Wildlife smugglers target Indian animals

India's careful protection of its wildlife has boosted its stock of rare animals – and opportunities for economic exploitation.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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."

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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.

"There are more wildlife-related cases in Delhi than anywhere else in India," says Belinda Wright, director of the Wildlife Protection Society of India in New Delhi. "Even though the poaching happens elsewhere, it is financed, maintained, and organized by wealthy individuals who curry favor from people of influence, many of whom are based in New Delhi." But Ms. Wright won't say whether Indian government officials are involved in animal trafficking.

Some of these products are used for fashion, some for the $5.2 billion business in traditional Chinese medicines. But all are putting increasingly fatal pressure on India's wildlife populations.

Poaching detection and seizures have increased around the country, most dramatically for India's shrinking elephant population. In 2001, nearly 90 elephants were reported killed, up from 51 killings the year before. Nearly 15,800 pounds of ivory were seized in 2001, compared with 1,610 pounds the year before.

"The poaching is the same, but our detection is getting better," says K.N. Thakur, deputy director of India's Department of Wildlife Protection. "India is a poor country. Our forest guards have machetes, but poachers have guns."

Some environmental groups blame India for not doing enough to protect its wildlife, such as setting up a specialized agency for tracking animal trafficking rings. But some experts say no agency could overcome market forces. India spends $50 million on its national parks, forests, and wildlife preserves. A poacher, by contrast, can spend just a few pennies on a bullet for his rifle, and then fetch $200 for a single tiger skin.

A trader in Delhi will eventually pay 10 times that amount for that skin, and then sell it to a collector in New York for $10,000, or five times what the trader paid for it.

If India's underfunded law enforcement agencies have any allies in the fight to preserve the country's wildlife populations, it is nonprofit groups like the Wright's WPSI. By posing as buyers, and calling in the cops when the smuggler brings out the goods, these environmentalists and animal lovers are helping to bring a few poachers, smugglers, and buyers to justice.

Already some patterns have emerged. Tibetans control the trade routes for shahtoosh wool coming out of Chinese-controlled Tibet, and for tiger products heading into China. Some Tibetans cross the border as refugees, carrying burlap bags full of shahtoosh from the Tibetan antelope. Every year, 10,000 of these antelopes are killed and plucked clean. There are only 60,000 of these animals left in the wild, and none has ever bred in captivity.

Wildlife lovers like Wright know that the numbers are against them, not to mention against the animals. But with a few good sting operations, Wright feels that she and organizations like hers can still make a difference and reverse what seems like an irreversible trend.

Her tool is deception. Her formula is simple: Know everything about the product – whether it's ivory, tiger claws, or bear bile – and flaunt your cash.

"When I'm getting ready for a sting operation, I tell myself to think like a criminal," she says in the New Delhi office of the WPSI.

"The key to getting their interest is to be stupid with your money, like it doesn't matter to you. If I'm tipping a waiter, I give 500 rupees [$10], when 10 rupees will do. It works every time."

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