The exotic pet trade in India is booming. In recent years, India has seen a surge in seizures by Indian Customs, indicative of an increasing trend in the smuggling of exotic wildlife species. The trade is driven by a growing demand for exotic pets from citizens of wealthy cities in India, where exotic pets have become a status symbol. Weak laws are another driver: as India’s Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI) has suggested, traffickers have turned to exotic wildlife species as these are not protected in India, whereas there is a ban on trade in Indian species.
This blog looks at key trafficking routes into India, retail outlets and species most popular in the illegal trade; and discusses legal weaknesses that have exacerbated the illegal trade in exotic species.
Trafficking routes and retail outlets
Exotic wildlife species found in India originate from countries in Southeast Asia, Australasia; Africa; and Central and South America. Seizures indicate the main trafficking routes are overland, through Northeast India’s long and porous land border with Bangladesh and Myanmar and by air. Once in India, the animals are transported by road or rail to major cities such as Kolkata, Chennai, Hyderabad, Ahmedabad, Delhi, Bangalore, Mumbai and Cochin. It is not difficult to imagine the suffering the animals go through to travel such long distances across country borders, stuffed away in small cages and containers to disguise their presence. Many do not survive this treatment. The mortality rate for some species, such as birds, is estimated to range from 30% to as high as 90% in the illegal trade.
Exotic animals are sold in markets and brick-and-mortar shops as well as online.
The Wildlife Conservation Society, India, has mapped out wildlife markets in India and identified at least 25 markets that trade in live wildlife, including Crawford Market in Mumbai, Russel Market in Bangalore, Murgi Chowk in Hyderabad and Mir Shikar Toli in Patna.
India’s online wildlife trade, like in many other parts of the world, is growing exponentially. Most of the trade takes place on social media like Whatsapp, Facebook, Telegram and Instagram. Traders reportedly also use e-commerce platforms like Olx.com and Quikr.com. The research conducted for this blog in January 2022 found no evidence of exotic animal trade on these sites, but it is possible they took measures to ban wildlife advertisements after a complaint in July 2020 from the Animal Welfare Board of India to India’s IT Ministry.
Silvery marmosets and Golden-headed lion Tamarins, seized in Assam, March 2021. Photo: Tejas Mariswamy.
The following seizures provide some insight into the wide array of species trafficked into India.
Seizures at the land border of north-eastern India with Myanmar and Bangladesh:
- In February 2020, 80 exotic reptiles, including 19 leopard tortoises (native to East and Southern Africa), 38 red-footed tortoises (native to South America), 20 yellow, orange, albino and green iguanas (native to the Americas) and 3 bearded dragons (native to Australia) were seized near the India-Myanmar border in the Champaign district of Mizoram.
- In July 2020, a red baby kangaroo from Australia; six hyacinth macaws (CITES Appendix I) and two capuchin monkeys from Central and South America; and three Aldabra giant tortoises endemic to the Aldabra atoll in the Seychelles were seized from a truck in the Cachar district in Assam, along the Assam-Mizoram border.
- In January 2021, the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI) seized 30 Sun Parakeets from South America and a red-eared guenon (a monkey native to Africa) in the Kolasib district along the Mizoram-Assam border.
- In March 2021, authorities seized a pair of scarlet macaws (CITES Appendix I), four Silvery Marmosets and a pair of Golden-headed Tamarin (CITES Appendix I), all native to Brazil, in the upper Assam’s Golaghat district bordering Myanmar.
Seizures in airports
- In October 2018, Customs officials at Kolkata Airport seized 35 exotic animals including four white cockatoos, one yellow-tailed black cockatoo, five eclectus parrots, 12 grey parrots, one blue yellow macaw, one silver macaw, one knobbed hornbill, two birds-of-paradise, four cassowary chicks. There were also two black and white ruffed lemurs (Madagascar, CITES Appendix I), one baby marmoset and one Bengal cat. They were smuggled from Bangkok, Thailand, via Myanmar.
- In October 2019, Customs officers at Tamil Nadu’s Trichy International Airport were alarmed to find a suitcase with hundreds of reptiles and insects in pitiful condition, many of them dead. Crammed inside small boxes and bottles the suitcase included 200-300 iguanas, highly venomous Indochinese spitting cobras, non-venomous albino pythons, 200 Malaysian tortoises, red-eared slider turtles, a tree python, basilisk lizards and blue tongued skink from Australia and several venomous spiders and scorpions.
- In June 2020, Customs officials at Kolkata airport seized 22 exotic birds native to South America, including hyacinth macaws (CITES Appendix I), Pesquet’s parrots, Severe macaws and Hahn’s macaws. They were smuggled in from Bangladesh.
As in many other countries around the world, birds and reptiles are the most common species found in India’s illegal trade.
Bird trade surveys of markets across north India, from Gujarat in the west to Assam in the east, found 42 non-native bird species for sale. Two thirds of these were CITES-listed, including nine under Appendix I. The most prominent species were parrots, including African Grey Parrot (Endangered), recorded on 11 occasions, and Salmon-crested Cockatoos (Vulnerable). In fact, Customs seizures confirm that parrots, including macaws and cockatoos, are the most trafficked exotic species in India.
A two-year study between 2018 and 2020 of the exotic reptile pet trade in India provided valuable insights into the reptile trade. The authors monitored online sales and analysed seizure data and found an extensive trade of exotic reptiles, comprising 84 species including highly venomous species such as Gaboon vipers native to Africa, and White-lipped snakes, endemic to south-eastern mainland Australia and Tasmania. Five of these species are categorised as Critically Endangered, nine as Endangered and nine as Vulnerable by the IUCN Red List. According to the study, 98.6 percent of the reptiles imported between 1976 and 2018 went unreported to India’s CITES Management Authorities. Importantly, the study showed that WhatsApp, Facebook, Telegram, Instagram, and (to a much lesser extent) web portals are the key media used to advertise live reptiles. See figure below, taken from the study.
As mentioned above, the influx of exotic wildlife is greatly exacerbated by the fact that the trade in exotic species in India (including species protected under the CITES Convention) is largely unregulated. India’s principal law governing wildlife protection, the Wild Life (Protection) Act 1972, only provides protection to native species. Customs officers can intercept smuggled shipments of exotic flora and fauna based on the Customs Act 1962 and the Foreign Trade Act 1992, but once a specimen has entered the country it can be freely traded.
The Pet Shop Rules of 2018 do require pet shop owners to ensure that their suppliers of imported exotic wildlife have obtained the necessary approvals or licence from the Director General of Foreign Trade and a sanitary import permit and permission from the Regional or State Animal Quarantine and Certification Services. They must also ensure the animals were imported through legal and appropriate channels. However, there is no law in place to prosecute a person found in possession of exotic wildlife species.
Naturally, this loophole has been widely abused by wildlife traffickers, who until now have had little to fear from law enforcement agencies.
The legal flaws have led to India being flagged as non-compliant with the CITES Convention, which requires parties to take appropriate measures to enforce the provisions of the Convention and to prohibit trade in specimens in violation thereof (paragraph 1 of Article VIII). The CITES Standing Committee identified India as one of the priority Parties needing further attention and requiring additional legislation to meet the requirements of the Convention. India has been a party to CITES since 1976.
Green iguana seized at Chennai Airport, October 2019.
The Voluntary Disclosure Scheme
In an attempt to improve the regulation of the trade in exotic wildlife, India’s Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) passed an advisory on 11 June 2020. The advisory was meant to “develop an inventory of exotic live species by the means of a voluntary disclosure scheme to streamline CITES compliance.” It requested Indian citizens to declare possession of any exotic live wildlife species protected by CITES. The advisory provided a six-month amnesty period during which declarers would not be required to produce documentation for exotic live species in their possession, if declared within six months of the date of issue of the advisory. Upon physical verification by the Chief Wildlife Warden of the concerned state, the holder would be given a certificate of possession. The six-month period was extended to nearly nine months ending on 15 March 2021, owing to the Covid19 pandemic.
By 26 May 2021, through this Voluntary Disclosure Scheme the MoEF&CC had received a total of 43,693 declarations from 25 states and five union territories. Thirty percent of declarations came from West Bengal; 26% from Kerala; 13% from Tamil Nadu; and 8% from Maharashtra. The declarations showed that cockatiels (native to Australia), macaws (native to Central and South America) and lovebirds (native to Africa) are among the most sought-after exotic live species. Other species declared included critically endangered species such as the black-and-white ruffed lemur, native to Madagascar, and the endangered East African oryx, native to Africa, as well as various species of kangaroos, tortoises, snakes, and monkeys.
Whilst the Voluntary Disclosure Scheme will have enhanced the government’s insight into the scale and nature of illegal trade in exotic wildlife species in India, the nine-month amnesty period also provided an opportunity for wildlife traders and pet owners to legalize their illegally obtained specimens. Moreover, the “no questions asked” approach of the advisory instigated an increase in the smuggling of animals via India’s porous north-eastern borders, as acknowledged by officials of India’s Wildlife Crime Control Bureau.
Critics furthermore pointed out that the advisory, by providing a window of nearly nine months wherein smugglers could freely bring CITES protected animals into the country and have the “import” regularised, de facto contravened paragraph 1 of Article VIII of CITES mentioned above, which obliges India to penalise trade in violation of its provisions and confiscate any such specimens illegally traded.
Wild Life (Protection) Amendment Bill, 2021
To permanently repair the legal shortcomings, on 17 December 2021 the Minister of Environment, Forest and Climate Change introduced the Wild Life (Protection) Amendment Bill, 2021 (Bill No. 159 of 2021). The Bill seeks to amend the Wild Life (Protection) Act 1972 and provide the framework for implementation of the CITES Convention (through a new Chapter VB), and adds the species listed under CITES appendices I, II and III of the Convention to the list of species protected under the law (Schedule IV of the bill). The bill and comments submitted by experts have yet to be discussed by the Parliamentary Standing Committee, therefore it is unclear when it will enter into force.
Experts have criticised it for opening up numerous species to be labelled ‘vermin’ (thus removing their protected status), allowing the sale of live elephants and disempowering state wildlife boards, among other things. On the other hand, the CITES implementation framework appears sufficiently robust and it is hoped the new law will contribute to curbing the smuggling of protected exotic animal species to India.
Experience shows, however, that laws alone cannot fix illegal wildlife trade. The Indian government will need to prioritise the issue and allocate sufficient resources for criminal justice agencies to disrupt cross-border trafficking and illegal sales within India, including online. Perhaps more important, consumer campaigns are needed to raise awareness of the impacts of live animal trade on wild populations, animal welfare, and health and safety, to name a few, with the aim of shifting consumer preferences away from buying exotic animals as pets.