Who Smuggles Exotic Animals to India via Assam?

The incident underscores the fact that exotic animal smuggling into Northeast India has connections with Indonesia.
Who Smuggles Exotic Animals to India via Assam?
Who Smuggles Exotic Animals to India via Assam?
Mrinal Talukdar

On the morning of March 29 at the Bilaipur check gate of Assam bordering Mizoram, a pickup truck hit the border check gate in Assam side and came to a halt.

Subsequent checking of the vehicle the police found 52 endangered birds and animals endemic to Indonesia.

By that evening,the news was all over Assamese news channels, albeit with a little tweak. The accidental discovery of the rare animal turned in to a ‘joint rescue operation’ in the press briefing by the state police and the forest department.

The drift of the news was somewhat like this: In a joint operation, Assam Police and the state forest department officials today (March 29) rescued 52 smuggled Indonesian birds and animals.

The rescued birds and animals were identified as Black Lori (6); Red and Blue Lory (42); Babirusa Swine (2) and Hornbill (2).The seizures were made near the Assam-Mizoram border in Hailakandi with cops arresting two smugglers during the operation.

Shamirdapar Baruah, Additional Superintendent of Police of Hailakandi district bordering Mizoram told this writer that the four-wheeler hit the police barricade and came to halt after trying to flee.

“We managed to catch the vehicle with two persons and rescued the birds.  We brought in the forest authorities and Initial investigation has identified the species as Indonesian-based. We have ensured the safety of the rescued animals and birds by placing them under the care of the forest department,” Baruah told this correspondent.

The individuals apprehended in connection with the operation were identified as Moinuddin Ali and Samsul Haque, both hailing to the Hojai area of Assam.

Who Smuggles Exotic Animals to India via Assam?
Who Smuggles Exotic Animals to India via Assam?

While red and blue lory is termed endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) due to its habitat loss and is also listed in Appendix 1 of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), black lory is in CITES’ Appendix II. Indonesian hornbills have been categorized as critically endangered by IUCN in 2022. The Babirusa swine endemic to Indonesia has been placed under the vulnerable category by IUCN. It only meant that all the species seized at the Assam-Mizoram border were barred from trading.

The incident underscores the fact that exotic animal smuggling into Northeast India has connections with Indonesia. According to the police statements, the shipment originated in Indonesia, passed through Myanmar, and made its way into India via Mizoram, with West Bengal as its intended final destination.

When this correspondent contacted Baruah, he disclosed that it was unclear who the ultimate recipients of the animals were. “Even the individuals transporting them did not possess this information. They were simply instructed to deliver the animals to the West Bengal border.”

When asked about the possibility of the smugglers engineering their own capture as part of a larger scheme, the senior police officer acknowledged that it couldn’t be ruled out.

The March 29 seizure adds to a growing body of evidence suggesting an alarming trend of exotic animals being smuggled into India from Southeast Asia, especially Indonesia, since 2018. The repeated seizures of such animals in border areas does raise questions as to whether these seizures are mere coincidences, or indicative of a more complex smuggling issue.

Assam-based animal activists that this writer spoke to do not rule out “an emerging pattern” where confiscated animals are seen to be first intercepted from smugglers and subsequently passed on to the forest department which then transfer the seized animals to the Assam State Zoo at Guwahati, before they ultimately are claimed by some place or the other offering to take care of the animals. The buzz is, are these animals thereby reaching their intended destinations, now with legitimate documentation following a period of stabilization within the zoo.

Last September, in a notable instance, police in Assam’s Cachar district reported the rescue of at least eight exotic animals, including a black macaque and gorillas -- all suspected of being illegally transported from Myanmar. Among those were two Panamanian white-faced capuchins, a pair of common opossums, four black gorillas, and the black macaque, which were then placed under the care of forest department officials. .

Who Smuggles Exotic Animals to India via Assam?
Who Smuggles Exotic Animals to India via Assam?

Furthermore, in April 2023, an operation near the Assam-Mizoram border led to the rescue of seven spider monkeys and two black and white ruffed lemurs from an alleged smuggler’s vehicle.

According to forest officials, in the past five years, there has been a noticeable shift in the dynamics of the illegalwildlife trade across the north-eastern region of India.

Jimmy Borah, a senior worker at Aaranyak, an Assam-based organization dedicated to combating illegal wildlife trade, observed, “Up until 2018, the predominant direction of this trade was from India to countries such as Myanmar, China, and Vietnam, with very few instances of smuggling into India. However, this trend has reversed in recent years.” He said, “Between 2022 and 2023, we have encountered 20 to 22 instances of exotic animals being smuggled into India, primarily through Moreh in Manipur and Champhai in Mizoram, both

bordering Myanmar. Unlike in the past, where items like pangolin scales were common, we are now seeing a diverse array of wildlife, including kangaroos, reptiles, birds, and primates from Southeast Asia and Latin America being trafficked into the country.”

On the recent seizure at Hailakandi, Borah said, “The modus operandi seems somewhat predictable with such seizures.”

According to Dr. Bibhab Talukdar, secretary of Aaranyak, “The recent seizures of exotic animals in Assam and other north-eastern states of India have become anon-going affair. After its seizure, where do these seized animals go and under what protocolis a mystery to us. These exotic animals imported illegally doesn’t come through standard health check and quarantine protocols. I demand that these recent seizures of exotic animals into India through north-eastern India needs a thorough investigation in India by the Central Bureau of Investigation. International agencies like the INTERPOL need to investigate too to curb the illegal trade on wildlife. The CITES Secretariat should also proactively monitor this international trade.”

“The recent seizures by law enforcement agencies in North East India, including Directorate of Revenue Intelligence, Customs, Police and forest department reveals that the exotic animals are brought illegally from south and south east Asian countries. This needs stringent monitoring by coast guards, customs and other border security agencies,” he told this correspondent.

Who Smuggles Exotic Animals to India via Assam?
Who Smuggles Exotic Animals to India via Assam?

On pointing out that once caught, these birds and animals are sent to the Assam State Zoo, Dilip Nath, an RTI activist focusing on environment claimed, “Eventually, all these recued animals will land up in Jamnagar some way or the other in the name of better care.” He didn’t explain where “in Jamnagar” does these seizures from Assam “land up”.

“It is indeed a matter of great concern, especially if one were to dwell on how many suchconsignments may have so far reached the borders of our country,” said Anupam Sarmah, team leader at Brahmaputra Landscape, WWF India.

He said, “It would appear that India is no longer just a source country for wildlife and wildlife derivatives smuggled out illegally but is also emerging as one where there is a market for exotic animals.”

He added, “The Wildlife Crime Control Bureau will need more resources to deter the smuggling of wild animals into the country. Other enforcement agencies, officers, and personnel will need to be sensitized about this kind of trade so that they can take appropriate action.”

Sarmah further said that the threats that many of the species seized in north-east India face in the wild in their native countries are well known, and therefore, whatever is possible must be done in India to discourage their illegal trading.

Valid point but at the moment the key questionsspringing out of these frequent seizures in Assam remain unanswered -- why hasthe demand for exotic animals gone up so much in the recent past in India, and who is ordering these endangered animals to be smuggled into the country.

Who Smuggles Exotic Animals to India via Assam?
Assam: 52 Indonesian Birds and Animals Rescued from Smuggling; 2 Arrested

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