The three-hour-21 minute Thai Airways flight TG-337 is the fastest way out from Thailand’s capital Bangkok to Chennai, landing at midnight daily. The duration of the flight, and the time of landing provides the perfect cover to sneak in exotic wildlife species like leopard cubs, marmosets, snakes and iguanas concealed as stuffed toys in their checked-in luggage. The exotic animals, reptiles and birds that escape enforcement channels feed a voracious hunger among the rich and famous in Chennai and other parts of Tamil Nadu who raise these non-native species as pets mostly on their sprawling farmhouses, interviews with multiple stakeholders indicate. Chennai also serves as a possible transit hub catering to the demand in other metros of India and Gulf countries too, a person with deep knowledge of this wildlife trafficking trade said.
For more than three years now, Customs officials at Chennai international airport have repeatedly seized exotic wildlife species from passengers, invariably disembarking from this flight, the latest being on August 11. On June 29, two Indian women on their way to Chennai were arrested at Bangkok airport for carrying 109 animals including porcupines, armadillos, turtles, lizards and snakes in their baggage. This has brought Tamil Nadu’s capital global infamy as either a transit hub or a centre for trade of illegally trafficked animals.
A study done by TRAFFIC, the global NGO working to prevent illegal trade in wildlife, in March 2022 found that Chennai international airport accounted for 36.1% of all wildlife seizure incidents among Indian airports between 2011-2020. Mumbai was second, at less than half (14.8%). TRAFFIC has also highlighted the Chennai airport as among the top airports in Asia where live animals are smuggled from or through. Officials say that as is with all smuggling, only 10% is apprehended. There is no official study to verify this accepted rule of thumb.
Chennai is a preferred hub for this activity for several reasons; officials say that the city has a long trading history and established routes with south-east Asian countries. The coastline is also developed with well-known landing spots; though the sea route is not preferred for wildlife trafficking as animals would not last the journey time. However, a number of regular flights from south-east Asian countries has made trafficking easy and quick and posed a difficulty to enforcement authorities who have scan huge cargo and passenger volumes. A retired Customs official also pointed out that enforcement officers might not be trained or sensitised in identifying this type of contraband.
In an email interview emphasising this, Dilpreet Chhabra, from TRAFFIC’s India office said that a USAID report in 2020 which analysed trafficking trends, identified Chennai airport as a key destination and origin point for traffickers. Chennai had also reported many seizures of wildlife derivatives like shark fins, seahorses and sea cucumbers from and to China, Malaysia, Thailand and UAE. Such is the demand for exotic species that the person familiar with the trade said the profit margins are huge. The animals bought from Bangkok’s famous weekend market cost only around Rs 10,000, but are sold for a few lakhs each. The marmosets, colloquially known as 'moonji korangu' among Customs officers and smugglers, are sold as a pair for Rs 10 lakh.
Though the business is lucrative, it is illegal, but not as dangerous. This is mainly due to loopholes in the wildlife protection act and ‘airport setting’ which act as potent catalysts. Some of the most sought-after exotic ‘pets’ are marmosets, iguanas, ball pythons (coloured, albino and a black and white one which ‘resembles a chess board’), exotic-coloured birds like macaws and so on. Among seizures made by Customs at Chennai are also a leopard cub, meerkats, tarantula spiders, De Brazza’s monkey and lizards.
Sample this: in March 2021, Assam police arrested three men carrying eight silvery marmosets, two golden headed lion tamarin (both Amazon natives) and two Lutino Blue and Gold Macaw (colourful parrots native to the Americas). One of the men was a resident of Ashok Nagar, Chennai. The monkeys and birds were on their way to Chennai and had been brought in from Imphal, ostensibly smuggled from across the land border in Myanmar.
In July this year, Chennai Wildlife Warden E Prasanth told The New Indian Express that around 1,300 exotic animals were declared by Chennai-based individuals – highest in the country with Mumbai – on the Parivesh website, a voluntary declaration scheme announced by the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change. This came up after Chennai-based activist Antony Rubin blew the whistle on an exotic petting zoo on East Coast Road (ECR) in the city, which charged hefty fees from patrons to pet exotic species of birds, reptiles and mammals.
“Pet trade is demand driven and such an influx shows there is a huge demand. A lot of animal trading happens in Chennai, look at the Pallavaram (Friday) market. There is poor awareness among people as to which pets are wild and which can be domesticated,” Prasanth told TNM. A person familiar with the trade told TNM why iguanas and marmosets are popular among ‘pet lovers’; marmosets are playful, while iguanas can jump a few metres across the room and land on one’s shoulder, he said.
TNM interviewed two people familiar with the trade, who did not want to be identified, to understand the nitty-gritties. One of them has travelled with young men working as wildlife carriers and identified the exact bus number (route number 77) and stop that leads to the weekend Chatuchak animal market in Bangkok, which is where exotic species are purchased. Those facilitating and co-ordinating the Bangkok part of the deal are also from Chennai, according to him.
Once handed over to the carrier, these animals or reptiles are given an anaesthetic injection, just an hour or 30 minutes before boarding for the flight. This puts them to sleep inside checked-in luggage for six hours; just enough to last the three-and-a-half-hour direct flight and other mandatory checks at both airports. Authorities are told that the immobile animals are stuffed toys. In case the dosage is strong, animals can die. In fact, Customs officials repeatedly point out how the seized exotic species are ‘severely’ dehydrated and feeding them is a major task.
Albino Pacman frog
Back in Chennai, if the carrier is lucky and delivers the parcel, he is paid Rs 15,000-20,000 for a successful trip; his expenses in Bangkok are also taken care of. A retired Customs official said these carriers are paid higher than those who bring in gold. Some handlers also have Instagram accounts, through which they sell these trafficked exotic species, the person familiar with the trade said.
A bust is not a big deal either for the carriers; if caught by Customs officials at the airport, they cannot be arrested, as these exotic species are not listed under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, the law that stipulates penalty for those indulging in illegal animal trade in India. This was the legal loophole used by the three men arrested by Assam police in March 2021, to eventually get criminal charges against them quashed by the Gauhati High Court.
The maximum that Customs officers can do is charge them for violation of the Directorate General of Foreign Trade (DGFT) rules. Arrests can only be made if the total value of goods is ascertained to be worth more than Rs 50 lakh, which is tough to calculate for exotic species. The animals are sent back immediately to the country of import by the next flight. A few years earlier, some Customs officers expressed fear when they seized an African grey-horned snake from a Bangkok-returned passenger; it was a venomous snake and one official was worried if anti-venom for that particular species of snake would be available, in case of an emergency.
Zakir Hussain, an advocate practising in Madras High Court who deals with smuggling related cases, said every passenger at the Chennai airport has to pass through three scanners and hoodwink many officers from different agencies deployed there. “Nobody can escape from watchful eyes. So it is obvious that trafficking is not possible without help from some Customs officials,” he said.
Uday Baskar, the Chennai Customs Commissioner (Airport) told TNM that the role of Customs officers in such cases is ruled out. “Officers are rotated regularly as a preventive measure. I have not come across any involvement of officers,” he said, adding that more officers are put on duty to effect such seizures. The investigation of such trafficking cases was done by the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB), he said, but no pattern had yet emerged. “The instances of wildlife trafficking cases have re-emerged after COVID-19. It is based on supply and demand. Exotic species from Chennai have also been seized in Pune indicating that the market is huge,” Uday Baskar said.
In the post-pandemic era, trafficking of exotic species also raises the risk of zoonotic diseases. This is especially when petting centres, like the one in ECR, have come up, running the risk of such diseases spreading from animals to humans, Prasanth and Antony Rubin said. This was echoed by Dilpreet Chhabra of TRAFFIC India too, quoting a study which states that 60% of all emerging infectious diseases around the world are zoonotic in nature, transmissible from animals to humans.
Antony Rubin says this needs urgent attention from the government and that they should draft a separate Act which will make trade in exotic species illegal under Indian law. Alternatively, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), a multilateral treaty which protects endangered plants and species, should be adapted into the Wildlife Protection Act, Antony says. “This would also ensure that infrastructure is created to take custody of these trafficked animals,” he said.
Prasanth said that the illegal pet market is a subject that needs a serious study as nobody seems to have a clue. Uday Baskar said that youngsters of today have a lot of different ideas when it comes to rearing pets. “This issue has to be addressed at a societal level. People need to understand that these animals are not pets and should be treated with respect,” he said.
Parivesh is a way towards regulating the presence of exotic species in our ecosystem, he said. “Declaration is a step towards bringing them into the mainstream. Exotic animals are brought up in a pathetic condition. Wings might be clipped and they are tamed to a large extent,” he said. But even in that case, he wondered where one could draw the line over import/trafficking of animals. A law in this regard is currently under discussion of the Parliament and Union government, officials said.
Siddharth Prabhakar is based in Chennai and has covered Greater Chennai Corporation, Railways, DVAC, CBI and other investigative agencies during his six-year stint in Times of India and one-and-a-half years in The New Indian Express.