Fugitive kangaroos intrigue Indian forestry officials

Kolkata, India–Lucas failed, but his friends Alex and Xavier did. They gradually regain their health through a diet of watermelon, bananas, wild grasses and fresh water. Alex, Xavier and the late Lucas are kangaroos found near the forests of eastern India, 5000 miles from Australia, the native country of their species. His case left India speechless.

Officials at North Bengal Safari Park, where Alex and Xavier were treated, said Lucas died of thirst and malnutrition the day after he was rescued. The survivors confirmed this week that when they are fit enough, they will move to Kolkata Zoo, perhaps one day returning home and bringing a happy ending to a sad story that began last month.

Forest officials in Upper West Bengal state became aware of a pair of marsupials jumping on a highway near Gajoldoba forest on the main road to central Siliguri state one night in April . The riders had fun stopping and filming phone videos in clips that have since gone viral, chatting excitedly in Bengali and trying to feed the kangaroos as they waited for the rangers to rescue and name the hungry and confused animals.

Hari Krishnan, the division forestry officer in the jurisdiction of Baikunthapur, not far from the state border of Sikkim and the Kingdom of Bhutan, finally arrived with his team and took care of Alex and Xavier. “The kangaroos were in a very distressed situation by the roadside,” Krishnan said. “We didn’t know what to do because we hadn’t seen him in person, not even at the zoo. We were very careful when treating or traumatizing them.

The following morning, Lucas and the remains of a baby kangaroo, or Joey, were found by another ranger team near a forest in Dabgram, 27 kilometers (17 miles) away. Three weeks ago, two men from Hyderabad were arrested trying to smuggle a kangaroo through the Alipurduar region of West Bengal after an overnight traffic stop. The five kangaroos – alive and dead – found in North Bengal in two months meant they had not escaped from zoos, but rather that illegal wildlife smuggling gangs had found a new commodity.

“We are investigating this incredible incident and there is a lot of confusion,” Belakoba district gunnery officer Sanjay Dutta told Al Jazeera. “But one of our theories is that the animals were transported to Switzerland to be used in tests for the pharmaceutical and cosmetics industries. We can’t say more at this point.

“We have never seen cases of kangaroos before. It was miraculous when we saw them, it was impossible for these Australian creatures to move around India. We couldn’t believe our eyes. We didn’t even no program for them,” citing, for example, conservation classifications under India’s Animal Welfare Act, where tigers are listed in Schedule 1.

It was Dutta’s team that found Lucas and Joey. “The kangaroos are all young,” he said. “There is no real reason for them to be in India unless they are brought in by humans and transport vehicles. These kangaroos did not jump from Australia to India.

Indian authorities suspect that kangaroos are being tested for doping in Switzerland. [File: Courtesy Belakoba Forest Range Office]

“Kangaroos are a first”

As the investigation into this extraordinary crime continues, the image of animals in distress in India has sparked surprising backlash on social media and TV stations. But less predictably, he also highlighted how harmful animal trafficking has become in India.

The illegal wildlife industry is estimated at US$20-23 billion worldwide, but national estimates are difficult to obtain due to the inherently secretive nature of such an enterprise. But since 2020, two reports from IndiaSpend and the Wildlife Conservation Society show that possession of exotic animals is endemic in India and that the illegal wildlife trade in general is flourishing. A government amnesty announced in mid-2020 saw more than 32,000 Indians come forward to admit they own exotic or endangered pets, from macaws and star tortoises to lemurs and gibbons.

“The kangaroos are a first,” said Samyukta Chemudupati, director of forensics at the Wildlife Conservation Trust (WCT) in Mumbai. “But we have seen the removal of kookaburras, foxes, snakes of all kinds, spiders, big cats and many other non-native animals to meet high demand across India, and one one of the main reasons for this is to keep wild animals as pets.

“Every town in India has a pet shop or vendor who sells exotic creatures or is able to supply them in some way. If you want to order a cockatoo, an African gray parrot, an alien snake or something else, it can be yours at the right price. It was like an over-the-counter drug.

Although forestry officials believe the kangaroo affair was caused by a black market in animal testing, there are many reasons why India’s illegal pet trade exists: exotic pets, traditional medicine – especially tiger parts and pangolins for Chinese and East Asian customers – meat, trophies, and even “black magic”.

“We often get reports from the police and forest services about a particular problem,” Chemudupati said. Mentioned. “For example, around Diwali and other festivals there is a thriving trade in illegal owls because some circles believe that sacrificing owls will bring wealth to your home.”

“Same as drugs”

Wasim Akram, deputy director of special projects at Wildlife SOS, a New Delhi-based conservation group, said there are two types of trafficking – one with animal parts ranging from tiger claws and ivory with entrails of exotic species, and the other with live animals. animals. These are smuggled both to local customers and out of India, perhaps to one of the many wet markets in Southeast Asia or China.

Several young parakeets rescued
Animals and birds are removed for various reasons, including “black magic”. [File: Photo (C) Wildlife SOS]

“And it’s not just the wealthy who seek out banned animal products, such as mongoose hair brushes and shahtoosh rags (a type of fine wool made from the hair of Tibetan antelopes), found in the river. “said Chemudapati of the WCT. or wild boar or chital (spotted deer), hunted for the villagers to eat for the wedding feast.

The real problem when it comes to fighting the illegal trade is that the authorities are always catching up. “The smugglers, the guys who drive a truck or a jeep, or pull cages from a boat, probably don’t know who the end buyer is,” Akram said. “These networks are very deep and expensive. It’s a multi-million dollar industry that works underground, so you can imagine the level of privacy. They don’t use normal communication, they use the dark web, code terms, and no one really knows who is working for whom.

Akram told Al Jazeera the chain of operatives, including corrupt officials, was “incredibly long”. “A man at the port, a man at the rest area, another at customs…and maybe someone really knows who the customer is. Same model as drugs and weapons, only used for wild animals.

These parallels between the various treacherous companies are particularly relevant in the Kangaroo case. Lucas, Alex and Xavier were the latest victims of a modern smuggling ring whose main engine was North Bengal.

You come from Siliguri next to Bhutan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Assam,” Dutta said, “so they use it as a regular route for animals because you can go in many directions.” We have many agencies in this field who work against this human trafficking, collecting information that the gangs know and trying to uncover potential clients. That’s a focal point. There’s big business here.”

It’s also used for luxury goods like Burmese teak, Dutta said, because once the infrastructure is ready – like the Narcos tunnels between Mexico and the United States, or the shallow boats on the islands of Caribbean used by drug traffickers – you can carry anything. “If you can put a few tons of wood in a truck from Burma, [the northeast states] “Mizoram, Assam, then West Bengal, you can get boxes full of snakes, birds and even monkeys,” he said.

Although India is a signatory to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and passed its own Wildlife Protection Act in the 1970s, from a legal perspective, the situation Is dark.

India does not have a properly drafted law that allows authorities to take action once the animal has crossed national borders. “So if they catch them at a customs port, they can take action, but once they get to India, they officially can’t do anything,” Chemudapati said. Mentioned.

However, a Wildlife Amendment Bill, due to be tabled in Delhi’s parliament later this year, would allow authorities to prosecute suspects on charges of trafficking protected or exotic animals.

This would be a big step forward, says Chemudupati, as current tactics such as amnesty target causal accomplices customers rather than violent and criminal smugglers.

He continued: “Most of the 32,000 presented [in the amnesty] They were probably middle-class, educated, remorseful about their decisions, making mistakes or buying pets on a whim, and caring about their animal’s well-being. But the smugglers watch what happens next.

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