Although the Indian culture is generally gentle towards flora and fauna of the country, certain ritualistic practices and traditional beliefs are not. ‘Siyar singhi’ (‘jackal horn’) is a part extracted from a golden jackal’s skull and used as a talisman to satiate superstitious beliefs. The Wildlife Crime Control Bureau of India seized over 370 such talismans between 2013 and 2019. Owls are trapped and illegally traded in India during Diwali and Laxmi Puja to be sacrificed to appease the deities for tantric rituals and ceremonies, endangering the survival of the owl species. People also extensively poach turtles and tortoises for their meat in several parts of the country or capture them for the illegal pet trade.
While the world today is busy saving tigers, lions, elephants, and other ‘charismatic species’ or those on the verge of vanishing, many other species are silently disappearing. These so-called ‘non-charismatic’ species are either unappealing to the masses or relatively abundant in numbers, allowing the conservation world to forget about them for the time being. India has its own share of such animals, like golden jackals, monitor lizards, turtles and tortoises, owls, otters, mongooses, and others that are illegally hunted in the country to feed the black market trade for various products. Yet, conservation programs targeted at protecting them are rare.
Although the Indian culture is generally gentle towards flora and fauna of the country, certain ritualistic practices and traditional beliefs are not. For example, a 2020 study published in the Journal of Threatened Taxa revealed the shocking truth about India’s flourishing illegal trade of golden jackal body parts. Despite being legally protected in the country, poachers kill these animals for their heads, tails, skins, etc., for traditional medicine and cultural practices. While digging up information on golden jackal poaching, the researchers discovered advertisements on social media sites and online retail outlets selling the ‘siyar singhi‘ (‘jackal horn’ in English). It is a part extracted from a golden jackal’s skull and used as a talisman to satiate superstitious beliefs. The Wildlife Crime Control Bureau of India seized over 370 such talismans between 2013 and 2019.
It is not just the golden jackal alone that suffers such a fate. The monitor lizard is another animal exploited for traditional medicines and superstitions in India. The male genitalia of this lizard is extracted from a live trapped-and-caught animal in the cruellest way possible. The body part is then sold as ‘hatha jodi,’ a name also shared by a valued rare medicinal plant, making it easy to trade without detection by law enforcement agencies.
Come Diwali and Laxmi Puja, and thousands of owls also disappear from the nation to land up on the sacrificial altar of some occult practitioner. Owls are trapped and illegally traded in India during these festivals to be sacrificed to appease the deities for tantric rituals and ceremonies, endangering the survival of the owl species.
But it is not just superstitions that consume many of these less famous species in India. Sometimes, a seemingly harmless product like a paintbrush also causes the death of hundreds of thousands of animals. Mongoose hair paintbrushes are highly sought-after by painters, many of whom are oblivious of the bloodshed needed to produce them. Nearly 50 mongooses are trapped and beaten to death to produce one kilogram of mongoose hair to manufacture paintbrushes. Yet, lack of awareness and high demand for such items fuel the illegal trade.
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The demand for exotic meat is another factor leading to the death of many of the country’s lesser-known species. For example, some communities in parts of northwestern India hunt the spiny-tailed lizard for its meat which is considered a delicacy. People also extensively poach turtles and tortoises for their meat in several parts of the country or capture them for the illegal pet trade. Over one lakh tortoises and freshwater turtles were illegally traded in India between 2009 and 2019, revealing the magnitude of the problem.
All these disappearing animals play a vital role in the ecosystem. Local extinctions and population declines of such species are bound to negatively impact ecosystem health which is directly related to the health and well-being of all species, including us. However, hardly any research is conducted to monitor populations of such species and design programs to protect them from poaching or other threats.
Illegal wildlife trade also brings wildlife or their body parts to peoples’ homes. While this is definitely not good for the species traded, it might also prove lethal to people and may even eradicate human populations. Such proximity to wild animals might expose humans or their domestic/pet animals to various new pathogens borne by wild animals and give birth to zoonotic diseases that have no current cure. Many epidemics and pandemics like Ebola, SARS, COVID-19, MERS, HIV, Lyme disease, etc., are examples of such zoonotic diseases.
So, while the authorities in charge need to change their attitude towards these species and focus on their conservation, we, the people, also have a role to play. Here is how every individual can contribute to the protection of species from illegal wildlife trade:
- Never use or possess any protected species or products derived from such species.
- Ask before buying any product you suspect might be related to illegal wildlife trade.
- Report illegal wildlife trade (like advertisements for items related to such trade on social media or online retail platforms, or offline marketplaces) to the concerned authorities
- Create awareness in society about the existence of the illegal wildlife trade and why it must be discouraged.
- Learn about the protected species of India and the laws protecting them from exploitation.
- Volunteer or donate to organizations working to curb such illegal trade.
Thus, by taking action against illegal wildlife trade and paving the way for its eradication, we would save not just species and ecosystems needed for our long-term well-being but also protect ourselves from deadly diseases. And we can all contribute to ending this trade by being aware, alert, and active.
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About the author
Dr. Oishimaya Sen Nag is a wildlife conservation writer and editor at World Atlas, Canada. She has written several articles on issues related to wildlife conservation and interviewed renowned wildlife conservationists, wildlife biologists, and forest department officials working to protect wildlife across the world.