Craft Corner, located just opposite the Hotel InterContinental Dhaka, looked like a normal shop selling decorative pieces.
The shop was frequented by foreigners, apparently for collecting souvenirs.
But in reality, wildlife traffickers were using it as a front to sell illegal animal products to foreign buyers. Craft Corner was just a small part of the Tk10 crore per year wildlife trafficking industry.
Raiding the shop on October 21 last year, law enforcers recovered 288 wild animal hides, including one leopard skin, one fishing cat skin, two slow loris skins, and 227 monitor lizard skins. They also seized 21 bags and two wallets made of snake skin, along with a deer horn and three corals during the drive.
Owners of the shop, Humayun Kabir and Mominul Islam, are now in prison serving a year-long prison sentence in a case filed under the Wildlife Preservation Act.
Assistant Superintendent of police Md Rabiul Islam said they interrogated the duo and got some information about the trafficking racket.
"We traced the products back to a racket based in the Chattogram Hill Tracts area. We are trying to catch them," he added.
Requesting anonymity, an official from Rapid Action Battalion (RAB-3) said, Humayun, Mominul and their brother – who died two years ago – started the business in Paribagh and Gulshan.
"They used to collect animal trophies from several rackets in Khulna, Sundarbans, Sylhet and Chattogram. Unfortunately, their brother was the only one who knew details about these rackets. But we did get some information from the other two brothers we arrested," the officer added.
The seized leopard skin was trafficked nine months ago from the Sherpur border area in Mymensingh. The fishing cat (large Indian civet) skin was collected from Sylhet and the deer hide was collected from the Sundarbans. The monitor lizard skins and snake skins were collected from different areas of the country, said intelligence sources.
According to a report by the Wildlife Conservation Society, Bengal Tigers, elephants, deer, pangolins, snakes, birds, and turtles are under serious threat. Wildlife trafficking in Bangladesh generates approximately Tk10 crore per year, the report added.
Till the end of 2019, 438 cases of wildlife trafficking were recorded by the Wildlife Crime Control Unit (WCCU) of the Bangladesh Forest Department. Last year, 107 cases of wildlife trafficking were recorded – the highest ever in one year.
In last seven years, a total of 240 mammals were rescued along with 8,076 reptiles, 22,856 birds and recovery of 1,176 animal trophies.
Police arrested 107 people and filed 290 cases over these incidents. In most of the cases, offenders are punished and fined accordingly, said WCCU.
According to sources, the traffickers used to sell wildlife goods to foreigners who visited Bangladesh.
"Foreigners and the rich, extravagant businessmen are their target customer. That is why they set up two shops in Paribagh and Gulshan," the sources said.
Intelligence sources from different law enforcement agencies said traffickers are using Bangladesh as an international smuggling route instead of creating a local market here.
In most cases, illegal wildlife trade routes lead to China, Thailand and Myanmar from Bangladesh.
ASM Jahir Uddin Akon, director of the WCCU, said Bangladesh is very much prone to wildlife trafficking.
The WCCU also identified at least 53 wildlife crime hotspots across the country.
"We came to know that the ringleaders of wildlife trafficking rackets are in India, which surround us on three sides. They control the gangs from Kolkata and other areas near border," said Jahir Uddin.
He also said the traffickers are still active in several land ports and airports.
"Traffickers usually use the land ports and the airports to smuggle costly wildlife trophies. We have no units at Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport and the Benapole land port. So, we can do very little to help in international wildlife trade cases. But we work in collaboration with customs officials," he said.
Dr M Monirul H Khan, professor of the Zoology Department at the Jahangirnagar University said in some cases, the origin of the trafficked animals was other countries, which means Bangladesh is being used as a transit route for trafficking.
"However, in comparison to other countries, Bangladesh is neither a high nor a low trafficking zone. It is average, since international traffickers use the country as a transit point," he said.
In November 2017, the United States also listed Bangladesh among the countries that are major sources, transit points, or consumers of illegal wildlife products. The US Department of State submitted the report titled "End Wildlife Trafficking" to the Congress that year.
According to the Interpol website, the illegal wildlife trade is estimated to be worth up to $20 billion per year. Wild flora and fauna can be exploited by criminals along the entire supply chain, from poaching and transportation to processing and selling.
Other illegal activities, including money laundering, corruption and document fraud, are also often associated with wildlife crimes.