Chapter 8: India

Smuggling, linked to other crimes, finances militancy

Criminal syndicates in Africa and Asia are working together — and competing — to meet the seemingly insatiable demand for pangolins in China and other markets. Over the last nine months, over 30 journalists across 14 countries and territories investigated how illegal pangolin trafficking is leading the species to become extinct.

Today, we’re sending you our dispatch from India’s Manipur State.

You can find our global report here:

Pangolins: Trafficked to Extinction

Here in the remote jungles of India’s Manipur State bordering Myanmar, the pace of life can often feel languid. The forests have grown back where British and invading Japanese troops once engaged in hand-to-hand combat in World War II.

Amidst the lush hills is Churachandpur, a typical border town where shops – selling cheap Chinese clothing and other hardware – spill out onto the monsoon-drenched streets.

But the outward calm hides a lively underground economy run by wildlife traffickers and arms smugglers.

“There is hardly anything that you cannot get in Churachandpur,” said a field officer from the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB) who requested to remain anonymous, “from rhino horns to pangolin scales, or geckos to arms and ammunition.”

Churachandpur’s notorious reputation stems from its location on the border with Myanmar, but most of the wildlife ends up in China.

India shares a porous 1,600-kilometre border with Myanmar. Not surprisingly, these states are common routes for illegal trafficking networks involving wildlife smuggling, drug syndicates and the occasional militants.

Churachandpur, a border town between India and Myanmar. It is known to authorities as a smuggling hotspot for drugs, firearms, and wildlife including pangolins.

“Sometimes, drugs are also traded with animal parts. Drugs are pushed in through these routes to the Indian side with the help of militant outfits that frequent these routes,” a retired Manipur police official told us.

The militants in India’s northeast are also a source of arms and ammunition for smugglers in the region, we were told.

“The buyers normally come to Churachandpur or Dimapur in Nagaland,” said an undercover wildlife agent. He is part of a special investigation team set up by the state government in 2008 to stop rhino poaching.

Most of the pangolins smuggled through India are destined for Yunnan, China, through Myanmar.

Not too long ago, rhino horns and tiger parts were most heavily trafficked through these routes, but increased global attention has reduced demand in China. Now, pangolins and other wildlife have taken their place, investigators said.

“This network first smuggled rhino horns, but it has diversified into pangolins, geckos and other wildlife,” said the agent, who has conducted regular sting operations.

“We have in recent times been able to stop the poaching of one-horned rhinos and smuggling of its horns,” said a WCCB spokesperson. “But we have noticed a sudden rise in seizures of pangolins from the region.”

“The recent increase in rescues indicates that there is a racket in smuggling out pangolins,” says Rathin Barman, joint director of the Wildlife Trust of India and head of the Centre for Wildlife Rehabilitation Conservation (CWRC).

But the numbers of captured animals are still small. WCCB officers have confiscated 10 live pangolins in the past three years from northeast Indian states. The Assam State Zoo is caring for pangolins rescued from traffickers between January 2007 and July 2019.

A rescued pangolin at the Centre for Wildlife Rehabilitation and Conservation near Kaziranga National Park in Assam, India. © Dauharu Baro / Wildlife Trust of India / International Fund for Animal Welfare

An additional 10 pangolins were also recently rescued from traffickers, who abandoned them to evade a dragnet operation by law enforcement agencies. In August, the CWRC found a dead pangolin in an abandoned bag at a bus stop in Upper Assam.

India, while not a consumer of pangolins, is a source country for Indian and Chinese pangolin subspecies. Farmers, traditional snake-charming communities like the Sapera, and the semi-nomadic Bawariyasin often sell the animals to the middlemen for up to 70,000 rupees, a local fortune that equals roughly US$1,000, the wildlife officers said.

The pangolins are then taken to Manipur State and smuggled across the border to Myanmar, and on to China, the officers said.

Pangolins are not the only Indian native animal facing massive threats to their survival. The tree-dwelling tokay gecko – erroneously believed to be a cure for cancer and HIV/AIDS, and said to fetch prices of up to one million rupees – is also being smuggled into China via the same routes.

“Even though the animals have protection status, rhinos and tigers get all the attention,” said the Assam-based conservation activist Baibhav Talukder. “The punishment for poaching of rhinos and pangolins are similar, but our law enforcement agencies weren’t as concerned about pangolins until recently.”

“Wildlife trafficking should be seen as a national security threat and not merely the smuggling of animals,” he said.

Next week, we’ll send you reports from Nepal and Hong Kong.

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