In an exotic bird park at Mettupalayam in Coimbatore district, Kookyland, visitors are charged ₹200 in entry fee. These exotic birds include macaws, the endangered African grey parrot, conures and lorikeets. The other exhibits include diamond doves, hedgehogs, exotic pythons, dwarf hamsters and iguanas. “All the species in my collection are foreign species that are allowed to be kept in India,” says M.M. Sridhar, of Kookyland. “We have declared all the species in our collection in the Parivesh portal as per norms and officials of different departments also inspect the park often,” he adds.
Similar private aviaries have started springing up across Tamil Nadu over the last few years with a boom in the interest among people in interacting with exotic wildlife. Has this interest brought on a rapacious industry thriving on the trade in exotic animals, many of which are often illegally trafficked into the country?
While the trade in native Indian species of wildlife is protected by the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972, animals brought into India from other countries till recently had very little oversight once they entered Indian borders. From aviaries to private zoos, the lack of regulation of the sale and exhibition of non-native fauna could drive the threatened species towards extinction in other countries, besides endangering the local biodiversity, experts caution.
Advisory on import
In the 2023 newsletter, ‘TRAFFIC Post’, on wildlife trade in India, Astha Gautam and Merwyn Fernandes of TRAFFIC’s India office, a non-governmental organisation working on understanding and addressing global trade in wildlife, said the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change issued an advisory on import of exotic live wildlife species into India and declaration of animals that had already been brought into the country.
In December 2022, a new amendment to the Wild Life (Protection) Act meant that owners of exotic animals are now mandated to declare ownership of their animals.
“The amendment introduced regulation of CITES-listed species under Schedule IV of the Act. Prior to this, the EXIM policy regulated the trade of exotic species in India. However, this presented a gap in intervening in the possession and trade of CITES-listed species beyond trade points. Now, the inclusion of the species in the national legislation can help take enforcement action for violation of the provisions of CITES,” Mr. Fernandes told The Hindu.
CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) is a multilateral treaty to protect endangered plants and animals from the threats of international trade. India is a signatory to it. Many species listed in Appendices I, II and III of CITES are brought into the country and sold to private collectors and as pets, conservationists and experts allege.
Animals listed in Appendix I include species threatened with extinction and CITES prohibits the trade in these species. Appendix II includes species that could face extinction unless trade is “closely regulated”. Appendix III includes species included at the request of a country requiring international cooperation to prevent “unsustainable and illegal exploitation”.
Imported species on IUCN Red List
Ms. Gautam and Mr. Fernandes, who analysed the CITES trade database, state that between 2017 and 2021, 20 species of parrots listed in Appendix II and four species in Appendix I, including golden parakeet, grey parrot, military macaw and scarlet macaw, were imported, besides nine exotic species of reptiles included in Appendices I and II. The imported species were assessed as “near threatened”, “vulnerable” and “endangered” by the Red List of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Shekhar Kumar Niraj is the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Biodiversity), Tamil Nadu, and the former country head of TRAFFIC India. Mr. Niraj, who implemented CITES in India’s western and southern regions, said that until recently, non-native wild animals being brought into the country could only be governed by the Customs Act, 1962, and the Export Import (Exim) Policy. This weakened the regulation of trade in non-native wildlife.
‘Customs Act failed’
“For a start, there was no specific legislation to back up CITES implementation except the Customs Act, 1962, which didn’t empower forest officials to take cognisance of smuggled wildlife. Moreover, there were only five CITES central offices, with a few sub-regional offices located across the country with a limited number of staff members. Secondly, if the animals managed to get through customs zones, where the Customs Act was applicable, enforcement became difficult as the local Forest Departments had no enforcement authority as till recently, they were not governed by the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972,” he added.
Mr. Niraj said that while the new amendment meant more focus on the trade in species listed in the CITES appendices, there were many species which were not included in the CITES appendices were being traded with no regulation.
He added that neither customs officials nor Forest Department employees had the expertise or competence to identify or handle non-native species. “With the recent amendments, species, especially those listed in Appendix I of CITES, are more strictly controlled; but that, too, has issues as there are very few quarantine centres in the country where these animals can be moved to,” he said.
In some cases, non-native wildlife are released into the local ecosystems, leading to the risk of these animals becoming invasive at the cost of the native wildlife. Besides, one may not know what pathogenic transmission could be in the offing from the illegally released animals.
He called for more specialised training for forest, customs and police officers in identifying protected and commonly traded non-native species; better quarantine and upkeep facilities; and carefully thought-out plans to deal with the seized animals.
Demand surges for exotic pets
N. Sadiq Ali, founder of the Wildlife and Nature Conservation Trust, said the reach of social media and rising affluence were leading to a surge in demand for exotic pets across India. “Even chimpanzees and orangutans are trafficked into India, while potentially invasive species such as Burmese pythons, ball pythons, various species of frogs and arachnids are sold in open markets across the country,” he said, adding that once these animals enter the country, there is very little oversight of how they are handled.
“Private aviaries are almost unregulated. Even government zoos have so many rules and regulations to follow; the same must be applied to private collectors,” said Mr. Sadiq Ali, adding that private collections of exotic animals exhibited to members of the public should be brought under the regulatory purview of the Central Zoo Authority.
TRAFFIC collated data from open media sources on wildlife seizures from 2022 and found 56 seizures of exotic animals across India, with Tamil Nadu recording the second highest. Throughout India, more than 100 primates, including Moor macaques, grey monkeys, pygmy marmosets, spot-nosed monkeys, Myanmar snub-nosed monkeys, Tamarins, spider monkeys, capuchins, orangutans and chimpanzees, were seized, besides mammals such as kangaroos, otters, beavers, wallabies, servals, porcupines, sloths, capybaras and cuscus. A total of 157 reptiles and thousands of birds were also seized during the period. Parrots accounted for the highest number of species seized, with over 1,000 individuals.
A senior official of the Forest Department said several private breeders sell exotic species through their contacts in closed networks of WhatsApp or Telegram groups. Such breeders are more likely to keep species that are not allowed for international trade but are smuggled into the country.
In the Yelagiri Hills of Tirupattur district, five private aviaries exhibit exotic animals. District Forest Officer Naga Satish Gidijala said the Forest Department maintains a list of private bird parks. A list of birds and animals that are protected under the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972, has been given to the owners of the private bird parks and pet shops in the hills. They have been asked not to procure these species from vendors as it is against the law.
Even after the Wild Life (Protection) Amendment Act, 2022, was enacted to help India conform to the provisions of CITES, regulations for procuring and exhibiting exotic wildlife are still sketchy, even as an increasing number of aviaries and petting zoos are popping up across the State. One such facility is the month-old Faunus Park in Chennai that houses 13 species of exotic birds, including blue-and-yellow macaws, African grey parrots, bobwhite quails and conures. On June 6, Forest Department officials inspected the park. E. Prasanth, Wildlife Warden, Chennai, says they had made a voluntary declaration in the Parivesh portal for possession of exotic wildlife but details of the import of the birds were unclear.
The “grey areas” in the Act are not helping in regulating possession of and trade in exotic wildlife, say officials and experts. As many as 16,000 voluntary declarations of exotic live species — all of which come under Schedule IV of the Wild Life (Protection) Amendment Act (specimens listed in CITES appendices) — have been made from Tamil Nadu, according to Chief Wildlife Warden Srinivas R. Reddy.
“We need clarification on approving them as earlier they were only categorised as exotic, but with the Amendment Act in place there are regulations of their trade,” he says, adding that the question of how the birds were imported now arises. The same scrutiny also applies to breeders, who are required to make an application before July 31 to breed animals listed in Appendix I of Schedule IV of the Act, he adds.
There are no rules defined in the Act for displaying exotic species, says Jose Louies, chief of enforcement (wildlife crime control), Wildlife Trust of India. “As per law, if one wants to display animals, one needs a zoo permit. But the clause under zoo management only mentions ‘wildlife’ that refers to native wild animals and birds and not CITES specimens,” he says. Calling for tightening regulation of wildlife trade, he cautioned against damage to the ecosystem and biodiversity in other countries as well as in India because exotic animals brought into the country could become invasive.
(With inputs from Wilson Thomas in Coimbatore, Beulah Rose in Madurai, Nahla Nainar in Tiruchi and D. Madhavan in Vellore)