Indian airports becoming hub of wildlife trafficking

India’s aviation sector is growing rapidly, and as per IATA, it is expected to become world’s third-largest by 2024

Satyen Mohapatra
Satyen Mohapatra

Hyderabad: Indian airports seem to have become a hub for smuggling illegal reptiles. Through 18 airports in the country between 2011-2020, 70,000 native and exotic wild animals, including their body parts or derivatives (weighing around 4000kg) were seized, 46 percent of those were found to be that of reptiles including the Indian Star Tortoise.

The study “HIGH FLYING: Insight into wildlife trafficking through India’s airports” by TRAFFIC India, Chennai International Airport, Tamil Nadu, recorded the highest number of wildlife seizure incidents, followed by Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport, Mumbai and Indira Gandhi Airport New Delhi. Among the species groups seized (including both Indian and exotic species), reptiles were the most encountered group during the study period (46%), followed by mammals (18%), timber (13%), and species from the marine environment (10%).

The highest number of seizure incidences in the native species seized included the Indian Star Tortoise followed by the Black Pond Turtle Geoclemys hamiltonii. In the category of non-native species seized, the Red-Eared Slider Turtle was reported in the highest number of seizure incidents, followed by the Chinese Pond Turtle Mauremys reevesii.

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India’s aviation sector is growing rapidly, and as per IATA (International Air Transport Association), it is expected to become the world’s third-largest by 2024. According to ROUTES (Reducing Opportunities for Unlawful Transport of Endangered Species), India also finds itself among the top 10 countries globally where the airline sector is being used at the highest levels for trafficking of wildlife and their products. To assess the role of the Indian airline sector in trafficking prohibited wildlife and products, an analysis was conducted by compiling data on reported seizures made at the Indian airports between 2011-2020. This analysis is based entirely on the data available in the public domain and hence is only a subset of the actual scale. However, it does give indications about the trends, dynamics, and scale of the activity. The analysis of reported seizures made at the Indian airports between 2011-2020 found that several native wildlife species ranging from Indian Star Tortoise Geochelone elegans to Common Leopard Panthera pardus cubs were seized. It also found many exotic species such as Red-eared Slider Turtle Trachemys scripta elegans, iguana, python, spider, marmoset, Tamarin Monkey Saguinus spp., Tricolour Squirrel Callosciurus prevostii, and exotic birds were seized from check-in and hand baggage at various Indian airports during the study period. Similarly, several flora species, including Agarwood Aquilaria malaccensis, Red Sanders Pterocarpus santalinus, Sandalwood Santalum album, and medicinal and aromatic plants (MAP) like Kuth Saussurea costus roots were seized at the airports.

India, the wildlife trade network along with other organizations like WWF-India, Customs, CISF, and WCCB (Wildlife Crime Control Bureau) have come out with new strategies and tools to control illegal wildlife trafficking through airports in India.

According to Wildlife Crime Control Bureau Ms Tilotama Varma, Additional Director, “Airports have emerged as a popular mode for transporting wildlife contrabands due to the shorter travel time and extensive reach. Traffickers smuggle wildlife and their derivatives through checked luggage and personal baggage, by concealment of wildlife contraband within passenger clothing, footwear, and other wearables and through the wrong declaration of protected species, all of which makes detection cumbersome for enforcement agencies. The newly developed resources under the project will prove useful for bridging such gaps”.

The study “HIGH FLYING: Insight into wildlife trafficking through India’s airports” by TRAFFIC India on wildlife seizures at Indian airports between 2011-2020 “reinstates the need to strengthen enforcement efforts to curb the exploitation of the airline sector for conducting illegal wildlife trade,” said Dr Saket Badola, Head of TRAFFIC’s India Office, the lead agency responsible for developing and implementing new awareness and capacity building tools.

“Illegal wildlife trade through airports is a major conservation threat magnified by the growth in the airline sector. It is important for enforcement agencies to prioritize bringing an end to wildlife trafficking. We are pleased to have partnered with TRAFFIC, WWF-India, Customs, CISF and WCCB to design and implement a dedicated programme that will help strengthen the detection of illegal wildlife trade at airports,” adds Mr Atul Bagai, Head of the United Nations Environment Programme Country Office in India.

A suite of tools have now been developed – a first of its kind project in India focused on working with enforcement officials to detect and deter wildlife trafficking through airports by arming enforcement officials with the knowledge and skills to combat this crime.

Developed by TRAFFIC and UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme) in collaboration with WCCB (Wildlife Crime Control Bureau) and WWF-India, the capacity-building tools are accessible via a new online knowledge hub (www.IWTKnowledgeHub.in) and include:

  • Two online courses on how to curb wildlife trafficking and relevant laws and regulations
  • An informative video highlighting wildlife trafficking through airports
  • Checklists for enforcement officials to use in their day-to-day operations.
  • Posters and standees offering vital information about commonly trafficked wildlife species

The new awareness and capacity building tools developed under the project- Deterring and Disrupting wildlife trafficking in the air transport sector in India- were launched at an event on 25 March 2022 at NACIN (National Academy of Customs, Indirect Taxes & Narcotics), Faridabad.

To utilize the coming together of agencies, the launch event also included a Training of Trainers where over 40 officials from various NACIN academies across India, Customs, CISF (Central Industrial Security Force), WCCB, and partner organisations attended the training and also joined through online mode.

Mr Yogendra Garg, Additional Director General, NACIN adds, “Customs need to continuously acquire new skills to keep pace with the latest trends in smuggling. Training tools and resources are thus crucial for upscaling their skills to detect crime. Also, there is a dire need to create awareness about emerging issues like wildlife crime from time to time. We at NACIN are really glad that a dedicated effort for curbing wildlife trafficking through airports has been initiated through this project”.

Mr Ravi Singh, Secretary-General & CEO, WWF-India said, “Wildlife needs our support more than ever due to the ever-increasing threats due to human interventions, climate change and illegal wildlife trade. The new project engages with nodal agencies at airports and helps to increase the awareness and prevention of illegal wildlife trade”.

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