How Myths and Superstitions are Fueling Illegal Wildlife Trade and Driving Wildlife to Extinction

Whereas it is pure financial profit motive on part of the wildlife traffickers to indulge in wildlife trafficking, popular myths and superstitions are major underlying factors fueling this illegal wildlife trade and driving many wildlife species on the verge of extinction.

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            Illegal Wildlife Trade (including illegal logging and illegal fishing) is the fourth largest transnational organized crime after drugs trafficking, arms trafficking and counterfeit products trafficking and is worth USD 73-216 billion annually as per  World Bank’s report titled “Illegal Logging, Fishing and Wildlife Trade: The Cost and How to Combat IT” released in October, 2019.

          This article is totally based upon information available on open source cyber platform.  Links of the References have been shared in the article as and where referred to.

Gravity of the problem:  In the following paras, I am going to discuss how popular myths and superstitions associated with some wildlife species is fueling their illegal trade and even driving them on the verge of extinction.:

        Ahead of the festival of lights “Deepawali” in India, the poaching of owls increases many fold. According to Hindu mythology, the owl is the vehicle of Goddess Lakshmi and in some occult practices this bird is sacrificed to appease the Goddess to bring good luck and prosperity. This bird is also poached for black magic and for medicine without any scientific basis for that. As per Ornithologist Mr. Satish Pandey, every year more than 17000 owls are poached in India. International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) have put several owl species under threatened or endangered list. Reference1. In India owl is protected under  Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. Similar story is that of Silver Owls. These birds are in high demand abroad because these are an indispensable factor in witchcraft. Sorcerers use their wings, feathers, flesh, and blood for witchcraft. There are many beliefs about the silver owl in India and abroad. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the Owl House existed in Europe. They are illegally kept by businessmen, gamblers and speculators for financial gain. There are many people who swindle money by saying that they can provide silver owls. Reference27

        The non-venomous Red Sand Boa  popularly known as a two-headed snake  has several superstitions associated with it. There is a popular myth that the Sand Boa snake secretes an anti-aging agent in its gland. Therefore, there is a huge demand of it for its perceived medicinal properties. There is no scientific proof for such belief of it having medicinal properties. It is also believed that it brings good luck and prosperity to its owner. These myths have resulted in rampant smuggling of red sand boa snake.  As per well-known conservationist Vaibhav Chaturvedi, red sand boa has developed a big market up to Malaysia and Japan also. Reference2    & Reference3. Due to high number of poaching of this species, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) have put it under threatened list. In India this species is protected under  Wildlife Protection Act, 1972.

          Monitor lizard is also poached in huge number because of superstitions attached with it. Self-styled godman sell monitor lizard genitals to women who struggle to conceive and advise them to worship the lizard genitals following a ritual to get conceived. Reference4 . According to Louies, who heads the crimes unit with the conservation organization Wildlife Trust of India, the traffickers and godmen preying on the superstitious nature of their customers, sell them  not as reptile parts but as magical plant roots that come from rare plants found in sacred spots such as Nepal’s Lumbini, the birthplace of Lord Buddha, or in the hills in central India's Amarkantak. Poachers kill male lizards, make incisions to protract their two-inch hemepenes (which remain hidden in a pouch except when mating), and slice them off with a sharp blade. The genitals are then sun-dried and sold as plant roots in India and abroad as something sacred which brings  happiness and good luck to their owners. Neil D’Cruze, global wildlife advisor for the U.K.-based World Animal Protection says,“It’s a domestic trade that’s now spreading its tentacles out beyond, most likely targeting expat communities in Europe, the U.S., Canada.” Reference5 . According to IUCN Red List of threatened species, most of the monitor lizards species fall in the categories of least concern, but the population is decreasing globally. In India monitor lizard is protected under Wildlife Protection Act, 1972.

         The spiny tail lizard, called ‘Sanda’ in local language, is in high demand in India and abroad for its oil (extracted from its tail). Due to extensive poaching this species is on the verge of extinction. Myth and legend are the real killers of spiny tailed lizards that are poached from forests for their oil, because of the superstition that it  contains magical powers to heal bone diseases and increase sexual stamina. In India spiny tail lizard is protected under  Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. According to IUCN Red List of threatened species, spiny tail lizards species fall in the “near threatened” category. Reference6 & Reference7.

            Tokay Gecko is another wildlife species which is victim of a myth of it having medicinal properties. Its range extends from northeastern India, across Nepal, Bhutan and then down through southeast Asian countries like Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia and on to New Guinea. Tokay Gecko is poached mainly for its use in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM)  to treat cancer, asthma, diabetes and erectile dysfunction. There is also a myth that medicine made of this species also cure AIDS. These much touted treatments have no scientific evidence. This species is protected under India’s Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Specie (CITES) has listed it in Appendix II as a threatened species. Referenc8.

        India’s national animal and iconic fauna tiger and other big cat leopard  has also borne the brunt of several popular myths and superstitions. Apart from trophy hunting & being hunted for their bones and other body parts for their use in traditional Chinese medicines and wines (with no scientific evidence of them being effective), tigers and leopards are hunted for tantric (black magic) rituals also. Well-known conservationist Vaibhav Chaturvedi says, “There are certain tribes which still have primitive ways of life and are traditionally associated with black magic. Baigas, spread across eastern MP and Chhattisgarh in India, are one of them. The hides and paws of tigers and leopards are used by tantriks (godmen) for black magic rituals. These rituals are performed to bring in prosperity and remove problems from the lives of gullible villagers and city dwellers. Due to extensive poaching of tigers for their body parts to be used in TCM (traditional Chinese medicines) and black magic rituals the global population of wild tiger has been reduced to below 4000 of which 70% are found in India only  thanks to the several conservation measures and wildlife law enforcement agencies’ relentless drive against the poachers. Reference9. In Tibet, there has been a tradition of wearing decorative costumes made of skin of tigers, leopards, snow leopards for ceremonial events. Reference10. With the decreasing number of tigers, jaguars found in Central and South America are being poached and their body parts are being trafficked to China as substitute of tiger body parts to be used in TCM (traditional Chinese medicines). Reference11. African lions are also being poached and their body parts trafficked to China as substitute of tiger body parts. Reference12. In India tigers, Asiatic lions, leopards have been given highest level of protection under Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. Under CITES these iconic species are listed under Appendix I and Appendix II to ensure that their international trade does not threaten their survival.

          As per a study titled “Animals for the Gods: Magical and Religious Faunal Use and Trade in Brazil”, a total of 129 species of animals (or animal derived products) were found to be used and/or sold for magico-religious purposes; of these, 34. 8 % (n = 45) are included in some list of threatened species. Most animals reported were mammals (n = 29), followed by molluscs (20), fishes (19), birds (18) and reptiles (16); the majority (78 %) of reported species were wild-caught from terrestrial habitats (62 %), followed by marine and estuarine (24 %), and freshwater (14 %). This study investigates the domestic and wild harvested species used for spiritual and religious purposes by adherents of the Afro-Brazilian religion Candomblé. Introduced by enslaved Africans, this belief system combines animal and plant traditions derived from Africa with many others assimilated from Amerindians. Reference13

          Greater one-horned Indian Rhinoceros, Sumatran Rhino, Javan Rhino, African Black Rhino, African White Rhino have been poached in huge numbers for their horns due to several reasons such as:  According to the US International Conservation Caucus Foundation (ICCF),‘’Ivory and rhino horn are gaining popularity as a source of income for some of Africa’s most notorious armed groups, including Somalia’s al-Shabab, the Lord’s Resistance Army (L.R.A.), and Darfur’s janjaweed’’. Reference14. Even in India there are reports which suggest that cadres of the Zomi Revolutionary Army, an insurgent group with a presence in the Manipur state in the North East India and its border with Myanmar, are a crucial cog in a transnational rhino horn smuggling racket that extends to South East Asia and China via Myanmar. Reference15. One of the reason is a myth around rhino horn having medicinal properties. Rhino horns (nothing but keratin like our hair or nail) are used as medicine in TCM  which is assumed to treat various ailments including hangovers, fever, gout and potentially terminal illnesses, like cancer or stroke (without any scientific proof) in Vietnam, China and several other countries. Having a Rhino Horn is also a status symbol for rich section of society in Vietnam. In Vietnam, rich people share it within social and professional networks to demonstrate their wealth and strengthen business relationships. Gifting whole rhino horns is also used as a way to get favours from those in power. Reference16. Rhino has been accorded highest level of protection under India’s Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. Black, greater one-horned, Javan, and Sumatran rhinos are afforded protection under CITES Appendix I. Trade in these species and their products is strictly prohibited for commercial purposes. White rhinos (listed as Near Threatened on the IUCN Red List) are protected under Appendix II.

        An Iranian  documentary called “Houbara” shows how a widespread myth about the meat of the largest bird species i.e. Houbara living in the deserts of Iran having aphrodisiac qualities has almost caused the extinction of these birds.These birds and their eggs are widely smuggled into the Arab countries and are killed so that rich men in Arab countries can improve their sex lives. This folk belief is not supported by any valid scientific research. Iranian park rangers are working hard to stop poaching and smuggling of these birds. Reference17

         Pangolin is the most trafficked mammal in the world. There are eight species of pangolins. Four are found is Asia—Chinese, Sunda, Indian, and Philippine pangolins—and they're listed by the IUCN as critically endangered. The four African species—the ground pangolin, giant pangolin, white-bellied, and black-bellied—are listed as vulnerable. All species are facing declining population because of illegal trade. In 2016, the 186 countries party to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), the treaty that regulates the international wildlife trade, voted to ban the commercial trade in pangolins by putting all species of Pangolin in Appendix I. Tens of thousands of pangolins are poached every year, killed for their scales for use in traditional Chinese medicine and for their meat, a delicacy among some ultra-wealthy in China and Vietnam. Pangolin scales having medicinal properties is nothing but a myth only as Pangolin scales are made of keratin, the same material that makes up fingernails, hair, and horn. Pangolin scales, like rhino horn, have no proven medicinal value, yet they are used in traditional Chinese medicine to help with ailments ranging from lactation difficulties to arthritis. The scales typically dried and ground up into powder, which may be turned into a pill. For many years, the Asian species were the primary target of poachers and traffickers. But now that their numbers have been depleted, smugglers are increasingly turning to African pangolins. In two record-breaking seizures in the space of a week in April 2019, Singapore seized a 14.2-ton shipment and and a 14-ton shipment of pangolin scales—from an estimated 72,000 pangolins—coming from Nigeria. Reference18 .It is suspected  that pangolin is the intermediary host of SARS-COV2. It is believed that from horseshoe bats it came to pangolin and from pangolin it spilled over to humans. By many conservationist COVID-19 is being termed as “Revenge of Pangolin” from humans. Reference19

        Bear bile has been used in traditional chinese medicine (TCM) for thousands of years, with the first reference appearing in an eighth century medical text prescribing bear bile for maladies like epilepsy, haemorrhoids, and heart pain. In the early 1900s, scientists discovered that bear bile, a fluid that’s secreted by the liver and stored in the gallbladder, contains a significant amount of ursodeoxycholic acid—more than other animals like pigs or cows. This acid is mediaclly proven to help dissolve gallstones and treat liver disease. Bear bile, however, is also marketed as a cure for cancer, colds, hangovers, and more, though there is no scientific evidence supporting its effectiveness for these ailments and it’s only myth. It’s also sometimes used an ingredient in household products like toothpaste, acne treatment, tea, and shampoo as a way to expand the market for bear bile beyond traditional medicine, according to Animals Asia. Asiatic balck bears, also known as moon bears, sun bears, and brown bears are some of the most common species farmed for bile. They have a life expectancy of 20 to 30 years in the wild, but they can survive up to 35 years in captivity, meaning they can spend decades at a farm. Bear-bile farming has been widely condemned for being inhumane. The bears are often kept in cages so small they cannot turn around or stand up. Neglect and disease are common. Asian countries, including China, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Taiwan, Thailand, and Vietnam, primarily drive demand, but bear-bile products can also be found in Australia, Singapore, Canada, and the United States. While bear bile farming is illegal in South Korea and Vietnam, it remains legal in China. The international commercial trade in bear bile is prohibited by the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES), the treaty that regulates cross-border wildlife trade.Reference20

       Not only terrestrial wildlife illegal trade is fuelled by myths associated with them but aquatic and marine wildlife are also not untouched by such myths. Seahorses are listed in Appendix II to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) but the myth about it having medicinal properties is fuelling trafficking of this marine creature. Seahorses are often used in Chinese medicine. Dried seahorses are ground into powder to treat certain ailments and one of the common applications is for men with erectile dysfunction without any scientific evidence of that. Reference21. The study by Hong Kong-based non-profit environmental group OceansAsia has identified a 13-times rise in sea cucumber seizures over five years from Lakshadweep, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and the Indian Ocean waters. Over the last five years, illegal trade involving sea cucumbers in India has witnessed a sharp spike. Over 27,166.5kg of dry, wet, and live sea cucumbers worth around ₹29.4 crore (US$3.9 million) have been seized so far. Sea cucumbers are worm-like sea creatures that are single branched marine organisms (invertebrates) high in demand across Southeast Asia, mainly China, for food and traditional chinese medicine. Reference22. It is believed to have healing properties and used to treat ailments like arthritis, cancer, frequent urination, and impotence, though there is no scientific evidence to prove that. From India these are smuggled into China and other South-east Asian countries through India’s north-east order and through Sri Lanka. It is  Protected under Schedule I of India’s Wildlife Protection Act (WPA), 1972. Reference23.

         Similarly huge quantity of Box turtles are smuggled from America as they are  in big demand in China where some are sold for as much as $1,000 on the black market, as per the Los Angeles Times report. Rich people buy these turtles because there is a myth that the red and gold markings on their shells are signs of good luck and good fortune. Even traditional Chinese medicine also believes that turtles can be eaten to enhance libido and cure other ailments without any scientific evidence to prove that. Reference24.

      These are just few examples to show how myths and superstitions associated with wildlife are fueling their illicit trafficking and driving them on the verge of extinction.

Solution of the problem: When a problem has its root in cultural beliefs, customs, popular myths and superstitions as discussed in above paras, that problem can’t be solved merely by law enforcement actions. Along with law enforcement actions, public education, awareness, inculcating scientific temperament in the community will go a long way in bringing in “behavioral change” in the community which will result in demand reduction of wildlife, their parts and derivatives with ultimate result of end of wildlife crimes which are fuelled by such cultural beliefs, customs, popular myths and superstitions.

      Article 48A of Indian Constitution lays down the directive principle of State Policy for protection and improvement of environment and safeguarding of forests and wildlife. It reads as: “The State shall endeavor to protect and improve the environment and to safeguard the forests and wildlife of the country” This Article was added by the 42nd Amendment, 1976 and places an obligation on the State to protect the environment and wildlife. Similarly, Article 51 A(g) of the Indian Constitution states the following: "It shall be the duty of every citizen of India to protect and improve the natural environment including forests, lakes, rivers and wild life, and to have compassion for living creatures." Thus, it is the mandate of the Indian Constitution for the State as well as the citizens to protect and improve the wildlife. There is one duty of the citizens that is unique to India under Article 51A (h) that encourages the citizen to “develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform". Developing this scientific temperament would definitely help in developing a logical and rational thinking leading to community giving up the black magic   (occult practices) rituals, and stop believing in myths and superstitions leading to illegal wildlife trade. Through school/college curriculum and other  mass awareness programmes by NGOs, government agencies, conservationists, wildlife volunteers, this goal can be achieved.

       World Wildlife Fund (WWF)’s anti-poaching campaign has played an important role in creating mass awareness. For example, it features a print ad that shows a majestic elephant in profile, its trunk curled into an ampersand above its tusks. “I am not a trinket,” says the headline. It continues, “Tens of thousands of elephants are killed every year for their ivory tusks, which are made into everything from knickknacks to souvenirs,” the ad continues. “Find out what you can do to stop wildlife crime.” Another print ad features a photo of a healthy rhinoceros over the headline, “I am not medicine.” It continues, “At least one rhino is killed every day due to the mistaken belief that rhino horn can cure cancer and hangovers.” An ad featuring a tiger declares, “I am not a rug.” Another, with a marine turtle: “I am not a souvenir. "The tagline on all of the ads reads, “Stop wildlife crime — it’s dead serious.” Reference25.

      Religious leaders can also play an important role in persuading their community in giving up those traditional, religious customary practices which are devastating for wildlife. Dalai Lama released a statement calling upon Tibetan people not to engage in the trade or use of tiger and leopard skins as Buddhist teachings prohibits taking of life. His appeal has a strong impact upon the Tibetan Buddhist community who used to wear tiger and leopard skins as decorative costumes for  religious ceremonies. After his appeal Tibetan people stopped wearing tiger and leopard skins which resulted in drastic demand reduction and reduction in poaching of these iconic species. Reference26

        Many wildlife species are trafficked because of the myth about those species having medicinal properties without any scientific evidence to prove that. State machinery in collaboration with wildlife NGOs and conservationists must start an awareness campaign among the masses and persuade them to use alternative medicines with scientific evidence of being effective in curing those ailments which traditional medicines containing wildlife parts & derivatives claim to cure without any scientific evidence. This will be win-win situation for both: for community as they will get scientific cure and for wildlife as their poaching & trafficking will stop.

         Covid-19 Pandemic must serve as a final call upon humanity to take all out measures to stop illegal wildlife poaching and trade if we want to avoid the repeat of catastrophic impact of COVID-19 on human lives and livelihoods. Inculcating scientific temperament and shifting from non-scientifically proven traditional medicines to scientifically proven alternative medicines will definitely go a long way in tackling the menace of illegal wildlife trade caused by myths and superstitions associated with wildlife.

ARVIND KUMAR CHAURASIA, IRS(C&IT:2010)

Deputy Director, Wildlife Crime Control Bureau, New Delhi, India

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