Shravan Krishnan hardly gets calls from the government. But one evening in October 2019, when he received a phone call from the Tamil Nadu Forest Department, the Chennai-based animal activist knew something was very wrong. Three hundred kilometres away, at the Trichy International Airport, the Customs department had seized a suitcase which had arrived from Thailand and contained exotic reptiles.The officials were too scared to open it and face its contents. Instead, they handed the suitcase over to the Chennai Forest Department, who then took it to the Besant Memorial Animal Dispensary, which is Shravan’s animal facility in Chennai’s Adyar.
Shravan roped in Dr SR Ganesh of the Chennai Snake Park, Ajay Karthik of the Madras Crocodile Bank and four other top reptile experts in the city, to handle the suitcase. When the group finally unboxed its contents, Shravan tells TNM that what he found inside broke his heart.
The suitcase contained hundreds of exotic species of reptiles smuggled in cruel conditions, to feed the illegal pet trade. “It was stuffed to its limits and stinking. There were 200-300 iguanas crammed inside small boxes, venomous Indochinese spitting cobras and non-venomous albino pythons writhing inside small coke bottles,” he explains. There were also 200 Malaysian tortoises and several venomous spiders, scorpions, two-headed turtles and snakes from multiple countries that neither the forest rangers nor Shravan could identify.
Albino pythons and green iguanas which was part of an illegal consignment seized by the Trichy Airport Customs in 2019.
“Half of them were dead. Many of them had lost their body parts by the time the box was opened,” he adds. The consignment was one among several shipments smuggled through smaller airports in India, which feed a booming market for exotic pets.
For over 10 years now, India has been witnessing a growing exotic pet market, with smuggled animals arriving mostly from Thailand and Malaysia. However, Shravan says that what is seized in Tamil Nadu’s airports only form 10% of the bulk of live exotic animal shipments smuggled into the state, from where it is taken to other parts of India. If they are not seized at the airport check points, these animals are hardly rescued in India due to weak laws, especially if they are smuggled via road, he adds.
Snakes stuffed inside plastic bottles found inside the illegal consignment seized by the Trichy Airport Customs in 2019.
While illegal shipments at airports are typically sent back to their port of departure, some lucky animals that are seized by the Customs Air Intelligence Units find new and loving homes in Chennai’s parks and zoos. Take for instance the consignment Shravan opened in 2019 — the animals were split into two groups and sent to the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust and the Chennai Snake Park — two renowned reptile parks in Chennai, as they were too weak to be shipped back to Thailand.
Red eared slider turtles and Limbless lizards found in the 2019 illegal exotic pet consignment at Trichy airport
“We took the Indochinese spitting cobras — the most venomous snake in the shipment. For this particular species, there is no anti-venom available in India. This means that if they bite us or if its venom enters our eyes, we are dead. Knowing the risks involved, our animal keepers decided to rehabilitate and nurture the baby snakes back to health, as we knew they would die if they were sent back to Thailand. Three of them survived and two years later, they are thriving in our park,” says Dr SR Ganesh, Scientist and Deputy Director (Research) at the Chennai Snake Park. The park also houses the albino pythons that were found in the same consignment.
The law mandates that smuggled exotic animals be sent back to their ports of departure, as keeping them in the country poses multiple risks. For starters, there is the risk of the exotic animals spreading zoonotic diseases (diseases transmitted from animals to humans). They could also turn into invasive species and threaten the region’s local flora and fauna.
“Most importantly, in a country like India where every year, 50,000 people die of snake bites, having an invasive species of exotic snake with no known anti-venom produced in the country could spell doom for the population,” says Shravan.
Nevertheless, the demand for exotic animals has been on the rise in India. According to the Smuggling in India Report 2019-2020, published by the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI) in 2020, “...there is an unfortunate and increasing trend in smuggling of endangered and exotic fauna from different parts of the world in India. Since there is a complete ban on trade in Indian species, interest of the smugglers has shifted to exotic species, which has led to disastrous global environmental consequences.
Australian Treep Python found in the illegal exotic pet consignment seized at the Trichy Airport
The report which was carried by Mongabay adds that exotic pets are often smuggled in from Bangkok, Malaysia and Europe to major Indian cities such as Chennai, Hyderabad, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Kochi, Kolkata etc. However, with a gaping lacunae of laws governing exotic species or their trade in India, the country could very well be staring at an impending ecological and human crisis triggered by exotic pet trade, Ganesh says.
Basilisk Lizards and Blue tongued skink from Austrlia found in the illegal exotic pet consignment seized at the Trichy Airport
“If pet owners decide to free these exotic animals in the wild, then it would be next to impossible to control the ecological consequences. Especially in south India, which has the Western Ghats, such actions could risk the lives of thousands of species that are endemic to the region,” Dr Ganesh explains. To correct this, new and stronger laws governing exotic animals need to be introduced to first clamp down on illegal pet trade.
In 2020, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change issued an advisory asking citizens to declare their exotic pets (animals which do not come under the Wildlife Protection Act). The advisory contained guidelines on declaring exotic live pets, importing of exotic animals, registration of their offspring bred within the country and transfer of stock (change of ownership) of exotic species in India.
A report published in IndiaSpend later stated that over 32,000 Indians declared their stock of exotic pets until February 2021. However, it is pertinent to note that this declaration is done voluntarily.
Indo-Chinese Spitting Cobra
A crucial piece of legislation governing wildlife in India is the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. This classifies wildlife into four categories or schedules, depending on how engendered the animals are and the level of protection they need. Animals like lions, clouded leopards, Royal Bengal tigers, elephants and others are categorised as Schedule 1 protected animals under the WPA. Trading these animals or their body parts attracts some of the harshest penalties under Indian law.
However, live exotic animals and their trade go unregulated as they do not come under the purview of Act, nor do they have a separate legislation under the Indian wildlife jurisprudence.
“Currently, the animals can only be seized at airports under the Customs Act, 1962 and the Foreign Trade (Development and Regulation) Act. This means that only a fraction of the illegal trade is busted and that too at airports. Once inside the country, these pet traders and owners are free to do as they please with the animals,” Shravan says.
The only law protecting these exotic species is CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora). CITES is an international agreement between several governments, to ensure that the trade of the animals does not threaten the species. In India, CITES is implemented through the Customs Act 1972, which further only comes into force when there is proof of international border crossing or smuggling. “So once outside the purview of Customs and inside Indian territory, the pet owners and traders can spin stories stating that the animals were bred within the country and not smuggled without attracting penalties,” Shravan explains.
Apart from exotic species, smuggling of animals such as parakeets and star tortoises, which come under Schedules 3 and 4 of the Wildlife Protection Act, are not well-regulated either. If caught, smugglers need only pay fines ranging from Rs 5,000 to Rs 25,000, with no jail term. “This is because these animals are not protected or valued enough by the law of the land,” Ganesh adds.