Exotic Wildlife

Wild life (live and as products) is being smuggled not only out of, but also in to and via India. It is quite difficult to track down illegal wildlife trade because of various innovative forms of secrecy employed by sellers and buyers on the internet.

Using airlines to illegally transport wildlife happens frequently in India although several known and round-about land routes are used to smuggle. But, we only hear of it when consignments are seized, not when they go undetected so there is no saying as to how many actually reach their destinations and if dead or alive on arrival.

When wildlife being smuggled out is confiscated, the animals are usually sent to a nearby zoo or safari park. However, some star tortoises have been released in the river from which they were captured.

Similarly when animals or birds coming into India are seized, they are sent to live in captivity and are displayed for the rest of their lives like the bald eagle (the national bird of USA) caged at the Alipure zoo in Kolkata.

So much so that in August 2022 the Assam zoo was awaiting permission to showcase all the exotic species in their care such as turtles, Aldabra giant tortoises, blue & hyacinth macaws, silvery marmosets, kangaroo, joeys, wallaby, golden headed lion tamarin, capuchin monkeys, chimpanzees and other primates, as tourist attractions. They already have a giraffe, binturong and few hippopotamus being displayed.

An insignificant number have been returned to the countries of origin to be rewilded or released back into their natural habitat resulting in disastrous global environmental consequences.

In fact, zoos have purchased successfully smuggled in to India animals or birds accompanied with fake papers saying they were captive born within the country.

Many of the successfully smuggled creatures are also sold at exorbitant rates to people to satisfy their growing craze to keep exotic pets. They cost lakhs of rupees and are flaunted on social media like kangaroos seen hopping in videos taken in West Bengal. Unfortunately, there is no law against possession, trade and breeding of exotic animals.

Sent Out

The Directorate of Revenue Intelligence stated that during 2020-21 the most seized living wildlife and products was ivory, turtles and star tortoises. There was a decline in rhino horn, but not of pangolin scales or tiger skins and other body parts.

In fact, 60% of the illegal trade from India comprised of tortoises and freshwater turtles with star tortoises being nearly half the trade. Unsurprisingly in August 2022, a Thai Airways flyer to Bangkok was arrested with 60 star tortoises at Bengaluru’s Kempegowda International Airport. They had been stuffed into a check-in bag but luckily none were found dead. Typically they were handed over to the Bannerghatta zoo.

The Illegal Trade of Marine Species in India 2015-2021 Report by the Wildlife Conservation Society states 120 sea cucumbers, 18 sea fans (a variety of coral), 16 seahorse & pipefish, and 16 seashells, corals & calcareous sponge marine wildlife and 36 ambergris seizures were registered during this 7 year period. They were being smuggled to China, Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Dubai.

In 2017 the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau with the help of some NGOs who did undercover investigations, caught traders of hatha-jodi (claimed to be the root of a plant, but actually the dried penis of a monitor lizard) saying it imparted good luck and mystical powers on the libido. Male lizards having hemi penis are captured from the wild. The area around the living lizard’s penis is burnt so it protrudes. It is then excised with a sharp knife and sun-dried. It resembles joined hands hence called hatha-jodi. In 2021 Traffic-WWF announced that “buying was stealing” with the demand for hatha-jodi having resulted in an increase in poaching and illegal trade in monitor lizards, so much so that the survival of the 4 species found in India was at stake.

Brought In

Following a May 2022 article by BBC entitled “Why are Kangaroos being spotted in India?” BWC wrote to the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change strongly suggesting that all confiscated animals and birds that had been smuggled in to India should not be displayed in safari parks, zoos or elsewhere because if they are, it helps the smugglers in continuing their illegal activities. Such animals and birds should instead be immediately sent back to their country of origin, more so if they are listed under CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) of which India is a signatory since 1976.

As foreign exotic species did not fall within the purview of India’s Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, till its 2022 Amendment which covered CITES, it made it easier to smuggle in, keep and display such animals, reptiles and birds. Although they may enter India illegally via neighbouring countries like Thailand, Malaysia and through porous borders with Bangladesh, Myanmar and Nepal, the species are usually natives of South East Asia, Indonesia, Maldives, Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Africa, Europe, North or South America.

Some animals and birds have been sent back from Chennai airport to the country from which they came, but they are few and far between.

There was an attempt in October 2019 to smuggle 7 healthy reptiles (1 green tree python, 1 scrub python and 5 endangered species of lizards) from Malaysia into India. The Indian Customs officials at Chennai discovered them with two passengers and decided to send the reptiles back to Kuala Lumpur. But in October 2022 the Mumbai Air Cargo Complex Customs cleared a big consignment from Malaysia. The DRI took the number of the vehicle and intercepted it on Vile Parle flyover. They found 665 (548 alive and 117 dead) pythons, lizards, turtles and iguanas smuggled in 13 cartons. The consignment also consisted of 16 cartons of ornamental fish.

In January 2020 Indian Customs at Chennai arrested 3 persons with 2 marmosets, 3 rodents (1 dead), 2 squirrels and 12 iguanas, and seized and returned them to Bangkok.

In August 2022 a passenger who had flown to Bangkok and returned with live animals was intercepted by Customs officials at Chennai airport. The officials decided to deport back to Bangkok the 15 King snakes, 5 Ball pythons, 2 Aldabra tortoises and 1 De Brazza monkey. Two months later in October 2022 Chennai Customs’ officials arrested a passenger from Bangkok for bringing 5 Common-spotted Cuscus in his check-in baggage, and deported the animals to Thailand. Interestingly these animals are native to New Guinea so must have been transported to India via Thailand.

Earlier in 2019, 300 iguanas stuffed in small boxes with snakes packed in small coke bottles inside a suitcase were found at Trichy airport in Tamil Nadu. The consignment included 20 Malaysian tortoises, various spiders and scorpions. Zebras, African grey parrots and even live leopard cubs have been found. Other airport seizures in recent years have included Aldabra tortoises from Seychelles, tamarins (small primates) from the Amazon and hyacinth macaws from Central America.

In 2020, 5 cages siamangs (apes native to South East Asia) were also found being transported in Assam in boxes packed with other wild life such as a kangaroo, 6 hyacinth macaws, 2 capuchin monkeys form South America and 3 Aldabra giant tortoises. The sad part is that most animals are found either dead or gravely injured.

In July 2021 a postal parcel received at Chennai airport from Poland was found to have vials crawling with 107 live tarantulas native to South and Central America.

In March 2024 Thailand’s Customs arrested 6 Indians at Bangkok’s Suvarnabumi international airport attempting to fly out to Mumbai with a red panda and snakes, parrots and monitor lizards among the 87 animals seized. The suspects face upto 10 years in prison. BBC reported “Thailand is a major transit hub for wildlife smugglers. The animals are usually sold in China and Vietnam, but India has become a growing market.”

Reintroducing in the Wild Not Advisable

In May 2022 consignments consisting of as many as 400 exotic animals in cages were seized on the Myanmar border in Mizoram. They included three-toed sloths, beavers, snakes, rare lizards, and pottos (primates). 

In November 2022 the Central Forest Division, Manipur, arrested a person involved in smuggling over 80 exotic reptiles including more than 70 iguanas, 8 monitor lizards, and 6 mangrove snakes native to America, Argentina, Indonesia and Malaysia. The reptiles were shifted by road to the Greens Zoological Rescue and Rehabilitation Kingdom at Jamnagar. Interestingly, this Reliance Industries Ltd’s zoo contains an Exotica Island with space allocated for 28 different foreign species having a minimum of 6 animals each, was approved of by the Central Zoo Authority in 2019.

It is but obvious that wildlife trafficking has become a big international racket involving poachers, smugglers, traders and buyers. The crooks shifted to dealing in foreign species since it was easier to smuggle them into India as compared to poaching and smuggling India’s wildlife out of the country.

Some may think why not introduce the confiscated exotic animals into the wild here in India just like the eight wild-caught Cheetahs from Namibia that were introduced by the government in Kuno National Park in September 2022. (That the focus was on their arrival and release with no consideration for the prey – hundreds of spotted deer also introduced in the area for them to kill and eat – is another sad story.)

Wildlife needs to live in their native habitat to flourish and benefit the ecosystem. It is unadvisable to introduce seized wildlife in our forests or in zoos to attract visitors.

They can become an invasive species like the nocturnal Giant African snails that extensively damage crops, plants, even concrete structures, and have spread like wild fire from Kerala to Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Maharashtra.

Under the voluntary disclosure scheme announced in June 2020 by the Ministry of Environment, Forest & Climate Change (Government of India) 32,645 Indians declared being in possession of exotic live species such as critically endangered lemurs, iguanas, macaws and kangaroos.

The craze for exotic creatures has given rise to fraudsters. For example, in October 2022 a man made an outstation deal to purchase 2 macaws for Rs 2.40 lakh and gave an online advance of Rs 1 lakh. Weeks later when he received no birds and the man who was paid stopped answering his calls he realised he had been cheated.

For those who do not care about the cruelty aspects of keeping these foreign exotic animals and birds as pets, let it be known that the creatures carry the risk of zoonotic disease outbreaks.

If there is no demand for exotic wildlife the illegal trafficking will end.

Trafficking of Wildlife Explained

Anusha Krishnan has explained on india.mongabay.com why is India a major hub for wildlife trafficking:

“India is not only a major source, but also a transit and a destination country for trafficked wildlife and wildlife products.

“International wildlife trafficking into and out of India mainly occurs through either the long international border along the Northeast or through airports. Chennai and Mumbai are major hubs for this illegal activity.


“Wildlife trafficking in India is driven by the demand for raw material like red sandalwood, ivory and animal parts – particularly rhinoceros horn and tiger parts – for traditional medicine, demand for meat, and the attraction towards exotic pets.

“When exotic live animals that have been smuggled into India are seized, they are sent to rescue centres or sanctuaries. Several international and national governmental organisations are teaming up to develop tools and networks that counter wildlife trafficking.”

However, India began regulating captive breeding of exotic animals through a license system which is very likely to be misused by powerful, rich hobbyists cum breeders, and by private zoos. Exotic species protected under CITES and listed in Appendix 1 of Schedule IV of the Wildlife Protection Act, 2022 can obtain a licence under the Breeders of Species Licence Rules, 2023 for Rs 25,000/-.

The Saga of African Cheetahs in India

Prior to August 2022, at Kuno National Park (KNP) in Madhya Pradesh, while awaiting cheetahs from Africa, goats were placed in cages as live bait for the leopards lurking in the special enclosures built for these cheetahs, but the leopards were not touching the goats, thus making it difficult to catch and release the leopards outside the area allocated for the cheetahs. However, a week later India rejected the captive-bred cheetahs because the Dean of the Wildlife Institute of India on is visit to Namibia found 3 of the 8 cheetahs that had been kept in quarantine abroad ready for translocation to India were not able to catch wild prey. Therefore, only wild-caught cheetahs would be acceptable and to obtain them approval from CITES would be required.

Subsequent news reports stated that all 8 cheetahs that would arrive for release by the Prime Minister on 17 September 2022 had been wild-caught and not captive bred.

However, just before this announcement, the Palpur royal family descendants filed a petition in the Sessions court to reclaim their ancestral properties consisting of a fortress known as Palpur Garhi and their jagir land located on the banks of the Kuno river which were vacated when Kuno was declared a national park in 1981. They stated that it was meant for Gir lions which were not brought there, and not for cheetahs.

Nevertheless, after 7 decades of extinction, the Government of India reintroduced cheetahs in India. A customised jumbo jet carrying 5 female and 3 male wild cheetahs from Namibia landed in Gwalior on 17 September 2022 morning from where they were transported via helicopters to Kuno-Palpur. It is unfortunate that 250 spotted deer were also introduced as prey for the cheetahs. In other words these deer were live bait because they were to be kept in a cordoned off area along with the cheetahs and there was absolutely no chance whatsoever of escape.

Of the 8 cheetahs kept in the hunting enclosures, in January 2023 one was unable to adapt and began showing symptoms of dehydration and renal disease. Vets from Bhopal rushed there to administer fluids. However, she eventually died. Sometime later in March 2023 another cheetah delivered 4 cubs, 3 of which died due to weakness and dehydration in May 2023 making it 6 deaths in two months.

Further, BWC was shocked to learn that another 12 cheetahs arrived from South Africa at KNP and that every year for 10 years another 12 would be added. Also a Cheetah Safari would be launched in February or March 2023 to generate money from tourists.

After 1 of these 12 cheetahs suddenly dropped dead - 10% (2 of 20) were already dead by April 2023, the MP Forest Department asked the Centre for an “alternative site” for the cheetahs – other wildlife sanctuaries like Nauradehi, Gandhisagar in MP and Bhainsrorgarh and Shahgarh Bulge in Jaisalmer Rajasthan, were been considered to release cheetahs after the monsoon. Various excuses have been given like the first cheetah was captive bred, they are being fed mutton and carabeef instead of wild life as some are unable to hunt, and the second cheetah had been kept in captivity for months. Meanwhile, in May 2023 the third cheetah, a female from the South African lot died, said to have been killed in a fight with two male cheetahs from the Namabian lot. So fatalities rose to 15%.

In December 2023 one of the Namibian cheetahs delivered 3 cubs. The father of the cubs had earlier wandered off to Rajasthan from where he was brought back after being tranquilised.

It was also revealed that the cheetah’s favourite prey is spotted deer (cheetal), sambar deer, wild boar, peafowl, rabbits and nilgai. In other words all these species were released in their enclosure for the cheetahs to hunt and eat.

To sum up with regard to live bait, when a wild animal kills in nature, the prey has a fair chance of survival by fleeing as fast as it can. But, when the prey is put down as live bait, it is downright cruel and unethical.

In mid-November 2022 the 3rd male cheetah was released in the canned hunting boma (Swahili word for livestock enclosure) where the earlier released 2 cheetahs had already cornered and killed deer. The remaining 5 females could not be released from their quarantine pen then because a leopard that was still lurking inside could not be trapped/snared. Let us not forget that leopards are known to attack adult cheetahs and that there are 9 leopards per 100 square kms in KNP so in order to keep them away from the cheetahs, they are bound to be frequently trapped with live bait. Surprisingly, in March 2023 after 20 African cheetahs had already been introduced at KNP, the Government began re-examining the relocation of some Gir lions.

BWC strongly feels the Memorandum of Understanding and Cooperation on the Reintroduction of Cheetahs to India between India and South Africa needs to be suspended. In addition to the deaths there are worrisome reports that some cheetahs had escaped and had to be tranquillised and returned to KNP. In June 2023 there was a bloody territorial fight between the Namibian and South African cheetahs and two of the latter had to be taken away for medical aid.

When in July 2023 more South African cheetahs died, the total number of deaths rose to 8 and counting... They died between 27 March and 14 July... plus 2 were missing and 1 got maggots under its tracking collar.

Within days a bench of Justices of the Supreme Court took cognizance of the 8 cheetah deaths in KNP and said it does not present a good picture and asked the Centre not to make it a prestige issue and explore the possibility of shifting the animals to different sanctuaries. After another Cheetah dropped dead (making it a total of 9 deaths at 30% in early August 2023) the South African and Namibian experts wrote to the SC that their advice had been ignored by the steering committee of the project in India. Meanwhile the Cheetahs kept struggling with humidity and weather conditions at KNP. In October 2023 it was revealed that at least 3 of the 9 Cheetah deaths were attributed to infection from radio collars fitted to monitor them.

In January 2024 another Namibian male cheetah suddenly dropped dead due to unknown reasons. Thus in the last 10 months since March 2023, 10 cheetahs died and only 13 of the translocated ones were left. Meanwhile another 4 cubs were born to the same cheetah whose 1 cub had survived in 2023.

Within 48 hours of 5 cheetah cubs being born in March 2024 to a South African cheetah, a proposal to expand the KNP was submitted. These births increase the overall number of animals, but logically they cannot be balanced against the adult deaths that have occurred.

Hippos from Colombia

Colombia does not want hundreds of hippopotamuses that are breeding fast. They are the descendants of the late drug lord Pablo Escobar’s pet hippos and pose a potential problem for the biodiversity. Colombia’s government had declared them a toxic invasive species so instead of exterminating them, they will be sent India and Mexico to begin with. The Greens Zoological Rescue & Rehabilitation Kingdom in Gujarat will be receiving 60 hippos. The Philippines, Ecuador and Botswana have also expressed their willingness to relocate them.

However in November 2023 it was reported that if Colombia did not surgically sterilize the hippos, which they had begun doing beginning with 2 adult females and 2 juvenile males, then their population could grow to 1,000 by 2035.

Page last updated on 12/03/24