October 10, 2008
Call it a beauty pageant with a difference. A small gathering of tribal youths queue up outside a nondescript hotel in a small town in Visakhapatnam district of Andhra Pradesh holding plastic bags and ventilated clear plastic jars.
What they're selling are huge, velvet-coated palm-sized tarantula spiders, stunningly beautiful, but with a bite that can kill a human.
The youths tell a shaky hand-held camera exactly what they are doing there: trying to sell the spiders to a German tourist camping in the hotel. Each spider will fetch them between Rs 500 and Rs 5,000. A tidy sum for an eight-legged creature that remains relegated to the obscure in India.
Wildlife officials aren't surprised by this footage, shot by a local television reporter last December. For years, foreign nationals have been descending on Indian forests and spiriting away insects.
Two months ago, two Czech nationals were arrested for stealing insects near Darjeeling's Singalila National Park. The duo-Prague-based entomologist Petr Svecha and insect trader Emil Kucera-was recently convicted by a local court.
India is one of the world's 12 megadiverse countries as it harbours a significant chunk of the earth's species. This includes 45,000 plant species, 89,000 animal species, and a staggering four lakh insect species, with several still waiting to be discovered. "Insects are the unknown frontier," shrugs Traffic India Chief Samir Sinha.
Raiding this frontier, like the latter day Indiana Joneses, are dozens of eco-pirates from countries as diverse as Japan, Germany, Russia and the Czech Republic. They come armed with intricate knowledge of local species and know exactly how and where to find them. Many of them feed a thriving global illegal trade in wildlife, third after narcotics and arms."The total trade in wildlife products is worth about $10 billion (approximately Rs 47,000 crore) and if insects make up even a fraction of this, you have a substantial sum," says Tito Joseph of the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI).
The hunting grounds are the Himalayan foothills, the Western Ghats and the Eastern Ghats-three regions with the most biodiversity in India.
A single palm-sized specimen of the poisonous Indian tarantula, found only in the Eastern Ghats of Andhra Pradesh, can fetch more than $1,000 (Rs 47,000) in the international market. Locals say the German 'tourist' was willing to pay upwards of Rs 1 lakh for a still rarer variety of the blue tarantula.
A single specimen of the exquisite Kaiser-e-Hind butterfly costs over $1,500. Other Indian ornamental spiders retail for $35 and $150, depending on their size. Kucera ran a website coleoptera-kucera.com which offered the arachnids for sale but it was shut down after his arrest.
"I am not coming to India to collect spiders, I merely want to study them," says the tourist, waving a German book on the ornamental spiders of the Eastern Ghats. But the statements of the tribals reveal a different tale.
Research has been the common pretext used by most such people including Svecha, who is associated with the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, and Kucera. They now have an international lobby of scientists and researchers seeking their release.A furious round of Internet petitions from foreign researchers, sent straight to the Prime Minister's Office, built pressure on the Indian Government urging it to stop "victimising" the duo.
The fact is that the National Biodiversity Act which came into force in 2002 explicitly prevents the collection of flora and fauna from India and lays down the procedures for collecting specimens. Yet, most scientist poachers continue to skirt the law, often bringing along the tools of the trade.
A group of French students arrested in July last year were caught with ultraviolet lamps and bedsheets. They would light their lamps in the jungle, wait for the moths to come and simply pick them off the bedsheet before inserting them in plastic sample sheets and packing them in suitcases. These poachers feed the appetite of hobbyists, collectors and butterfly museums across the world.
The trade could contribute to the extinction of certain insect species that are already reeling under the loss of habitat. Indian tarantulas, some of which have tiger and leopard-like coat hair and are called 'tiger spiders', live inside dead trees which are frequently chopped down for firewood. They now face a fate similar to that of their doomed namesake of the cat family.
"Indian 'tiger spiders' are being increasingly sought out by celebrities in the West as 'dangerous pets'. Various species of Indian tarantulas are being smuggled out in large numbers to feed the fad abroad," sighs K. Thulsi Rao of the Biodiversity Research Centre, Srisailam, Andhra Pradesh.
South Africa was once the hub of illegal spider trade but its tarantula was added to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species in 1996. ''Since then, the smugglers have shifted their focus to India,'' says Rao.
The WPSI says 25 cases of insect poaching have been registered in India since 1995. But for each poacher caught, there are nine who slip away.
This is because smuggling insects from Indian forests is a seemingly innocuous and risk-free occupation that operates under the smokescreen of ignorance and allurement.
"We are seen as easy targets," says Sinha. One police official asked a wildlife warden why were they fussing with foreigners walking away with minor keeda-makoda (insects)?
The pirates know that customs and airline authorities, who scan baggage at ports of exit, simply wave through bags stuffed with insects and butterflies.
What needs to be done? Wildlife activists say the legislation is in place. The Wildlife Act and the National Biodiversity Act of 2002 covers wildlife protection. Yet, cases of individuals being convicted are extremely rare. Since 1972, the government has managed to get only eight convictions under the Wildlife Act.
Seven of these convictions ranged between four and five years and one for six years, but no violator has been given the maximum prescribed seven-year sentence.
Wildlife activists hail the conviction in June of two Czech nationals found guilty of violating the Wildlife Protection Act 1972 in smuggling out rare insects from West Bengal as historic. Svecha was fined Rs 20,000 while Kucera was sentenced to three years' imprisonment by the court.
The main task, say biodiversity board members, is to sensitise the judiciary and the law enforcement authorities. The board had last month proposed forming a multi-disciplinary team comprising members from the executive, forest, wildlife and fisheries departments for increased and coordinated policing but these proposals are yet to be implemented by the Ministry of Environment and Forests.The members are also pushing to motivate gram panchayats in three environmental regions and provide knowledge to workers at the grassroots level.
Could legitimising the trade where tribals get an equal source of income, be the answer? "Unless we have a benefit sharing mechanism in place we will lose our bio-resources either through legalised looting or through bio-piracy," says V.B. Ramana Murthy, member secretary of the Andhra Pradesh Biodiversity Board.
The jury is still out on this one. "Right now, insect farming should not even be thought of as it could lead to a lot of unforeseen complications regarding our biodiversity," says S.S. Negi, director of the Forest Research Institute of India. Clearly, in the absence of government measures the poachers have the upper hand.