Kolkata, India–Lucas did not make it, but his friends Alex and Xavier did. They are slowly being nursed back to health with a diet of watermelons, bananas, wild grass and fresh water. Alex, Xavier and the deceased Lucas are kangaroos that were found roaming near woodlands in east India, 5,000 miles away from Australia, the land from which their species hails. Their case has left India dumbfounded.
Officials at North Bengal Safari Park, where Alex and Xavier are being looked after, said Lucas died from dehydration and malnutrition the day after he was rescued. The survivors, they confirmed this week, will move to a zoo in Kolkata when they are fit enough, and perhaps even home one day, offering a happy ending to a sorry tale which began last month.
Forestry department officers in the upper reaches of the state of West Bengal were alerted one night in April to a pair of the marsupials bouncing along a highway near the Gajoldoba forest, on the main route to the provincial hub town of Siliguri. Bemused drivers pulled up and took phone videos, in clips that have since gone viral, chattering away excitedly in Bengali and trying to feed the kangaroos, as they waited for rangers to rescue, and name, the hungry, confused animals.
On Friday, three kangaroo calves were rescued from parts of #WestBengaland another baby kangaroo was found dead on the same night.
The rescued joeys have been rehabilitated in North Bengal Safari Park, whereas the investigation is ongoing.pic.twitter.com/rIimKfaxX5
— The Weather Channel India (@weatherindia) April 4, 2022
Hari Krishnan, the divisional forest officer in the Baikunthapur jurisdiction, not far from the Sikkim state border and the Kingdom of Bhutan, eventually turned up with his team and took Alex and Xavier into care. “The kangaroos were at the side of the road, in a very distressed state,” said Krishnan. “We didn’t know what to do as we’d never seen one before in real life, not even at the zoo. We were very wary of handling them or traumatising them.”
The next morning, Lucas, and the remains of a baby kangaroo, or a joey, were found by another ranger team near a forest in Dabgram, 27 kilometers (17 miles) away. Three weeks earlier, two men from Hyderabad were arrested trying to smuggle a kangaroo into West Bengal’s Alipurduar district, after a late-night traffic stop. Five kangaroos – alive and dead – in two months, found in North Bengal, meant these were no escapees from zoos, but that illegal wildlife trafficking gangs had found a new commodity.
“We are investigating this incredible case, and there is much that is confusing,” Range Officer Sanjay Dutta, of the Belakoba district, told Al Jazeera. “But one of our theories is that the animals were being transported to Switzerland, to be used in testing for the pharmaceuticals and cosmetic industry. We can’t say any more at this stage.”
He added, “We have never seen a case involving kangaroos before. It was like a miracle when we saw them, like an impossibility, that these Australian creatures could be roaming in India. We couldn’t believe our eyes. We don’t even have a schedule for them,” referring to classifications of protection under India’s Wildlife Protection Act where tigers, for instance, are schedule 1.
Dutta’s team was the one that found Lucas and the dead joey. “The kangaroos are all young,” he said. “And there is no real reason for them to be in India unless they have been brought in by humans and transport machines. These kangaroos did not hop from Australia to India.”
‘Kangaroos are a first’
While investigations continue into this extraordinary crime, the sight of the distressed animals on social media and TV channels in India has unsurprisingly prompted outrage. But less predictably, it has also shone a spotlight on just how pernicious the animal smuggling trade in India has become.
The illegal wildlife industry is worth an estimated $20bn – $23bn worldwide, but nation-by-nation estimates are difficult to come by, due to the intrinsically clandestine nature of such an enterprise. But two reports since 2020, by India Spend and the Wildlife Conservation Society show exotic pet ownership is very common in India, and also that the illegal wildlife trade, in general, is thriving. A government amnesty announced in mid-2020 saw more than 32,000 Indians coming forward to confess ownership of exotic or endangered pets, from macaws and star tortoises, to lemurs and gibbons.
“Kangaroos are a first,” said Samyukta Chemudupati, head of forensics at the Wildlife Conservation Trust (WCT), in Mumbai. “But we have seen kookaburras, foxes, snakes of all varieties, spiders, large cats and many other non-indigenous animals being smuggled to meet a hefty demand across India, and one of the main reasons is to keep wild animals as pets.
“Every town and city in India has a pet store or fixer who either sells exotic creatures or can procure them somehow. If you want to order a cockatoo, an African gray parrot, a foreign snake, whatever – they can be yours for the right price. It’s become like an over-the-counter drug.”
While forestry officers may believe the kangaroo case is due to a black market for animals to experiment on, there are myriad reasons why the Indian illegal animal trade exists: exotic pets, traditional medicine – especially tiger parts and pangolins destined for China and East Asian clients – meat, trophies, and even “black magic”.
“We often get notices from the police and forestry department about a particular problem,” said Chemudupati. “For instance, around Diwali and other festivals, there’s a burgeoning trade in illegal owls, because there’s this belief in some circles that sacrificing them will bring wealth to your home.”
‘Same model as for drugs’
Wasim Akram, deputy director of special projects at Wildlife SOS, a conservation group based in New Delhi, said there are two types of trafficking – one is for animal parts ranging from tiger paws and ivory to internal organs of exotic species, and the other is live animals. These are smuggled for both domestic clients and for outside India, perhaps for one of the many wet markets of Southeast Asia or China.
And it is not just the rich seeking outlawed animal products such as mongoose-hair brushes and shahtoosh shawls (a fine type of wool made from the hair of the Tibetan antelope). “We get front-line stories about a tiger’s head being cut off and found in a river,” said WCT’s Chemudapati. “Or a leopard’s body with its paws missing, or a wild boar or chital (spotted deer) hunted so that villagers can eat it for a marriage feast.”
When it comes to battling the illicit trade, the main problem is that the authorities are always playing catch-up. “The smugglers, the guys driving a truck or jeep, or pulling cages off a boat, are unlikely to know who the end buyer is,” Akram pointed out. “These networks are very deep, and expensive. It’s a multimillion-dollar industry that is running underground, so you can imagine the levels of secrecy. They do not use normal communications, they use the darknet, coded terms and no one really knows who’s working for whom.”
The chain of middlemen, including corrupt officials, is “incredibly long”, Akram told Al Jazeera. “Some guy at the port, some guy at the truck stop, some other guy in customs… and maybe only one of them actually knows who the client is. It’s the same model as for drugs and guns, it’s just being used for wild animals.”
Those parallels between various nefarious enterprises are especially applicable to the kangaroo case. Lucas, Alex and Xavier were just the latest victims of a modern smuggling network that has North Bengal as a major cog.
“From Siliguri, you are next to Bhutan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Assam”, said Dutta, adding, “That is why they use it as such a regular route for animals, as you can go in many directions. We have many agencies working against such trafficking in this area, gathering intelligence, knowing the gangs and trying to discover potential clients. It’s a focal point. It is big business here.”
It is also used for luxury raw materials, like Burmese teak timber, said Dutta, as once the infrastructure is in place – like the narcos’ tunnels between Mexico and USA or the skiff shallows off Caribbean islands used by drug runners – you can traffic anything . “If you can fit a few tonnes of wood into a lorry coming from Burma into [the northeast states] Mizoram, Assam then West Bengal, you can take a few crates of snakes and birds and even monkeys back”, he said.
From a legal standpoint, the situation is extremely murky, despite India being a signatory to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and enacting its own wildlife protection act in the 1970s.
India still does not have a properly written law that allows officers to take action once the animal enters national boundaries. “So if they catch them at a customs port they can take action, but once it is in India itself there is little they can officially do,” Chemudapati said.
However, a bill in the Delhi parliament looking to amend wildlife laws, tabled for later this year, would allow authorities to prosecute suspects for the specific crime of smuggling protected or exotic animals.
That would be a big leap forward, says Chemudupati, because current tactics such as amnesties skew towards the causally complicit clients, rather than violent, criminal smugglers.
She continued: “Many of the 32,000 who came forward [in the amnesty] were likely to be middle class, educated types who may regret their decisions or have made mistakes or bought pets on a whim, and actually care about the welfare of their animals. But the smugglers are watching to see what happens next.”