Wildlife crime refers to acts committed contrary to national laws and regulations intended to protect natural resources and to administer their management and use. This includes the illicit exploitation of natural resources, such as poaching of animals and unauthorized logging of trees. It may also include subsequent acts, such as the processing of fauna and flora into products, their transportation, sale and possession. [International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime (ICCWC)]
Wildlife crime refers to the taking, trading (supplying, selling or trafficking), importing, exporting, processing, possessing, obtaining and consumption of wild fauna and flora, including timber and other forest products, in contravention of national or international law. [Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES)]
Illegal wildlife trade has exploded to meet increasing demand for elephant ivory, rhino horns, and tiger products, particularly in Asia. Controlled by dangerous crime syndicates, wildlife is trafficked much like drugs or weapons. Wildlife criminals often operate with impunity, making the trade a low-risk/high-profit business. Today, it is the fifth most profitable illicit trade in the world, estimated at up to $10 billion annually.
Illegal wildlife trade is devastating wildlife species the world over, as poachers, traffickers and highly organized criminal syndicates ruthlessly pursue profit at any cost to meet consumer demand. The trafficking and unsustainable trade in wildlife commodities such as elephant ivory, rhino horn, pangolin scales, tiger bone, bear bile, and rosewood are causing unprecedented declines in some of the world's most charismatic, as well as some lesser-known, wildlife species.
“Wildlife crime goes beyond conservation issues; it is also a threat to national and regional security, a barrier to sustainable human development and a fuel for corruption.” Crawford Allan
Poaching has emerged as a much bigger threat to our wildlife than was recognized so far. Although illegal international trade and trafficking may be driving the demise of the tiger and other flagships, the real killing of many wildlife species happens at the hands of a few communities, which have practiced this vocation for centuries.
These communities, known by various names as Pardhis, Bahelias, Mogias, Irulas, etc. are spread all across the country. Conservation cannot prosper simply by ignoring or punishing them when caught. We must take note of their role and must find ways of weaning them away from their traditions by providing them viable alternative livelihoods. Better still, if their art of tracking and capturing wild animals can be harnessed for supporting conservation in some manner this would further strengthen our conservation efforts. [Working Group Report on Wildlife, Biodiversity, Traditional Knowledge and Animal Welfare]
An estimated one million pangolins have been poached in the last decade, making them the most trafficked mammals in the world. These shy creatures are poached in Asia and Africa for their scales and body parts, consumed for nourishment, a symbol of wealth or within traditional medicine.
Black and white rhinos are among Africa's most iconic mega-fauna; gentle grazers and browsers who once spanned the entire continent. After years of ruthless poaching by organised criminal syndicates for their keratin horn, both African species of rhino are now threatened with extinction in the wild and in desperate need of protection.
African elephants are arguably the most well known species to be heavily impacted by illegal trade and wildlife crime, given that approximately 90 percent have been decimated within the last century. Global efforts to reverse this devastating onslaught on African Elephant populations have seen positive results. However, demand for ivory still exists and illegal traders remain as resourceful and ruthless as ever.
Tigers have been devastated by poaching, illegal trade, human-wildlife conflict and habitat loss. Once common across Asian range states, these magnificent big cats are now estimated to number approximately 3,800 in the wild. Tigers are an endangered species, poached for their skin and bones to cater to an illegal market. Their body parts are used in Asian medicines and claws are used in the making of jewellery. Tiger whiskers are considered a dreadful poison in Malaysia and a powerful aphrodisiac in Indonesia.
Indian wildlife species and products commonly smuggled out of the country are tiger and leopard skins, their bones and other body parts, rhino horns, ivory, turtles and tortoises, sea horses, snake venom, mongoose hair, snake skins, tokay gecko, sea cucumber, chiru fleece, musk pods, bear bile, medicinal plants, red sanders timber and caged birds such as parakeets, mynas, munias.
Wildlife poaching has been a serious concern in India. It has adversely affected the survival of a number of animal species in our country. According to available records of Wildlife Crime Control Board (WCCB), over 9,253 poachers have been arrested in wildlife poaching across India during 2012-2018.
In 2018, TRAFFIC India released a study, which revealed that at least 5,772 pangolins were captured in India from 2009 to 2017 for illegal trade.
According to the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, in 2018, 388 cases of wildlife-related crimes were registered under the Wildlife Protection Act. In nearly one in every three cases (123 of the 388), the species involved was leopards or tigers. Leopards alone accounted for over one in five cases, at 81, while 42 cases involved tigers. In between the two big cat species were scheduled birds, which accounted for 61 cases, or a little over than one in seven.
Just five species accounted for two in every three cases (259 of the 388), with leopards (21 percent), scheduled birds (16 percent) and tigers (11 percent) being followed by star tortoises or turtles (10 percent) and deer (9 percent). Ten species accounted for over 90 percent of the cases, the other 5 being elephants (7 percent), snakes (5 percent), rhinos (4 percent), mongooses (4 percent) and pangolins (a little under 4 percent). The remaining 10 percent were cases that involved 10 other species, including Tockay geckos and monkeys.
“A lack of knowledge, anonymous e-commerce, greed and low risk, high reward opportunities are coming together in a perfect storm to fuel wildlife crime globally, and India is a major hotspot.” Lisa Rolls
Ancient trade routes for salt, spices and wool are being used to smuggle tiger skins and bones. These illegal goods are sent to buyers based largely in northern India and are then smuggled out of the country through couriers. The main route is via Nepal, with whom India has a porous border, or directly across the border to China. More recently, routes through Myanmar have also been used.
Apart from tigers, India is also witnessing a rise in wildlife crime against Rhinoceros. Driven by a soaring demand for their horn, hundreds of rhinos are being illegally killed. According to a report by TRAFFIC and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), sophisticated poachers are using veterinary drugs, poison, cross bows and high caliber weapons to kill rhinos. [United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC)]
Human activity endangers biodiversity in at least five main ways—
Large numbers of industries have been economically impacted by species loss. The continued loss of species may cost the world 18 percent of global economic output by 2050. The collapse of bee populations has hurt many in the $50 billion-a-year global honey industry. Atlantic cod in the waters of Newfoundland formed the basis of the local economy since the 15th century, until overfishing the cod destroyed the livelihoods of local fishermen.
In short, species loss causes the following—
Adv. Sunil Sharma is a writer for about 25 years and has authored more than 40 books on various subjects including Jurisprudence, Hindu Law and Environmental Laws.