It may look like a dried bark or root of a plant, but could actually be an organ of an endangered animal.
A group of scientists and investigators from India and the UK have found that Monitor Lizard Hemipenis or the male sexual organs of monitor lizards are being sold online as Hatha Jodi, a tantric root that is believed to bring wealth and happiness.
Unsuspecting customers, mostly from the Asian diaspora, have been buying lizard genitalia that resemble a root, via major online retailers such as Amazon, Alibab and Ebay, World Animal Protection (WAP) said in a statement.
WAP has been reaching out to the e-commerce markets requesting them to take down the products from their sites.
Monitor Lizard Hemipenis; By Neil D'Cruze/World Animal Protection
Poachers also use plastic mouldings of monitor lizard genitalia along with real organs; By Neil D'Cruze/World Animal Protection
"We were shocked at the sheer audacity and scale of this illegal wildlife trade. Deceitful dealers claiming to sell holy plant root labelled as 'atha Jodi', are in fact peddling dried lizard penis to their unwitting customers. These illegal items are readily available in the UK and USA with potential street value of £50,000 GBP (Great Britain pound)'," Gajender K Sharma, India Country Director at WAP, said.
The animal welfare organisation stated that these lizards are illegally poached from forests and killed cruelly before their genitals are removed for use as "Hatha Jodi". At times, the animals are even alive when the process of removing their organs begin.
By Neil D'Cruze/World Animal Protection
The Hatha Jodi, often considered holy, is a rare plant species found in remote areas of Nepal and Central India, and used in traditional practices.
Tests carried out in labs in Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) have found evidence that suggest customers are being duped in the name of Hatha Jodi root.
Dr David Megson of the MMU said, "Given the photos being advertised online, we needed to get into the laboratory to confirm our suspicions that that these dried 'plant roots' were in fact derived from Indian monitor lizards. However, the plot thickened even further when tests revealed that some of these items are actually plastic mouldings of monitor lizard genitalia."
All monitor lizards fall under Schedule I and any trade involving the reptile or its body parts is a national offence under the Indian Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. Both the Bengal and Yellow Monitor lizards are also listed under Appendix I of the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna (CITES) - the highest level of international legal protection that can be afforded and that prohibits commercial trade.
There are over 70 species of monitor lizards around the world and four of them are specifically found in India namely Bengal Monitor, Water Monitor, Yellow Monitor and Desert Monitor lizards.
"Most of the monitor lizards have been extensively exploited for a long period of time for their skin and meat and by those who want to keep them as pets. Now what we are getting to see is that after poachers sell the skin and flesh of the reptiles, they have started selling the rest of the body parts of the animal. This is worrisome.Their population is already dwindling due to habitat loss" explained Anirban Chaudhuri, a herpetologist from Kolkata.
Bengal Monitor Lizard; By Neil D'Cruze/World Animal Protection
Yellow Monitor Lizard; By Neil D'Cruze/World Animal Protection
Water Monitor Lizard; By Neil D'Cruze/World Animal Protection
The left one is the genital of a monitor lizard and resembles a plant root; By Neil D'Cruze/World Animal Protection
In a recent raid carried out by enforcement agencies in Bhubaneswar, 210 Hatha Jodi, including hemipenis from Bengal and Yellow Monitor Lizards, were seized. Similar raids also took place in Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Rajasthan.
The price of these depends on the size and can range between Rs 400 and Rs 4,000.
This species of lizard are sought after by poachers for their tough skin that is used to make products such as bags, drums, etc. Another species found in the desert regions of India - Spine Tail Lizards - are also used for making traditional medicines.
A store in Delhi that sells Hatha Jodi; By Neil D'Cruze/World Animal Protection
Chaudhuri added that while the practice is not new, the magnitude of the illegal activity has increased substantially. There's a demand, specially in South East Asian countries, and poachers are making use of technology to fulfill it.
"Poachers are now more organised. They use social media to carry out their work. They have become more systematic," he said.