When a mouse kills an elephant
It’s time for netizens and lawmakers to come together to curb illegal trading of animals and wildlife article on the web.
With urban India revelling in the glory of economic liberalisation and the inevitable surge in consumerism that follows, the availability of Indian wildlife online for trade adds to already pressing conservation concerns.
Turtles, parrots, Star tortoises and corals, you name it, they sell it. Spectacular, cute, and alluring, these species are all available for sale on the Internet, with websites advertising their appeal as home companions. Faced with the prospect that one can sell anything online (as a popular online portal advertisement tagline goes), it did not come as a surprise to us one day when late at night we noticed an online advertisement offering soft-shelled turtles for sale. An action was taken with alacrity, the relevant authorities alerted and soon the advertisement was taken offline.
Laws and No Order
Reports have indicated that all kinds of wild animals and their derivatives are traded on the Internet in India, including various species of tortoises, snakes, mongoose hair, ivory, blackbuck horns, deer antlers, several species of birds, corals and insects, all of them protected under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 (WPA), which prohibits commercial trade of these species. The trade is further regulated under the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which is an international agreement between governments that aims to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival.
Despite both the domestic and international legislation being in place for protecting wild animals and plants, existing porous borders and continuing overseas demand indicate that major trade hubs exist, where illegally exchange of these animals across international borders takes place. Illegal wildlife trade generates an estimated USD 19bn a year worldwide and ranks fifth on the list of the most lucrative global illegal activities following narcotics, counterfeiting, arms and human trafficking, according to the US State Department.
More often than not, globalisation has resulted in the escalation of transnational crimes. Recently, according to Sky News, Federal and State authorities in the USA charged more than 150 people accused of operating an online wildlife trafficking ring, involving the skins of endangered animals, and live birds.
Monitoring the Web
In India itself, several websites have been part of a nexus of traders and businessmen seeking the rarest species. Some websites are hosted outside India and sell or purport to sell wildlife articles that have been smuggled from the country. In June 2013, a tiger skin, later shown to be a fake, was offered in Ahmedabad through an online portal. Requests for animal and plant products are made via the most commonly visited web portals for traders and buyers. Thereafter, buyers and sellers interact on other modes of communication like chat rooms to maintain their anonymity. The animal and plant products are either shipped or delivered in person. Tracking these criminals is difficult because of the anonymous nature of the Internet for making such transactions. Nevertheless, there have been several cases where wildlife trafficking rackets have been investigated and exposed in the state of Uttar Pradesh via monitoring of social networking websites. With ever-increasing numbers of social networking forums, there is a clear need for them to be closely monitored so that strong action can be taken on any emerging trade networks. It is clear that a black market of the world’s rarest animals and plants is emerging on the Internet. Websites that are primarily devoted to wildlife trade and business practices hardly ever ask advertisers for relevant domestic and international permits. Just as several wildlife protection groups and other organisations have lobbied to stop the sale of ivory goods on the US-based auction website e-Bay, there is a need to prevent Indian websites from hosting advertisements that deal with the trade of protected species.
In some cases, immediate actions have been taken and advertisements have been removed. For example, an advertisement carried on a Chennai-based website on 26 April 2010, offering lion and tiger cubs for sale was quickly removed. Similarly, in June 2012, a popular Indian portal advertised a soft-shell turtle (species not known) for sale but the advertisement was withdrawn after several non-governmental organisations and the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB) were alerted. However, such interventions to date have been need-based and ad hoc in nature, and we require far more organisation in order to control such activities.
Some efforts have begun to curb this growing online menace. WCCB is aiming to bring on board cybercrime specialists to track down online smugglers. Preliminary investigations by WCCB revealed there are nearly 1,000 websites that deal with the sale and delivery of animals and animal products, protected under the WPA and CITES. Most of these are popular shopping websites, online classifieds and free ad-posting websites. Based on this initial research, a list of 200 websites, potentially being used for this illegal trade, has been drawn up.
However, the situation regarding online wildlife trade is not all gloom and doom. Recently, Etsy, an international online marketing portal, announced their list of Prohibited Items would include goods made from particular animals, including those designated as threatened or endangered. The statement on the Etsy news blog summarises the issues surrounding online wildlife trade and its concomitant threats succinctly: “The new policy includes but is not limited to items or materials such as fur, pelts, ivory, teeth, bones, and taxidermy specimens from those protected animals. Both new and vintage (often referred to as “pre-ban” or “antique”) items of this type are prohibited even if the seller has documentation of rights to sell the items under applicable law. The risk that the legal status of these items may be unknown or mislabelled is too great, and continued sale of these items, though potentially legal, stands to perpetuate market demand and further jeopardize the existence of these species.”
In June 2012, 15 of the leading e-commerce sellers operating in China, including Alibaba, Taobao, and Tencent, signed a declaration stating they have a zero-tolerance policy towards their services being used to conduct illegal wildlife trading. The declaration was issued following a workshop on controlling online illegal wildlife trade organised by the National Forest Police Bureau of the State Forestry Administration (SFA) in collaboration with TRAFFIC.
In India, however, there is still a considerable amount of wildlife offered for sale on the Internet, and what is offered for sale is not monitored or regulated. Indeed, the regulations are vague and it is not clear what laws govern the sale of Indian wildlife on websites that may be hosted by servers in foreign countries. For a concerned citizen, the best option on encountering an Indian wild animal or plant species offered for sale on the Internet would be to report the website with its URL, preferably with a screenshot, to the WCCB or government enforcement agencies working to combat illegal wildlife trade in India. Unless the citizens of India take online wildlife trade seriously and give it the importance it deserves, the fate of Indian wildlife will hang precariously exposed on the net.
India has several pieces of legislation that specifically deal with the protection of wildlife and any offences that may harm the status of protected species. Some of the important Acts include:
Constitution of India, 1950: Article 48-A reads, “The state shall endeavour to protect and improve the environment and to safeguard the forests and wildlife of the country”. Article 51 A (g) reads, “It shall be the duty of every citizen to protect and improve the natural environment, including forests, lakes, rivers and wildlife and to have compassion for living creatures”.
Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 (WPA): Although there is no clear directive governing online wildlife trade in the WPA, the Act covers all wildlife trade, hence it includes matters pertaining to online wildlife trade of prohibited species. In the case of a website operating from a server in India selling or offering for sale any wild animal or wildlife article, trade in which is prohibited, action can thus be taken under the WPA and electronic evidence used under the terms of Section 65B of the Indian Evidence Act, 1872.
Biological Diversity Act, 2002: This Act provides for conservation of biological diversity, sustainable use of its components and fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of the use of biological resources and their knowledge.
Exim Policy 2009-2014: In India, international trade in all wild fauna and flora in general, and the species covered under CITES, in particular, is also regulated under the Exim Policy 2009-2014 of Government of India.
Customs Act, 1962: Section 3(3) of the Foreign Trade (Development and Regulation) Act 1992 provides that all items (including wild Fauna & Flora) covered in the Import & Export policy will be deemed to be covered under Section 11 of the Customs Act, 1962. As a consequence, all cases of violation of the Import-Export Policy in general and CITES in particular, constitute an offence under the Customs Act and are dealt with by the Customs officials.
Also in the exercise of its Executive Powers vis-à-vis the State, the Union Government under Article 256(1) is empowered to give direction/s to State/s to ensure compliance of the Provisions of the CITES.
Information Technology Act, 2000: With the focus on illegal trade on the internet we must also look at the relevant laws regarding online crime. The Information Technology (IT) Act does not specifically include any clause prohibiting illegal trade of wildlife on the internet. However, it lists the major activities that qualify as illegal on the internet but does not give details regarding the punishment for such offences. There is a clear need to amend the Act in order to introduce such information.
Watch What You Buy!
With the advent of social media, Facebook, Twitter and others alike have become platforms for business in all commodities and wildlife products are no exception. Wildlife dealers use these platforms for precisely the same purposes that other businessmen and traders do, inter alia, to advertise their products, to find out and know more about clients, to expand their business, to gauge trends and to rope in new customers. The same problems exist in regulating online wildlife trade on social media as they do elsewhere on the internet, the difficulty in tracing a trader and sourcing his products, the ambit of law that applies to such trading of wild animals and plants as well as the obvious possibility of accounts/offers being erased once deals are done. Wild animals that have been observed being offered on sale on Facebook include birds, turtles, mongooses, snakes and even chimpanzees. Greater alacrity and understanding of the social media and its evolving nature, coupled with specialist agencies to monitor the activities of these illegal wildlife traders can help curb this trade from thriving in cyberspace. More attention needs to be garnered by the judiciary with help from wildlife lovers, naturalists, associated agencies and enforcement authorities, to plug in loopholes that allow for legal transactions of endangered species on social media. Maybe it is now time for special cyber laws to tackle wildlife trade on the web.
Some major concerns regarding online trade in Indian wildlife
- Advertisements that relate to Indian wildlife species protected under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 (WPA).
- Often the species being traded are also controlled under CITES regulations.
- Some advertisements claim the animals offered for sale have been ‘captive bred’ and are living in good conditions. The truth of these claims cannot easily be ascertained, and are often not relevant to the legality or sustainability of the potential trade.
- The species being offered for sale may be exported to other countries and sold on websites that are based outside India, therefore implicating them becomes a difficult task because foreign legislation is not bound by Indian legal concerns.
- Advertisers do not give many details about themselves and ask customers to contact them using private email addresses. Therefore, tracking their business transactions is difficult.
- The online trade often occurs on chat-based websites that have a common topic to discuss. The buyers and sellers exchange information regarding the availability of species, price, transportation etc.
Read also: Junglimericks: In the Crazy Wilds of India
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