Illegal wildlife trade in Northeast India and measures of control to deter those trades

Jimmy Borah and Ivy Farheen Hussain, Legal and Advocacy Division, Aaranyak | Wildlife trafficking, or the illegal trade of wild animals, plants, or their components, has an irretrievable impact on the environment, biodiversity, the overall state of the economy, national security and public health across the world. It is a type of transnational organized crime that involves capturing, poaching, unlawful gathering, and smuggling of wildlife, parts of wildlife, or trophies. 

After illicit syndicates of drugs, human trafficking, and illegal arms, the illegal wildlife trade (IWT) ranks as the fourth-largest kind of international organized crime, earning an estimated more than USD 30 billion annually. India is now one of the top 20 nations for wildlife trafficking, and one of the top 10 for wildlife trafficking by air, despite being a signatory to the CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) of wild animals and flora. India acts as a source as well as a transit nation for illicit wildlife and wildlife products because of its megadiverse nature and dense human population. It possesses 8% of the world’s species, and 18% of the world’s human population which makes tracking illegal commodities exceedingly difficult.

The struggle against the IWT is becoming more and more difficult due to a number of additional causes. These include the country’s open borders with China, Myanmar, and other Southeast Asian nations; the aviation industry’s recent rapid growth and expansion; and the use of social media as online markets by wildlife traffickers. After Covid, digital/online wet markets have flooded society and have become a difficult issue to tackle.

Species involved in illegal wildlife trade in India and NE India:

Numerous species are illegally brought into and exported from India since it is not only a key source but also a transit and destination country for trafficking wildlife and wildlife goods. The most regular wildlife and wildlife products that were seized from being smuggled out of India are ivory, turtles, tortoises (especially the Indian star tortoise), and red sandalwood (red sanders), according to the DRI’s (Directorate of Revenue Intelligence) Smuggling in India report 2020-21. The trade-in rhino horn from India has recently decreased, but the nation is quickly emerging as a key location for the hunting and trafficking of pangolins. Additionally, it appears that the trafficking of tiger parts is unabated.

In addition, attractive fish that are native to regions like the Western Ghats (the zebra loach) and the upper Brahmaputra basin (Channa barca) are being fished to extinction. This is done in order to supply the global market for live aquarium fish. The trading in the body parts of Asiatic black bears (gall bladder and skin), leopards (skin and bones), pangolins (scales), and mongooses (hair paintbrushes) has all been added to the list of wildlife trafficking crimes.

Due to the proximity to the Southeast Asian wildlife trade market, hunting in the Northeast is very much prevalent. It is quite simple to cross the border into Myanmar, where there is a ready market, after hunting an animal in Northeast India. International smugglers currently exploit this area as a corridor, which poses a major threat to the very survival of wildlife in Northeast India.

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The trade of tiger bones, claws, and skin, Assamese macaques, elephant tusks, snakes, red pandas, clouded leopard skins and bones, deer and other animals meat is especially popular in the north-eastern states of India where this wildlife is found in abundance. The ivory of elephants or bones of tigers, as well as their meat and skin, have been identified as desirable items for poachers and smugglers in Northeast India, in addition to rhino horn. Elephants are killed, their flesh is sun-dried, and it is transported via Bangladesh to Southeast Asia. The Slow Loris has recently been poached in a number of locations and is now being consumed as food in certain areas. In the states of Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland, and Assam, gecko catchers have become active. In the center of the network are traffickers with a base in Myanmar. Tokay geckos are illegally collected and transported from this area to Southeast Asian countries such as China, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Japan, where many think the Gecko may successfully treat diseases like diabetes, asthma, skin problems, and cancer. Every year, a sizable amount of snake venom and its skins is smuggled out of the state of Assam and its surrounding regions and sold on the black market in Bangladesh.

Routes of trafficking:

International wildlife trafficking into and out of India mostly happens via two routes: the lengthy international border along the Northeast, and the numerous local airports harboring international flights. According to the 2018 TRAFFIC report ‘In Plane Sight’, trafficking in rhino horns, tiger parts, and pangolin scales is particularly prevalent along the Indo-Nepal and Indo-Myanmar-China borders, with Northeast Indian towns like Dimapur, Guwahati, and Imphal serving as transit points. Bird and reptile trafficking is also common along the India-Bangladesh border. In recent cases, places like Guwahati, Siliguri, Aizawl, and Jalpaiguri have gained attention as the growing transit for exotic animal and bird trafficking.

Besides the airports, NE India is gradually getting well-connected via roads and railways. All the capital cities of the NE states are connected to each other with four-lane highways, while many other cities are slowly getting connected via railways. Much of this trafficking occurs via these conduits. While not much information is available for waterway routes being used for wildlife trafficking, it would not be surprising if proper checking along the route reveals other facts.

Reasons driving the trafficking:

Wildlife trafficking is fuelled by a variety of causes. The most important of them is the need for animal parts, notably rhinoceros horn and tiger parts, for traditional medicine, as well as raw materials such as red sandalwood and ivory (for the production of luxury goods). Despite a constant decline in demand for rhino horn and ivory since 2011, other market needs, such as those for pangolin scales and parts of lesser-known animals have appeared. Pangolins were originally common in Assam, but due to heavy hunting by consumers who consume the meat and trade in the scales, they are now comparatively scarce. Pangolin scales, rhino horns, and the skin and body parts of other large cats, birds, Asiatic black bears, musk deer, snakes, etc. are mostly consumed by the traditional medicine markets in China and Vietnam.

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The rising desire for exotic pets, particularly birds like cockatoos, macaws, and grey parrots, is another significant element fuelling wildlife trafficking through NE India. In addition, several Indian reptiles, fish, and birds are in high demand worldwide. Even more disturbing is the possibility that zoos participate in the illicit purchase of exotic animals, as demonstrated by a recent incident involving the Indore Zoo and kangaroos being transferred from a “farm” in Mizoram.

Steps for lessening IWT:

Different government agencies, wildlife conservation NGOs, and others are involved in various ways to ensure that the IWT does not continue to be a threat to national security as well as to human well-being. For e.g., to stop transboundary wildlife crime, the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB) has started profiling perpetrators in a real-time database and will soon collaborate with surrounding nations bordering NE India (Bhutan, Bangladesh, and Myanmar). As part of the World Customs Organization’s Green Customs project, the DRI, which is at the forefront of the fight against smuggling, has partnered with Indian Customs to combat wildlife trafficking into and out of India. Aaranyak, the premier nature organization in NE, through its novel initiative D.E.T.E.R.S. © (i.e., Disrupt and End Trade of Endangered and Rare Species©) embarks on educating, training, and sensitizing police forces, customs agents, central armed police forces and even the judiciary on ways to curb IWT through awareness, crime scene investigations and inter-agency cooperation.

The IWT is causing the populations of many wild species to fall despite large investments and high-level commitment to the conservation of wildlife. Not only does the decline and extinction of flagship species damage the harmony of nature, but it also has an impact on humans whose livelihoods depend on healthy ecosystems. In order to catch illicit wildlife dealers and stop their operations, receiving early notice of poachers’ and wildlife smugglers’ movements is essential.

In order to mitigate these potential problems, community participation in anti-poaching efforts, conservation networking, and regular stakeholder engagement are some of the ways that might help in the fight against the demand for the illegal wildlife trade. IWT has become an all-encompassing problem that would require conservation to become a more inclusive endeavor. An effective weapon in the future for the battle against wildlife trafficking is artificial intelligence (AI). Future trends can be predicted and prospective trafficking routes can be found while keeping an eye on criminal activity through AI. In order to find prospective customers and dealers of illegitimate wildlife items, AI may also be used to analyze data from numerous sources, including social media.

This article is written by a guest writer, Ground Report does not take any responsibility for the facts presented in the article.

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