• Tue. Apr 16th, 2024

Wildlife trade in Northeast India with special reference to Herpetofauna and some measures of control to check the trade.

North East India comprising of seven states is part of the 36 global biodiversity hotspots and is a rich storehouse of biodiversity. Globally, now there are 36 hotspots, covering 2.4 % of the Earth’s land area and harbouring about 50 % of endemic plant species and 42 % of endemic terrestrial vertebrate species in the world. Hotspots have highest concentration of endemic species and also face the highest loss of natural habitats. The areas can be compared in terms of species richness, endemism, natural habitat loss etc., but anthropogenic activities are creating immense pressure on the existence and survival of the flora and fauna.

Wildlife means any fauna and flora found wild in nature or in a region. As per Section 2 of the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972, “wildlife” includes, any animal, bees, butterflies, crustacean, fish and moths; and aquatic or land vegetation which forms part of any habitat. Wildlife is an important resource for the communities that live in and around forests and is exploited for various reasons, including food, pet trade, and medicine and is a serious threat to all hotspots. It is also used for additional income, cultural practices and as a sport. Wildlife trade/trafficking has become an important threat. Wildlife fetches lots of money and is exploited for the demand they have in national as well as international market for medicine, meat, textile, decorative items, timber etc. Among the vertebrates One horned Rhinoceros (Rhinoceros unicornis) and Gecko are most highly priced. Rhino is significant for their horn and Gecko is captured live and sold in foreign countries. Gecko is sold for its medicinal value which is more of a superstitious belief. The poorer section of the society trade in anything that is available and sold for whatever price is available.

Herpetofauna includes both amphibians and reptiles. Amphibians are represented by frogs, toads, caecilians, salamanders, whereas reptiles include crocodiles, turtles, tortoises, snakes and lizards.

They are available in both aquatic as well as terrestrial habitat and some are highly priced in wildlife trade. A review based study was carried out by analyzing different literatures on trading of herpetofauna and the dangers of illegal trade were determined. The trade in reptiles as pets, for consumption as food or use in traditional medicines poses an increasing threat to the conservation of these animals. Times of India (2017) reported that Geckos used in ‘space study’ fetch astronomical prices. Illegal trade in the Tokay gecko, a rare lizard is now fetching an even higher price on the international market. TRAFFIC POST (Nov, 2011), reported large scale trade in the Indian bull frog species from Nagaland and Assam. The survey was undertaken in the New Market and Super Market in Dimapur and the vegetable market in Kohima in Nagaland in July 2008 and again in August 2011. On an average, about 2500-3000 frogs were sold per day in the above markets. Frog meat in Nagaland is not only considered a delicacy but is believed to have medicinal properties. Megophrys flavipunctata, Minervarya teraiensis,, Euphlyctis ghoshi and Amolops sp are the most commonly available frogs in the market. Tokay Gecko and its cousins, the Golden Gecko (Gekko badenii) and the Assamese Day Gecko (Cnemaspis assamensis) are widely traded reptilian species.

Hunting is done by capturing, snaring, trapping and occasionally by poisoning. Turtles are another category of reptiles exploited for meat and eggs in different parts of northeast India.
The major driver for such illegal trade is mostly due to their demand for ethnomedicine in international markets. After hunting the animal is passed across the border to Myanmar where there is a ready market (TRAFFIC, 2012) and this region is presently used as a corridor by the international smuggler. In the recent years, in the northeastern states of Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland and Assam, the gecko catchers have become very active. There is a general believe that medicines made from gecko meat can cure diseases such as AIDS, cancer etc.

Reptiles like Indian spotted turtle, Black softshell turtle, Asian soft tortoise, Asiatic softshell turtle, Russell’s viper, and Indian bull frogs are highly traded in Northeast India. The purpose of trade is skin, meat, pet, venom and for food. Many of these species are reported in the IUCN as vulnerable, endangered, critically endangered although some are also of least concern status. The reptilian species like Burmese python (Python bivittatus), water monitor lizard Varanus salvator, Asian brown tortoise Manouria emys, Mouhot’s box turtle, Coura mouhotii and Gemel’s leaf turtle Cyclemys gemeli are consumed locally in the region. During a study in Chizami village of Nagaland it was reported that hunters used guns, traps and catapults (i.e., slingshots) and hunted them for food and as a leisure activity. Snake fat is used in healing wounds and whole snakes are used to make one feel lighter and better.

Maharaj Ganj market is one the biggest fish markets in Agartala, different types of turtles are sold for meat, including species like Indian Softshell turtle and Black Soft-shell Turtle, Indian Flap-shell Turtle, River Terrapin and Indian Softshell Turtle, keeping them upside down.

The turtles are smuggled in from Bangladesh into Agartala; equally, turtles are smuggled out to Bangladesh, a major hub for turtle meat trade, from India. A 2019 study by TRAFFIC-India found that at least 110,000 (1.1 lakh) turtles and tortoises entered the illegal trade in the 10-year period between 2009-2019. Also, turtle shells and its various body parts are used in zootheraphy in many regions of the world.

A few more markets within Agartala like Bortola and Golbazar (Maharaj Ganj market) sell freshwater softshell turtles. Over 1000 animals are sold on a daily basis, mainly Indian Flapshell Turtle (Lissemys punctata), Indian Softshell Turtle (Nilssonia gangetica) and Peacock Softshell Turtle (Nilssonia hurum). All of them are listed in Schedule-1 of Indian Wildlife Protection Act (WLPA), 1972. Trade of freshwater turtles has increased. Badola et al 2019 reported a minimum of 100,000 tortoises and turtles have been traded between 2009-2019, across India. Turtles are sold for their aphrodisiac property, meat, fat etc. Carapace and plastrons are sold for traditional medicine.
Two endangered species- Radiated Tortoise and one Aldabra tortoise was seized by Assam Rifles in Manipur in January 2021 in Chandel District. Both are critically endangered and are non native species. Both were trafficked from Southeast Asia countries. The population of both species has declined due to over exploitation for pet trade, meat and medicine (Sentinel digital desk; 2021, February). Tokay geckos (Gekko gecko) are being caught illegally and trafficked from this region to Southeast Asian countries where many people believe that the medicines which are made from this species can cure diseases such as cancer, AIDS, diabetes, asthma etc. In the N-E Indian states of Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland and Assam, the gecko catchers are very active.

Species such as Burmese Python (Python bivittatus) and rat snakes (Ptyas nigromarginata, Ptyas korros) are consumed by Khiamungan tribe of Tuensang district and believe that fat of rat snakes helps curing wounds. And huge numbers are traded for pet and business purposes and among them; reticulated python is the most heavily traded.

Cuora amboinensis captured by local people in Manipur (Khuraijam etal.2012)

Different tribes of Arunachal Pradesh (like Mishmi, Meyor,Monpa), Assam (Biale, Karbi, Munda, Santhaal etc ), Nagas from Nagaland, Lepchas and Limboos of Sikkim and Khasis of Meghalaya hunt various reptilian and amphibian species for meat, medicine and pet trade. Traditional weapons used for hunting are Eyi, Eza(dao), Kabu and Gun.

How to check the trade?

Illegal wildlife trade is threatening the future of many wildlife species. Research and conservation practices should be initiated in collaboration with universities, institutes and local NGOs to understand the life cycles, threats, etc and present population status of the wild animals.

According to TRAFFIC POST Nov, 2011, judiciary in Manipur and Mizoram has taken initiative to fight wildlife crime. They have initiated orientation programmes to generate awareness.
TRAFFIC (2018) reported community-based wildlife protection initiatives playing keyrole in Nagaland. Nagaland Forest Department and Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB) organized a two days wildlife crime investigation and law enforcement training workshop in Dimapur. It also included an overview of key endangered species in illegal trade, a focus on the primary drivers of wildlife trade, illegal trade routes, hubs and modus operandi of traffickers. Other topics included wildlife forensics, importance of DNA sampling in forensic investigation, use of information technology and an overview of relevant legislation.

South Asia Wildlife Enforcement Network (SAWEN) is a legitimate intergovernmental wildlife law enforcement support body and was launched in 2011 with the aim to combat wildlife crime. It aims to stop wildlife illegal trade of various iconic species like reptiles, medicinal plants, timber, rhino, tiger etc.

Creating awareness among the general public regarding conservation of reptiles and amphibians is essential to bring down illegal trade of these animals. In addition legal action against those who exploit these animals is the need of the hour.

Raising awareness on ecological and economical and conservation needs of herpetofauna among people is one of the major conservation initiatives of the Forest departments, Government of Sikkim and various NGOs. The major target groups include local communities, panchayats and students.

Future planned initiatives include further surveys and ecological research along the rivers with potential turtle habitat in northeast India, establishment of captive breeding centers and release of hatchlings into the wild and wider management and protection of nest sites.

To minimize risk and maximize benefits in future, it is essential that there is a greater emphasis on multidisciplinary analysis of wildlife trade issues and development of adaptive responses focused on clear conservation and socio-economic goals and the motivating factors that will ensure that such goals are achieved.

(The article is solely the opinion of the authors. The views expressed here are solely personal and not in any way connected to any organisation or any political party ).

Prof Mithra Dey

Formerly in Dept of Ecology and Environmental Science, Assam University, Silchar. Email id : deymithra57@gmail.com

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