GUWAHATI, Aug 17 – The threat posed to mega species such as tiger, rhino and elephant by the multi-billion-dollar illegal trade in wildlife is well known, but not many would be aware that a number of lesser wildlife, including birds and reptiles, are at equal risk, with the flourishing global syndicate increasingly targeting smaller creatures which, too, fetch a fortune for the traders.Conservationists believe that Wednesday’s seizure of a live tokay gecko lizard – now a hot property in the clandestine trade – from the possession of a militant outfit chief is not just indicative of the growing extent of the nefarious business in Assam and other parts of the North-east, but also corroborates the involvement of so-called armed rebel groups in wildlife trade.
“While poaching of tigers and rhinos hogs the limelight, many smaller creatures are equally bearing the brunt of the thriving wildlife syndicates operating in the North-east, which is a gateway to South East Asia – the hub of illegal wildlife trade. The trend of wildlife trade in tokay gecko, pangolin, snakes, owl, etc., has been quite discernible and disturbing,” Bibhab Talukdar, head of conservation group Aaranyak, says.
According to Talukdar, the solution lies in strengthening intelligence and enforcing the law for checking the ominous trend. “Besides effective patrolling of wildlife habitats, enhanced intelligence and enforcement of the law are essential. Given its biodiversity and strategic location, the North-east is particularly vulnerable to the menace,” he says.
The Assam State Zoo, Guwahati, recently added eight tokay geckos from various seizures, which speaks volumes of the demand for the reptile in the grey market.
Matters have worsened due to the abysmal protection mechanism in most of the forests of the region, especially in the reserve forests, many of which harbour wide-ranging wildlife. In Assam, some 80 per cent of the total classified forests fall in the reserve forest category but these enjoy little protection, and therefore, are happy hunting grounds for depredators of forest wealth.
Significantly, around 80 per cent of the funds meant for wildlife in the 11th five year plan (2007-12) was spent on 41 tiger reserves, comprising less than 10 per cent of the total notified wildlife areas in the country. Assam has three tiger reserves – Manas, Nameri and Kaziranga.
In Assam and other parts of the North-east, the craze for creatures such as tokay gecko and owls has been such that apart from organised gangs, many people in villages and towns are also said to be hunting for the creatures for supplying those to the traders.
Tokay gecko, a nocturnal lizard growing up to 40cm in length, has been in great demand in some Asian countries and even outside for its unfounded medicinal values. A mature gecko can easily fetch up to Rs 20 lakh.
A recent report in TRAFFICK noted that the medicinal demand for tokay geckos skyrocketed, “with dozens of new websites in Malaysia, a major hub of the trade, dedicated to buying and selling tokay geckos.”
In 2012, detection of endangered species by Customs across India was almost double that of 2011. Snakes and other reptiles, pangolin, butterflies, and various other lesser species constituted the bulk of the seizures.