By: Akash Vashishtha
After the trafficking of rhino horns, tiger skins and elephant tusks; illegal trade of threatened marine species – especially sea horses and sea cucumbers – is emerging as the new wildlife crime.
India’s coastal waters are fast becoming base for easy poaching by international gangs.
What is more alarming is that these gangs have moved from sailing away with the species to illegally transporting them in international flights.
India’s coastal waters are fast becoming base for easy poaching by international gangs (Picture for representation only)
According to sources in the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB), the intelligence arm of the environment ministry, sea horses and sea cucumbers are first poached by local individuals, particularly fishermen who are funded by larger groups.
International networks, involved in their trafficking, ferry the animals on flights to China and South East Asia.
“There is a larger network operating internationally to trade these threatened marine species. Some groups, especially in countries like Thailand, are apparently funding individuals for transporting these species through air carriers,” a senior official of WCCB said told Mail Today on condition of anonymity.
While sea cucumbers are said to be used in soups in China, sea horses are in demand as an ingredient in Chinese medicines.
“As flights between India and Thailand are very cheap, an individual is paid a certain sum to act as a courier to transport these species. It is easy for an individual to carry them as these creatures are very small in size and can easily be carried in a bundle in hand, without raising much suspicion,” the official said.
Sea cucumbers (right) and sea horses seized from smugglers in Tamil Nadu earlier this month. The Andaman & Nicobar and Lakshwadeep Islands, Palk Bay, Gulf of Kutch and Mannar have large number of these creatures
“We have known about this practice for some time and are keeping a close tab on it. If required, we will share details with Interpol too. We are already in touch with coastal states on the matter,” the official added.
Both sea horses and sea cucumbers are protected species under the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 and are listed under Appendix I and II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), respectively.
While sea horses thrive in deep sea waters, sea cucumbers inhabit shallow waters.
Sources in the WCCB said though the agency has been closely monitoring illegal trade of the two species for a few months, it started tracking the crime more closely after a Sri Lankan national named Nazeer Mohammad was nabbed at the Chennai airport on April 17 while boarding a flight to Kaula Lumpur.
“He revealed the modus operandi and how he was paid to carry the bundle as a courier by an agent based abroad. Similar revelations have also come to light before,” said another WCCB source.
Shekhar Niraj, head of TRAFFIC India – the wildlife trade monitoring network – said, “The poaching and illegal of sea cucumbers and horses has risen steeply because of a high demand in China and South-east Asia. The extent of poaching is such that these species have been wiped out in most stretches of coastal waters, such as like the Gulf of Kutch, Gulf of Mannar, Andaman and Nicobar Islands and Lakshwadeep, where they had a good population earlier.”
“It is a dangerous sign for Indian marine biodiversity. Sea cucumbers are scavenger species in the marine ecosystem that clean up water and allow corals to thrive,” he said.