Two weeks ago, the Border Security Force in West Bengal's Nadia district seized an unusual consignment along the Indo-Bangladesh border: a group of long-legged birds with white necks, black plumage and long beaks.
Markedly different from their usual seizure of contraband smuggled across the international border, the soldiers posted at the Hardaypur outpost had never seen such birds before, reports Indian Express.
In the darkness of dusk, the smugglers fled, leaving behind a long wooden cage, too small to accommodate seven birds, each nearly two feet in height.
Soldiers in the BSF camp turned to Google Images for help, realising that they had seized straw-necked Ibis that are native to Australia.
"The smuggling of wildlife has always been present along the Indo-Bangladesh border, but the frequency has increased over the past few months," said a senior BSF official requesting anonymity.
"That could be because of the crackdown on cattle-smuggling and other large-scale smuggling following which smugglers have turned to what we call petty smuggling that includes wildlife."
While data for the entire 4,156 km-long Indo-Bangladesh border was not immediately available, that for BSF's frontier in southern West Bengal indicates that larger numbers of non-native or "exotic" wildlife have been seized over the past three years.
In 2019, a consignment of some 250 African pygmy falcons, a bird species native to eastern and southern Africa, were seized along this stretch. Despite Covid-19 border closures in 2020, traffickers had attempted to smuggle nearly 200 foreign birds unidentified by the BSF, in addition to 250 protected turtles. This year's data till September indicates that BSF South Bengal seized 90 non-native birds—high numbers for the 913.32 km long frontier they are tasked to guard, experts told indianexpress.com.
Within hours of seizure, the straw-necked Ibis were sent to the Bethuadahari Wildlife Sanctuary in Krishnanagar, Nadia district. "It was clear that the birds had been in captivity in those small cages for at least three to four days before they were trafficked across the border. In a small cage this small, if there are five to six birds, their physical conditions will be poor," said a junior forest department official in the sanctuary, requesting anonymity.
"With foreign birds, even though we work for the wildlife department, it is difficult for us to know what to immediately feed the birds. We have to search the internet. It is difficult for non-native birds to survive in alien environments like these."
In his two years on the beat, Krishnanagar range officer Debashis Biswas has witnessed BSF handing over countless seizures of non-native birds and animals. "There are patterns when administering the second line of treatment for trafficked animals. Our vet checks the animals and birds. When seized non-native animals come to us, we use the trial and error method to understand what foods they are willing to eat," he said. Attempts by Biswas and his team to offer various kinds of foods to the ibis when they first arrived at the sanctuary were entirely rejected, till fish was offered.
"When the ibis came to us, its droppings were like white chuna (lime), an indicator of poor health and possible internal injuries," said Biswas. After two weeks in quarantine, the ibis will be sent to Alipore Zoo in Kolkata that oversees the care and custody of most non-native birds and animals seized near the Indo-Bangladesh border in West Bengal.
"It is well-known that birds exotic to India have been smuggled in through the Indo-Bangladesh border for a very long time. There is an established smuggling route here through the border and there have been many, many interceptions by the BSF, and some by the Assam forest department, some by Mizoram Police and some by Customs," said Agni Mitra, regional deputy director, Wildlife Crime Control Bureau.
The large numbers of wildlife trafficked through this region are because of growing demands for non-native species among animal hobbyists and collectors, a high concentration of whom are based in southern India, but also in other parts of the country, said Mitra.
Strict federal regulations surrounding the import of wildlife and a growing fancy among ordinary people for keeping uncommon live birds and animals at home for display, in addition to hobbyists and collectors, are one of the biggest reasons why the trafficking of non-native wildlife has increased over the years, sources told indianexpress.com.
"Duties are very high for the import of livestock, and a lot of permits are required which people try to avoid. The other reason is that the animal quarantine department (Animal Quarantine and Certification Service) requires certain tests for many wildlife which are not practised in developed countries anymore. Those tests were prescribed 30 years ago, and our documents still require it so they can't be done in those countries from where the wildlife is being imported. That is another reason why smuggling is happening," Mitra explained.
Last year, when India's Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change had issued an advisory asking people to voluntarily disclose information about any "exotic live species" including "animals named under named under the Appendices I, II and III of the CITES", that they may possess, on the government's Parivesh portal, setting a deadline of March 31, 2021 to submit necessary documents, Mitra and his department noticed something unexpected: during this period, "there was a rush in the smuggling in of birds and other exotic mammals like marmosets, kangaroos, tortoises," Mitra said. Many of these consignments were seized by various authorities in India's eastern border states; including in Assam, Mizoram and West Bengal.
Sources who spoke to indianexpress.com believe that the seized ibis were likely destined to be a part of private zoos and collections in some part of the country or domestic breeding farms. "These are not wild birds and were possibly bred in farms of South Asian countries or Southeast Asian countries," Mitra said.
The BSF requested that the market value of the ibis be withheld to prevent trafficking of the species. Experts told indianexpress.com that the high prices that wildlife fetch make it a lucrative business for cross-border smugglers.
There are several domestic factors that make the issue of the trafficking of wildlife through India's borders complex. "Any species of Indian origin is illegal to possess, as are species that are endangered or threatened and recognised by CITES. But still there are people who illegally possess these animals," said Vijay, an exotic animal supplier based in southern India who has been in the business for over 25 years. Due to several regulations, possessing non-native species is easier in India, he explained.
Loopholes in various Indian laws make wider crackdowns on animal trafficking challenging, but the government is slowly moving to fix these, experts said. "Smuggling of these animals into India by crossing the international border is an offence. But within India, the sale and possession of exotic birds is not. But if you cannot prove that the animal has been smuggled after it is inside India, it becomes a problem, because the Indian acts do not prohibit the possession of exotic birds and animals," Mitra said.
Once inside Indian territory, the non-native animals are lost within the network of breeding farms across India, not all of which operate lawfully, where tracing the origins of any particular animal or bird can be a challenge. It is these kinds of loopholes that hobbyists, collectors and private zoo owners exploit to acquire foreign species.
Last week, shortly after darkness descended on the Maluapara border outpost in Nadia district, BSF soldiers noticed activity near the international border. When they moved to intercept, the smugglers escaped through the dense vegetation, leaving behind two rectangular cages stuffed full with small birds.
After seizure, the BSF found that the consignment contained 126 cut-throat finches, native to Africa, and bluish-green Common Grackle, native to North America, listed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as 'near threatened'. The birds were later sent to the Ranaghat forest office in the district.
"It is difficult to describe the traumatic conditions that the birds and animals are subjected to in the process of trafficking. Some of the sights that I have seen when they come to us, cannot be adequately described," said Biswas. A senior BSF official told indianexpress.com that while the ibis were being trafficked across the Indo-Bangladesh border, two had died.
Despite the growing numbers of seizures along India's international borders, Mitra said that the government's move to require declaration of all exotic species was a necessary step in curbing wildlife trafficking. "Now we have declarations of what CITES species each person has. If we find that they have additions, they will have to explain it. The problem is that if we find violations where an animal or bird is not declared, the penalty is not specified in any of the acts," said Mitra.