bones, fur, claws, canines, talons, penis, bear gall bladder, bird beaks, are all raw material for Traditional Chinese Medicine. The demand, despite international campaigns, is still huge. Sea cucumber and other marine wealth make their way from the Andaman Sea to Kolkata en route to Lhasa by road, only 800 kilometres away.
It is also near the Siliguri wildlife trade hotspot. A seizure in Ghaziabad in December, 1999 of a truck laden with neatly cured leopard and tiger skins stashed away in furnishing material marked the beginning of the unearthing of what turned out to be massive organised crime. This truck was heading towards Siliguri, investigations revealed.
At 14, 000 feet above sea level, the Pass was once part of the ancient Silk Route and was a conduit for trade between India and Tibet. It was closed after the Indo Chinese war in 1962.
Wildlife conservationists apprehend that three factors may abet increase in illegal wildlife trade through this route: Chinese connection to the markets of traditional Chinese medicine; the new Lhasa - Beijing Super fast train, and now the opening of the motorable road through Nathu La.
Says Belinda Wright of the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI), "Some goods coming in from China have real animal furs lined inside." There was an instance when a person in Darjeeling was wearing a leather jacket lined with rabbit fur but when he was questioned about it, he claimed it was certified rabbit fur. "There was nothing that could be done about it, " says Dipankar Ghosh of World Wide Fund for Nature, Sikkim Chapter.
Lhasa, Litang and Linxia are the hotbeds of illegal wildlife trade. In the 2005 Litang Horse Festival, Wright and Debbie Banks of Environmental Investigation Agency of London witnessed hundreds of nouveau riche Tibetans sporting leopard skin chubas (vest coats), tiger skin coats and kilns. The activists filmed the Tibetans wearing these costumes, showed the clips to Dalai Lama and requested him to appeal to the Tibetans to stop wearing them. The appeal had its desired effect and the fancy for wild cat skins has since reduced.
Given the harsh terrain of the mountain passes, the challenge of detecting 'illegal wildlife trade' doubles. The demilitarised zone is yet to get forest check posts by the Sikkim Forest Department. Other infrastructure like intelligence gathering and physical checks of traders (either incoming or outgoing) are virtually non-existent. Outbound 'trade', it is feared, will be unmitigated hereafter unless the civil administration is geared to combat wildlife smugglers. At the peak of international wildlife trade (2002 %u2013 2005), hundreds of tiger and leopard skins were seized by Chinese customs officials when they were intercepted en route to Lhasa.

O the Indian side, the smugglers have for years cultivated couriers from Jaigaon through Panitanki towards Nepal and then from China to Indo Bangladesh border also through Jaigaon. But now with Nathu La Pass opening up, it offers an easier route with a motorable road.
Who then can effectively curb illegal wildlife trade in this harsh terrain? "The role and charter of the (Indian) Army doesn't mandate it to perform such tasks for which various agencies in the civil administration exist. Actions as required are best taken by the concerned departments responsible for protection of wildlife and prevention of illegal trade, " says an Indian Army spokesman. The Directorate of Revenue Intelligence, as the name suggests, focuses its intelligence gathering activities about taxable goods and anti social activities only.
For the Indian customs department, the main concern is the taxable commodities. Outbound trade which is the mainstay of illegal wildlife trade is not liable to be checked by the officials as per law. Besides, even if they manage to nab smugglers and confiscate such illegal outbound trade, customs officials are not authorised by the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, to launch prosecution. They have to file the case and hand over the arrested person either to the forest department or police officers, 'which increases the paper work enormously' says a senior customs official at the Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi, who declines to be named.

The PCCF of Wildlife N.T. Bhutia of Sikkim Forest Department understated the risks fraught on the new land route for wildlife trade. "A fake rhino horn, artificial hornbill skull, etc cannot be considered a threat / or trade in wildlife contraband." However, there is massive amount of trade in the caterpillar fungus going on right now. Meant to be used for the Himalayan Viagra, the caterpillar fungus or the Cordyceps sinesis is not defined as a scheduled species for Protection under Indian conservation laws largely because of alleged opposition from Nepal and China. Trade in the caterpillar fungus maybe legal as of now but the rate at which it is being harvested for commercial use is unsustainable and will decimate the resources before long possibly because Nathu la was opened.

Inter departmental coordination can be fuelled only by political will. Unless the authorities %u2013 Border Roads Organisation, Border Security Force, Sikkim Forest Department, Indian Customs, Wildlife Institute of India and Directorate of Revenue Intelligence, National Wildlife Crime Control Bureau put their act together there is a possibility of increase in illegal wildlife trade in the coming months. A senior Customs official at the Indira Gandhi International Airport, New Delhi, says "Customs officers can apprehend the smuggler, seize the goods, even book the cases under the Customs Act, but we cannot launch prosecution, because the Wildlife Protection Act 1972, even with all its amendments do not authorise Customs officials to prosecute offenders".
If the concerned officials are sensitised and remain alert, hopefully there will be no illegal wildlife trade through the Nathu La border. "But given the dry run that was conducted by smugglers taking red sandalwood, fake rhino horn, hornbill skulls means they are preparing for it" says Ghosh. That means only bad news for conservationists.
Malini Shankar (TWF Correspondent)
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