Almost a thousand websites, many of them Indian, are at the centre of a new-age illegal trade in wildlife, promising home delivery of live animals, prized animal parts and rare medicinal plants from across nations through simple internet banking formats.
Finding itself in the midst of this transnational crime ring, India's Wildlife Crime Control Bureau has begun hiring cyber crime specialists to trail online wildlife smugglers. Specialists on hire come to the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB) backed with a Master's in computer science/ applications and specialisation in cyber crime forensics.
A preliminary inquiry by the Bureau's cyber crime specialists has indicated that nearly a thousand websites are advertising sale and delivery of live animals and animal products protected under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 and the global Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).
Based on initial research, a list of 200 websites being used for this illegal trade - most of them are popular shopping websites, online classifieds and free ad posting websites - has been drawn up.
"What makes things truly challenging is that the new age wildlife smuggler or seller is also very tech-savvy, so there's need to seek the services of cyber specialists. These specialists have found some 200 websites where specific instances of sellers marketing some endangered animals have been traced," an officer with the Ministry of Environment & Forests said.
"There are challenges because many of these weblinks are found to be hosted on proxy servers based in other countries. The Wildlife Crime Control Bureau plans to write to these countries to seek assistance in tracing IP addresses and sources of these transactions. Sellers in most cases claim to be Indian or are sourcing the 'product' from Indians. In some cases, we also found fake IP addresses being used. So clearly, this is going to be an uphill task," the officer said.
On sale in this online black market, largely catering to foreign markets, are not just the usual tiger skins, elephants tusks and rhinoceros horns but also the likes of the colourful tokay gecko, giant ladybirds, the Indian star tortoise, hill mynahs, tarantulas, sea horses, sea cucumbers, parakeets; animal parts like pangolin scales, neck feathers of the grey jungle fowl, musk pods, bear bile, mongoose hair, snake skins, insects and rare plants of high medicinal value.
One such ad on a popular free ad posting website from someone based in Dispur is offering a 16-inch long tokay gecko for ` 10 lakh, a reptile increasingly being kept as a pet in some countries.
While the Ministry does not yet have data on the exact magnitude of the illegal wildlife trade in the country (it is in the process of compiling a national database) incidents of illegal trade in endangered species of flora and fauna, detected at exit points by the WCCB, already indicate an upward swing. While 205 cases of smuggling were detected in 2009-10, the number climbed to 245 in 2010-11 and 312 in 2011-12.