Sunday 20 August 2017 News Updated at 01:08 PM IST
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Protecting animals of a lesser god - Deccan Herald
Protecting animals of a lesser god
Atula Gupta,
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Tanzania - Serengeti National Perk - Gol Kopjes Area. A Young Caracal standing on a granite rock. Beyond the Cat a field of grass burned by the heat makes the landscape similar to the Martian caracal
A nocturnal tree-dweller, the tokay gecko is one of the largest lizards in the world. Its striking colours, bright white and orange dots sprayed like a pattern all over the body, and the piercing gaze are hard to go unnoticed. And yet, the gecko is not a commonly known species in India. Just like the caracal, the otter or the pangolin that live deep inside India’s jungles, these are animals that are essential part of the country’s biodiversity, but are hardly seen or known. It is ironical then, that the same elusive species are being killed, hunted and traded in thousands to feed the growing demand for medicines or exotic pets by illegal wildlife traders.

In Northeast India, trafficking of body parts of a tokay gecko or a live tokay gecko has now become a lucrative business with multi-million price tag in the illegal market. The gecko or 'keko saap’ as it is known in local parlance is a quick gateway to big money. Mature geckos are caught and sold to international traffickers for as much as Rs 70 lakh per animal. Although wildlife experts say there is no evidence to prove the medicinal value of the lizards, the demand is high for them in traditional Chinese medicine to use for treating cancer, diabetes, and skin disorders.

A man recently arrested in Assam by officers of the Indian Paramilitary force Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB) confessed that he planned to sell lizards to international smugglers at the price of Rs 4.9 crore. Interestingly, while the locals know their lizard and how to make a quick buck out of it, the lack of awareness of security officers and their inability to recognise it, has only made it easier to continue the trade unabashed across the borders. It is only recently that awareness drives have helped the officers to know the value of the lizards and track the trading routes.
The tokay gecko is not the only low profile species in high demand though. Otters, pangolins, turtles, tortoises, owls, and little known wild cats like the caracal are under the poacher’s radar simply because they are not a tiger or an elephant that have been accorded the highest protection status according to Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. While the poaching of a tiger might be newsworthy, the dozens of lesser-known smaller animals that end up in gunny bags everyday to be slaughtered or sold as exotic pets are often considered too insignificant to be given attention or greater protection. However, the dangers lurking for the gecko or the pangolin in the forests are as worrisome, if not more, as that for a mega fauna like the tiger.

Low profile, high demand
Last year, global wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC estimated that Indonesia alone had been exporting 1.2 million dried tokay geckos annually and that in recent years Taiwan has imported 15 million geckos from different countries. In another study, TRAFFIC found out 167 otter seizures in South and Southeast Asia between 1980 and 2015, 53% seizures involved India.
The pangolin, a scale-covered anteater, is the number one victim of illegal wildlife trade, with the meat eaten as a delicacy and the scales used to make belts. A joint police team from Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh arrested a wildlife smuggler in February this year who was in the illegal business for over two decades using the postal department’s services to send the animals across cities in Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan and then route them to the South Asian countries. "Local poachers were usually paid Rs 6,000 for pangolin scales weighing around 1.3 to 2 kg. The gang earned Rs 20,000 to Rs 30,000 for each consignment, but in the international market, the cost of the same material would be 30 times more,” revealed a Special Task Force officer.

Caracal, a medium-sized wild cat native to India but one that remains shrouded in mystery owing to the difficulty in tracking or observing it, is another surprise entry to the poacher’s list of prey. Five carcals were rescued by the Uttar Pradesh police recently, after a chance search of a vehicle revealed a network spread from Hyderabad to Nepal on further investigation.

Threatened marine species
India’s coastal waters are not safe too, with international gangs eyeing the rich marine diversity and especially looking for easy ways to catch the sea horses and sea cucumbers. Shekhar Niraj, head of TRAFFIC India, said, "The poaching and illegal trade of sea cucumbers and horses has risen steeply because of a high demand in China and Southeast Asia. The extent of poaching is such that these species have been wiped out in most stretches of coastal waters, such as the Gulf of Kutch, Gulf of Mannar, Andaman and Nicobar Islands and Lakshwadeep, where they had a good population earlier. It is a dangerous sign for Indian marine biodiversity. Sea cucumbers are scavenger species in the marine ecosystem that clean up water and allow corals to thrive.”

According to WWF, illegal wildlife trade is estimated to reach $20 billion per year, which makes wildlife trafficking the world’s fourth largest illicit trade, after narcotics, human trafficking and trade in counterfeit goods. It is not hard to surmise that India with its substantial wealth of flora and fauna is playing a key role in creating this market - not just through rhino horns, ivory or tiger claws but also through deer antlers, mongoose hair, pangolin scales, gecko tails, turtle shells, musk pods, bear bile, shahtoosh shawls and caged birds like parakeets, mynas and munias. The damage to India’s biodiversity is already happening and while the country has a strong legal and policy framework to regulate and restrict wildlife trade, the problem is not of the laws but of poor communication, implementation and enforcement.

Often, positive efforts to address wildlife trade are undermined by lack of political will and governance failures. Saving tigers is critical to saving the entire ecosystem, but the species that are not as celebrated need urgent attention too, when they have emerged as the key resource to the insurmountable wealth collected by wildlife traders. Stronger protection locally will not only safeguard a singular species from extinction but reverse the repercussions faced by the entire world leading to economical and ecological loss, and human tragedies.