India has seen a spurt in smuggling of exotic wildlife species from across the border over last few years. Smuggled exotic species include chimpanzees, kangaroos, radiated & aldabra tortoises, hyacinth macaws, capuchin monkeys, iguanas, burmese pythons, tarantula, hornbills, lion cub, leopard cub, red-eared slider turtles, monitor lizards, golden-headed lion tamarin, marmosets, meerkats, gerbil, albino frogs, albino porcupine, beavers, wild cats, pottos, three toed sloths, sugar gliders, armadillos, wallaby, white cockatoos, ball pythons, green cornsnakes, mexican black kingsnakes, green anacondas and chameleons etc. The following may give a glimpse of smuggling of exotic species into india through land borders and by air:
Indo-Mynmar and Indo-Bangladesh Land Borders have been widely used for smuggling of exotic species into India mainly from Thailand. Similarly International Airports in India at Mumbai, Chennai, Bangalore, Trichy etc. have recorded many seizures of smuggled exotic species from passengers coming mainly from Bangkok and Kualalampur. Smugglers have also used the modus operandi of smuggling exotic species in air cargo by misdeclaring them something else such as ornamental fishes mainly at Mumbai and Chennai Air Cargo Complex.
Before amendment in Wild Life (Protection) Act in 2022, exotic species were not protected under this Act. Smuggling of exotic species were dealt with under the provisions of the Customs Act, 1962 read with Foreign Trade Policy. Whenever customs authorities seized smuggled exotic species at land borders while being smuggled into India or at the Customs Port, they were registering and investigating the case under provisions of the Customs Act. But in many cases when the smugglers succeeded in smuggling the exotic species into India and later on those species were seized by enforcement agencies in Domestic Tariff Area (DTA), the forest/wildlife/police authorities could not register and investigate the case under Wild Life (Protection) Act as these species were not covered under this Act.
In such scenario, seized exotic species were handed over to the customs authorities for registering the case under the Customs Act. As exotic wildlife species are not covered under section 123 of the Customs Act, the onus to prove beyond reasonable doubt that those exotic species were smuggled into India from across the border by the person from whose possession they were seized was on customs authorities. It was very difficult to prove due to lack of any paper trail and from the fact that those exotic species changed many hands by the time they were seized.
The smugglers of exotic species were taking advantage of such legal lacunae and approaching the Courts for setting aside the smuggling case against them. Judiciary also used to rule in their favour as those species were not protected under Wild Life (Protection) Act. After such court rulings the traffickers would go scott free and customs authorities would have to release the seized exotic species to the smugglers.
To plug these legal loopholes, necessary provisions have been incorporated in the Wild Life (Protection) Amendment Act, 2022. Relevant provisions from the perspective of countering smuggling of exotic species are discussed below:
- After Chapter VA, new Chapter VB on Regulation of Internation Trade in CITES listed Species has been introduced. All species under three Appendices of CITES have been incorporated under Schedule IV of the amended Act. Thus all CITES listed exotic species are now protected under Wild Life (Protection) Amendment Act, 2022.
- To document the complete trail of such exotic species, a very robust mechanism has been provided in the amended Act: Under Section 49(H) any person who imports, exports or re-export such exotic species is required to present that for clearance at the port of entry or exit as the case may be before the customs officer or the Management Authority or the authorised officer. Under Section 49(M) of the amended Act, any person who is in possession of such exotic species is required to report the details of the species to the Management Authority or the authorised officer. After verifying the legality of such possession, a registration certificate would be issued to the person. Similarly transfer of such species to another person, birth of offsprings by such species and death of such species also need to be reported to the Management Authority or the authorised officer.
- Captive breeding of exotic species under Appendix I of CITES are to be governed by licensing provisions as contained in Section 49(N) and 49(O) of amended Act.
- Earlier only forest and police authorities were empowered as law enforcement officers under Wild Life (Protection) Act. The Amended Act has also empowered customs and coast guard authorities as law enforcement officers under section 50(1) of Wild Life (Protection) Act. As the customs has a pan India presence with its enforcement wings i.e. Customs Preventive Formations, Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI), Air Intelligence Units (AIU), Special Intelligence & Investigation Branches (SIIB), Marine & Preventive Wings (MPW) which have required resources and skillsets to combat smuggling, it is expected to have a significant impact as far as curbing the smuggling of exotic species are concerned not only through exit/entry points or international borders but also within domestic tariff area.
- Similarly empowering Coast Guard as law enforcement agency under amended act will go a long way in combating smuggling of such exotic species through marine routes.
Wild Life (Protection) Amendment Act, 2022 came into force on 01/04/2023. Now if any person is found to be in possession of any CITES listed exotic species, the burden to prove that they were legally obtained would be on him. He will be required to produce the legal import documents; certificates of registration of possession, transfer, birth of exotic species as the case may be; licence for captive breeding etc. If he fails to produce such documents as the case may be, it would be treated as if those exotic species were obtained in contravention of the provisions of the Act rendering that person liable for criminal proceedings. Such exotic species would also become property of Central Government under Section 49(Q) of Wild Life (Protection) Amendment Act, 2022.