Wildlife smugglers target Indian animals
India's careful protection of its wildlife has boosted its stock of rare animals and opportunities for economic exploitation.
For 10 minutes, Mr. Sheikh has been wowing a customer with shawls made from pashmina, the second-softest wool in the world. The fabric, woven from goat wool, is so fine that an entire shawl can be pulled through a wedding ring.Skip to next paragraph
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Then the conversation turns to "the good stuff," the first-softest wool in the world: shahtoosh, made from antelope hair.
"It's like nothing else in the world, like holding a cloud in your hand," says the salesman, sitting on the floor of his shop in the lobby of a five-star hotel in New Delhi. He seems ready to continue, but stops himself. "But it's too dangerous for me to handle. [The police] are watching us."
Ten minutes later, greed overcomes Sheikh's caution. He offers to meet this reporter later in the hotel lobby, and drive him to an undisclosed location to see Sheikh's fall collection of shahtoosh shawls and scarves.
This is the soft underbelly of wildlife trafficking, the world's second-largest illicit business after narcotics, by some estimates. The smuggling of illegal wildlife products is as old as the Silk Road, but in recent years it has grown into a multibillion-dollar business. And as demand for animal products has increased, despite the best efforts of environmentalists, fashion mavens, and law enforcement officials, many species are being pushed to the brink of extinction.
With the price of a single rhino horn amounting to several times the annual salary of an ordinary Indian forest ranger, it's a challenge that India has had difficulty meeting.
India is not the only nation to be targeted by poachers. In eastern Africa, poachers have brought elephant populations to dangerously low levels.
The reverse is true in Southern Africa, where elephant populations have rebounded so much that South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Botswana would like to reopen the ivory trade to relieve overpopulation.
But environmentalist groups say that India's location midway between the Middle East and China make it a more convenient shopping spot for those looking for wildlife products. Indeed, India is a victim of its own success.
Through rigorous protection efforts such as Project Tiger, India has been able to maintain habitat for many species that have become extinct in other areas. India is now home to 60 percent of the world's wild tiger population, for instance. This success has proved an irresistible draw for Asian buyers, whose demand for rhino horns, bear bile and tiger bones and skins, has already wiped out their own wildlife at home.
"India is paying the price for its wildlife," says Ashok Kumar, trustee of the Wildlife Trust of India, a private group based in New Delhi. "Many of the countries that are demanding these products, particularly China and Southeast Asia, have already finished off their wildlife. So they are coming here."
The thriving Wall Street for wildlife products, much to India's chagrin, is not in the remote provinces, but in the nation's capital. Here, smugglers from Tibet and Nepal, poachers from India, weavers from Kashmir, and buyers from around the world converge to trade everything from elephant tusks and rhino horns to leopard skins, tiger bones, and even jars of bear vomit.