A few years ago, the senior editor of a well-known lifestyle magazine walked on a fashion show ramp at a 5-star hotel in Pune, flashing a live pygmy marmoset (finger monkey) stuffed in his coat pocket. He had the ladies swooning over him all evening, admiring the tiny primate who sat very still. Several asked him where they could buy one for their child or family. What they did not realise was that the endearing, well-behaved little monkey, which is not native to India, was possibly stressed and mortified due to the bright lights and blaring music of the fashion show party that it was made to endure all evening.
On seeing one of the videos that emerged from the party, I was enraged because a display of this form is exactly what encourages people to buy a non-indigenous wild animal as an exotic pet that appears convenient and carries a ‘cool’ quotient.
Over the years, the trending choices for keeping pets in India have dramatically changed. While dogs, cats, rabbits, hamsters, and guinea pigs are still popular pets for families and children, keeping exotic wild animals such as ball pythons, corn snakes, iguanas, macaws, parakeets, turtles, lemurs, pygmy marmosets, and sugar gliders have emerged as a popular choice amongst young adults or individuals, who want to ‘make a statement’ by possessing a ‘wild’ pet.
In more recent news, one reads of kangaroos being rescued from the outskirts of a city in north Bengal, orangutans being smuggled and going missing inside Mumbai city, and reports from Pune district about the Railway Police Force apprehending traders in moving trains while they were illegally smuggling over 1200 iguanas and 300 African sulcata tortoises stuffed inside a small suitcase.
Buyers of exotic wild animals
“Possessing exotic wildlife as a pet is legal in India if you have supporting paperwork, however, the domestic regulation of the rampant trade and transport, is non-existent. Hefty amounts of money are paid to acquire these pets, and the growing demand is thus met with horrific acts of poaching from the wild, smuggling, or illegal breeding followed by incomprehensible trauma that these animals go through during transit and transport,” says Sumanth Bindumadhav, Senior Manager, Wildlife, Disaster Response and Dharwad Program, Humane Society International/India. “The ordeal for them does not end at the point of sale, as they are often doomed to a lifetime of unnatural living conditions devoid of any form of animal welfare.”
Besides animal suffering, the wildlife trade poses significant biodiversity and disease transfer risks. It is the fourth largest illicit and organised transnational crime after drugs, arms and human trafficking, which has been undeniably tracked towards fueling terrorist activities and threats to national security.
New Bill: a gaping hole waiting to be filled
Since 1976, India is one of the 180 countries that signed the CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), an international agreement between governments that aims to regulate international trade in flora and fauna so they are not driven to extinction. While we have made significant contributions and have represented several interventions towards global conservation of species at CITES’ Conference of Parties, the inability to regulate domestic trade and ownership within India is a paradox we have lived with for over 40 years.
The new Wild Life (Protection) Amendment Bill 2021 passed by the Lok Sabha on 2 August 2022, finally signals progressive change for India’s biodiversity and protection from the multiple threats posed by the exotic wildlife trade and ownership.
There are several key changes in the act, but the one that I welcome the most is the inclusion of the section regarding the implementation of the CITES in India and a Schedule dedicated to species listed in Appendices I, II and III of the CITES.
When the treaty was signed in 1976, the Director of Wildlife Preservation, GoI, was designated as the principal management authority for CITES in India. The proposed Bill calls for the Central government to appoint a management authority and details responsibilities such as issuing permits for the import and export of specimens, regulating domestic trade and transfer, and issuing registration certificates to individuals who possess live specimens that are mentioned in the Schedule. It also includes the appointment of scientific authority by designating one or more institutes engaged in research on different species to provide guidance on issues pertaining to the specimens being traded.
Critical to combatting the damage faced over the years and providing the power to make corrections to the disturbances caused in the natural ecological balance, the Bill also gives the Central government the control to forbid the import, trade, or possession of invasive alien (or foreign) species, which refers to any plant or animal that is not native to India and is proven to have a negative influence on its wildlife or environment. In such cases, the Central government may give official permission to confiscate and eliminate invasive species.
“The proposed Bill has significantly increased and doubled general fines for infractions from Rs 25,000 to Rs 1,00,000, which may also help augment the fear of consequences for wrongdoers and drive the implementation of the Wild Life (Protection) Act 1972 and its amendments thereafter,” says Bindumadhav.
The Bill allows for individuals to voluntarily surrender any captive animal protected under the law, with no monetary compensation in exchange, after which the animal becomes the property of the state government. While this may prevent the arbitrary abandonment or release of these animals by individuals who do not want to take the trouble to register their animals and come under the purview of the law and its regulations, the management of these exotic and potentially invasive species is going to require massive capacity building efforts in terms of infrastructure and trained personnel to ensure captive animal welfare.
In addition to providing physical management of live animals, implementing authorities may need to adopt robust digital infrastructure to track and ensure lifetime captive welfare. Currently, the Maharashtra forest department uses an online system to keep a check on all temporary and permanently housed captive Indian wildlife present in zoos, rescue, and treatment transit centres. Such systems will be potentially needed to effectively manage data, including an inventory of animals, registration, deaths and transfers, in order to optimally use resources, especially by forest departments in states like West Bengal, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra that hold a major proportion of exotic wildlife traders.
The Bill is yet to be presented in the Rajya Sabha, but as we prepare for the road towards progressive changes in the 75th year of India’s Independence, let us take a moment to celebrate the chance we may get to lay new foundations towards securing a better future for wildlife both native and exotic, bringing us one step closer to conserving our relationship with nature.
Neha Panchamia is Founder and President, RESQ Charitable Trust. She tweets @NehaPanchamia. Views are personal.
(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)