‘Easy to blame China; but India’s wildlife trade is thriving too’

India just doesn’t have enforcement even though it has some of the strongest laws, says forensic scientist Samyukta Chemudupati

Published - March 28, 2020 12:10 pm IST

Samyukta Chemudupati began her career as a forensic science teacher and now trains frontline forest department personnel to use forensics in wildlife crime investigation — to link the crime scene to the criminal — whether it is through profiling human DNA, analysing gunshot residues on animals, or tracking black money trails.

Head of forensics at Wildlife Conservation Trust, Mumbai, Chemudupati talks about the link between wildlife trade and zoonotic disease, and the fall guys and kingpins of this activity — the fourth largest illegal trade worldwide.

Could the growing discourse on zoonotic diseases such as COVID-19 bring about a more concerted effort globally to crack down on illegal wildlife trade, one of the many speculated sources of the pandemic?

Well, that’s an interesting point because organisations across the world have actually looked at the spread of coronavirus, and have now called upon leading nations to use this information to understand how illegal wildlife trade not only decimates wildlife, but also transmits diseases from wild animals. I don’t think there is enough information to substantiate a clear relationship between illegal wildlife trade and coronavirus yet; but the important thing to consider is that when you’re removing a wild animal from a space where it serves a critical function, you’re also moving whatever it has inside of it — you are moving any diseases they may carry to a new area, while also removing the functionality that the animal serves within that ecosystem.

You have said that while we point fingers at traditional Chinese medicine, we must introspect on wildlife trade in our own country.

Yes, wildlife is consumed in a huge variety of ways in India. It could be something as simple as a baba who sits in a city peddling some kind of component of, say, a spiny-tailed lizard, as a supposed cure for arthritis. It could be the use of peacock feathers in temples or in our homes as decorative items. It could be coral in our jewellery. It could be meat from wild boar or deer. It could even be something as obscure as black magic practices — for example, owls are in extremely high demand around Diwali, because people believe this is when you should be culling them to appease the gods.

The wildlife pet trade is very big too, but the market hasn’t been surveyed in detail, so we don’t know the precise extent of wild animals in captivity. But it is safe to say that everybody knows somebody in their immediate social or family circle who has a wild animal as pet. It could be something as innocuous as a parakeet, which is protected under the Wildlife Protection Act, or a star tortoise, which is also a scheduled species under the Act. So, while it is easy to blame traditional Chinese medicine, in our own country there continues to be a huge demand for wildlife, and the illegal wildlife trade is thriving.

The ‘bad guys’ of wildlife crime in popular imagination are always the poachers — often the poorest people feeding the huge demand from cartels and consumers. Why do we hear so little about the real drivers of wildlife trade — the fourth biggest transnational crime in the world?

I think the simplest answer is that enforcement agencies themselves don’t know the real people behind these crimes. The guy who’s on the ground, actually doing these activities, is obviously the lowest hanging fruit. You can find him, he is easy to apprehend, he’s easy to photograph. Whatever it is that is driving him to do this activity — whether it is extra income to feed himself or his family — the fact is that somebody is exploiting his traditional skill; tribal hunters, for instance, are well-skilled at navigating the forest, at identifying animal tracks, locating them in places that most other people would probably die in. What is being lost in this entire narrative is that it’s not just these guys. There are also people within cities, middlemen, people who are working at international levels, kingpins of wildlife trade, who are using these people to line their pockets. But the fact remains that because they’re so well connected, you often don’t even know they are involved in a crime like this.

Even though we have tough laws in the form of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, and we have a Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB), you have said that India’s enforcement success is nowhere near satisfactory. Is wildlife crime not a priority?

It is only in the past decade or so that people have started to pay heed to wildlife crime. Not only is there apathy, the key agencies involved don’t talk to each other. So, for example, the WCCB may not talk to an agent who’s sitting at the border, or the border agent will not talk to the nearest forest department officer to say, ‘Oh, we spotted something’. Very often, coordination between States is lacking, so contraband could be moving between States and go completely undetected. There’s a huge systemic issue, as a result of which we don’t have the kind of enforcement we should have, despite having some of the strongest laws.

Does India need greater investment in wildlife forensic science as a discipline to deal with the enormity of the crime?

Absolutely. I think what we really need is an army — and not just of forensic scientists, who can evaluate evidence quickly, accurately scientifically, strongly — to be able to push the science to new borders. If you look at wildlife forensic scientists in the U.K., for instance, they are doing some fantastic groundbreaking research — they’ve developed techniques that can lift fingerprints off feathers and eggshells.

We need forensic scientists in India not just to aid enforcement agencies, but also to start pushing the envelope. The need for this was yesterday.

So, we definitely need more scientists to join the bandwagon, catch up, or push the science and do some fantastic science so we can really have strong evidence that will go to a courtroom where the judge will not be able to say that this case cannot be true; or we will not have a defence lawyer who will tear up a case to bits because the evidence is not packaged correctly or analysed correctly or the analytical techniques used can be put in doubt. We need to change the game on how we use science in our courtrooms.

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