To welcome valued guests, the Chinese cook snakes, pangolin and other wild and near-extinct animals and present the dishes to show hospitality. The appetite for these exotic meats is met from sources of both captive and wild animals from different parts of the globe both in legal and illegal ways.
In this process, Bangladesh was the world's seventh-largest reptile sourcing country that contributed 2.5% of the total illegal trade in 2007-17, according to a United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) report titled "World Wildlife Crime Report: Trafficking in Protected Species" published in July last year.
India is the number one sourcing country, followed by Uzbekistan, Madagascar, Pakistan, Mali, the United States of America, Bangladesh and Thailand. China is the major destination of these species.
The animals are also collected for traditional medicine, as ornaments, showpieces, and for the fashion industries.
Wildlife traffickers prefer transporting animals alive to the final destinations. To reduce mortality rates due to suffocation, dehydration, starvation or otherwise, 56% of the international trafficking of live reptiles occurs by air, the report mentions.
To the reptile dealers around the world, turtles and tortoises are good products to be sold at higher prices and some of those are so valuable that they are flown to destination countries through air couriers.
Mail and air courier seizures have increased more than any other means of trafficking in recent years worldwide, each more than doubling from 2016 to 2017. The UNODC report also said small-scale seizures of less than 15 reptiles per shipment accounted for 80% of seizures.
Contacted for comments, ASM Jahir Uddin Akon, director of the Wildlife Crime Control Unit (WCCU) under the Forest Department, said, "We did not seize any turtle consignment after 2016. And we do not have so many wild animals being trafficked."
"We do not have enough manpower to check all the products transported by the courier services. We do not even have officers at international ports in Bangladesh. But if we get any tip-off, we then have the legal tools to intercept those shipments," he said.
Species being trafficked from Bangladesh
Turtles and tortoises accounted for 47% of the live animals seized worldwide between 2007 and 2017, followed by snakes, lizards, crocodilians and others. Of the trafficked turtles, black-spotted turtle and Asian box turtles accounted for 18% of total turtle and tortoise seizures. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) declared both the species as endangered and they are found in Bangladesh.
According to the report titled "Black Spotted Turtle trade in Asia: A seizure analysis" published in 2018 by TRAFFIC – a leading NGO working globally on trade in wild animals – 1,197 black spotted turtles were seized in Bangladesh in three seizure incidents between April 2014 and March 2016. The captures had the highest number per seizure compared to other countries, 399 specimens per seizure.
The UNODC report was based on live seizure incidents worldwide. But many other turtles are being trafficked to other destinations such as India, which was not mentioned in the report.
Creative Conservation Alliance – a non-profit organization – prepared a report titled "Transboundary Trade of Freshwater Turtles from Bangladesh to Tripura" and submitted it to the Bangladesh Forest Department on 23 February last year. The report details the smuggling chain, the price, and the number of smuggled turtles.
The study conducted in 2017 found Chunarughat, Bhairab, Debidwar, Parshuram, Chagolnaiya, Akhaura, and Ajampur are the seven collection points. Poachers capture the turtles from either wetlands or rivers and then take them to Bottola Bazar and Golbazar – two major trading hubs in Agartala.
Researchers found that a kilogram of Indian Flapshell Turtle is at approximately $9-12 in Agartala. Indian Peacock Softshell Turtles are at $18-25 per kg, and Elongated Tortoises are as high as $25-35 per kg in Tripura. More than 56kgs of turtles are sold every week on average.
Shahriar Rahman, chief executive officer of Creative Conservation Alliance, said, "There is a huge border with India. Turtles and other species can be trafficked to the bordering states of India. The government should strictly monitor the issue to stop such illegal activities."
Seizures in Bangladesh
The Dhaka office of the Wildlife Crime Control Unit seized 8,041 reptiles from 2012 to 2019. The unit also seized 233 mammals including tiger and deer, 21,820 birds and 882 trophies during the period.
A report by the Wildlife Conservation Society titled "Combating Wildlife Trade in Bangladesh: Current Understanding and Next Steps" published in 2018 said the reptiles were the most frequent species group identified in the national media search.
They accounted for 115 of a total of 249 wildlife trade incidents. Of the reptiles, 47.8% were freshwater turtles, 40.7% were geckos/lizards, 6.1% were snakes, 3.5% were tortoises, a marine turtle and crocodile.
However, experts said only 20% of the total illegal trades are being reported while 80% or more remains undiscovered.
M Monirul H Khan, a zoology professor at Jahangirnagar University, said, "It is said that 20% of the illegal trades are reported by the law enforcers while 80% remain unrecognised. But the increasing number of seized animals does not mean the increase of illegal trades."
"It cannot be said surely that the UNODC report pointed out the right figure of sources, Bangladesh does not have so many reptiles to be trafficked and rank seventh in the world. Sometimes the species are seized in Bangladesh, but not all of those were captured in the country. In such cases, Bangladesh is a transit point of wildlife smuggling."