Illicit Wildlife Trade: Adding fuel to the Pandemic Fire

Madhubanti Sadhya, Teaching Associate, CEERA-NLSIU

Milind Rajratnam, Intern, CEERA-NLSIU


“To prevent future outbreaks, countries need to conserve wild habitats, promote sustainable agriculture, strengthen food safety standards, monitor and regulate food markets, invest in technology to identify risks, and curb the illegal trade in wildlife,”

–           António Guterres, U.N. Secretary-General


On 11th March 2020, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 outbreak as a pandemic due to the nature and severity of its spread. Till now, the novel coronavirus has affected more than 200 countries and territories around the world with a total of 1,36,99,621 confirmed cases and a death toll of 5,86,974 deaths (as on 16th July 2020).

Starting from a wet market in Wuhan, the novel corona virus has spread all over the world. The zoonotic origin of the novel corona virus has been substantiated by the WHO-China Joint Mission Report on COVID-19. The report notes that, even though the intermediate host of the novel corona virus has not been identified yet, bats appear to be its reservoir as the genome sequence of novel corona virus (SARS-CoV-2) is 96% identical to bat corona virus strain (BatCov RaTG13), and 91% similar to Pangolin-CoV.

Zoonotic diseases or zoonoses are triggered by harmful germs (like bacteria, viruses, etc.) that are transferred naturally between vertebrate animals and humans. The ongoing pandemic has highlighted a number of other zoonoses that have posed a significant threat to human health in the past few decades. Many of these diseases strongly indicate the correlation between disease transmission and wildlife trade, as in most of them the poorly regulated and unsanitary wildlife markets have provided a suitable environment for the growth and transmission of these diseases among other species.

This blog post elaborates on the linkage between the spread of zoonoses and wildlife trade, and analyzes the international response to illicit wildlife trade and the existing legal framework in India concerning it.

The paradigm of emerging zoonotic diseases:

According to the International Health Regulations (2005), a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (hereinafter “PHEIC”) is an extraordinary event that requires an internationally coordinated response and is determined to pose a public health risk to other nations of the world through the international spread of disease. In the past few decades, most of the PHEIC declarations of the WHO were related to zoonotic viruses. The World Organization for Animal Health has estimated that about 60 percent of all identified infectious diseases are zoonotic and around 75 percent of the ‘new’ human pathogens that were detected in the last 25 years have originated in animals.

In March 2020, the Royal Society of London released a study cross-referencing 142 zoonotic viruses with the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. The study revealed that rodents, bats, primates and some mammalian species are the source of most of the zoonotic viruses. It is worth mentioning that the novel corona virus is not the first global pandemic to have a zoonotic origin, as in the past few decades, the worst global pandemics have all been zoonotic in origin, including the Great Manchurian Plague (1910), Risk Valley Fever (1931), SARS (2003),Swine flu (2009) and MERS (2012).With regard to the spread of zoonoses, a number of studies indicate that wildlife trade plays a crucial role in intensifying the spread of zoonoses by increasing the likelihood of virus transmission between hosts that might not interact in nature.

A recent report by the U.N. Environment Program suggests that if nations do not take appropriate actions to deter zoonoses, then pandemics like COVID-19 would become more common and increasingly prevalent. This growing trend in zoonotic diseases is driven by the deterioration of our natural environment due to wildlife exploitation, climate change, land degradation, resource extraction and other stresses. The report pointed out that in the past two decades, zoonotic diseases have incurred economic losses of more than $100 billion, excluding the cost of COVID-19. This report recommends “One Health approach” (uniting veterinary, public health and environmental expertise) as the ideal approach to prevent potential zoonotic disease pandemics.


International Response to Illicit Wildlife Trade:

Over the past few decades, the illicit wildlife trade has increased manifold and has emerged as a form of Organized Transnational Crime which is posing a threat not only to the existence of many wildlife species but also to economic stability and human beings at large. According to the United Nations Office on Drug and Crime (hereinafter “UNODC”), illicit wildlife trade is the fourth largest illegal trade worldwide following arms, drugs and human trafficking, and is estimated to generate more than $20 billion annually.

In order to regulate it, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (hereinafter “CITES”) came into force in the year 1975 and has been ratified by 183 nations to date. CITES is a multilateral treaty regulating international trade in more than 36,000 species of plants and animals that may be endangered by trade. It places a mutual responsibility on the parties involved in a trade agreement for the sustainable management of wildlife and the prevention of illegal trade. Although large, CITES protects only a fraction of the 8.7 million species of plants and animals on Earth and does not regulate trade in a number of animals that are known to pose health risks to humans, e.g., Horseshoe bat, which is considered to be a potential reservoir of SARS-CoV and possible host of the novel corona virus, is not listed under CITES.

In support of the international response to illicit wildlife trade, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 2136 (2014)at its 7107th meeting. This resolution recognizes the illicit trade in wildlife as a threat to international peace and security, and recalls the connection between the illicit trade in wildlife and the proliferation of arms trafficking as one of the key factors responsible for aggravating conflicts in the Great Lakes region of Africa.

Furthermore, the UNODC has also initiated its Global Programme for Combating Wildlife and Forest Crime in May 2014. This programme includes collaborating with wildlife law enforcement community to ensure that illicit wildlife trade, wildlife crimes and other similar activities are treated as serious transnational organized crimes. It also plays a crucial role in the implementation of specific technical assistance programs aimed at strengthening the capacity of Member States to investigate, adjudicate, prosecute and prevent crimes against protected wildlife species.

In addition, with the aim of preventing and combating illicit wildlife trade and moving forward with the same vision, the representatives from the UNODC, the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL), the World Customs Organization (WCO), the World Bank and the CITES Secretariat held their first-ever joint meeting in Vienna in the year 2009. This has resulted in the formation of the International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime (ICCWC) in 2010. The ICCWC’s aim is to reinforce criminal justice systems and to provide coordinated assistance at regional, national and international level in the fight against forest and wildlife crimes in order to ensure that the perpetrators of severe wildlife crimes will face a coordinated and formidable response.


Status Quo in India vis-à-vis Illicit Wildlife Trade and Disease Prevention:

In India, illicit wildlife trade includes a wide range of products ranging from Elephant tusks to Mongoose hair, and a substantial part of this trade does not have a direct demand in India but is intended for the International market. Constant efforts have been made by both the Indian legislature and the judiciary to eliminate illicit trade in wildlife. In this respect, Article 48A of the Constitution of India imposes an obligation on the State to secure and improve the environment and to protect the forest and wildlife of the country. Also, Article 51A(g) places a Fundamental Duty on every Indian citizen to have compassion for living creatures and to preserve and improve the environment.

Apart from this, India has a special legislation, i.e. the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 (hereinafter “Act”), for the protection of endangered species and for the regulation of illegal trade in wildlife. The Act contains 6 schedules which provide for varying degrees of protection to different species on the basis of their vulnerability. Chapter V of the Act deals with the trade in wildlife as well as the prohibition of poaching, and declares that all the wild animals within the Indian territory are the property of the Government of India. Moreover, Chapter VI puts forth the penalties for the violation of the provisions of the Act and states that offences against animals listed under Schedule I and Schedule II of the act are to be considered as cognizable and non-bailable offences, in particular illicit trade in wildlife.

The 2006 amendment to the Act brought about the establishment of the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (hereinafter “WCCB”) by the Government of India on 6th June 2007. The WCCB was constituted to gather and compile information relating to organized wildlife crime activities and to propagate it to the State and other law enforcement authorities for the effective intervention in order to arrest the perpetrators. It also coordinates, among other things, with various agencies for the effective implementation of the provisions of the Act.

India became a party to CITES in 1976 and the provisions of CITES are implemented in India by the Foreign Trade (Development and Regulation) Act, 1992 (hereinafter “FTA”), the Customs Act, 1962, and the Government of India’s Foreign Trade Policy. Under the Customs Act, 1962, the customs department is tasked with the prevention of illicit trade, including wildlife products. The WCCB’s Regional Deputy Directors are appointed as CITES Assistant Management Authorities and they are empowered to issue CITES import, export, and re-export permits to control the international trade in wildlife species listed in the CITES. They also accompany the Customs Department in the pre/post shipment analysis of goods that are expected to be imported/ exported from India.

Moreover, by virtue of Section 5 of the FTA, the Ministry of Commerce and Industry periodically formulates and declares India’s Foreign Trade Policy which includes the details about the goods and products which are permitted/prohibited for the purpose of export/import. As to the wildlife species and their products, the policy is formulated in conjunction with the CITES Management Authority in India and is enforced through the Customs Act, 1962. Section 3(3) of the FTA specifies that all the items (including wildlife species) protected by the Import & Export Policy are considered to fall within the scope of Section 11 of the Customs Act, 1962. Consequently, all instances of infringement of the Import-Export Policy in general, and CITES in particular, constitute an offence under the Customs Act and are dealt with by the Customs authorities.

India holds the largest livestock population in the world and it annually produces around 5.3 million MT of meat. The primary legislations dealing with the Indian meat exports is the Export (Quality Control and Inspection) Act, 1963 and the Indian Government has set requirements for meat exports that include standards for the processing plants, abattoirs and different meat products. The Ministry of Commerce and Industry, the Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority (APEDA), Food Safety and Standards Authority of India and the Export Inspection Council are entrusted with the task of registration and licensing of abattoirs and meat processing plants. For the purposes of registration and licensing, a Committee of Experts conducts the inspection of meat processing plants in accordance with the standards laid down in the Meat and Meat Products Order, 1973, and during the inspection, the focus remains on the hygiene and sanitary conditions maintained by the plants, infrastructure staff hygiene, ante-mortem and post-mortem inspections, etc.

According to the current Import and Export Policy, before the export of meat, every consignment is subjected to mandatory microbiological and other tests, after which the Government veterinarian issues a comprehensive Animal Health certificate. This certificate states that the meat has be obtained from healthy livestock, free from contagious and infectious diseases. The certificate further states that the livestock were subjected to ante-mortem inspection followed by post-mortem inspection and the meat is safe for human consumption.

Additionally, with regard to the containment of contagious diseases that may originate from trade in wildlife, the Central Government is authorized under the Livestock Importation Act, 1898 to control or prohibit the importation of any livestock that may be liable to be infected by any contagious or infectious disease into India. For the purposes of the said Act, the Central Government has notified parrots, canaries, finches and poultry as livestock. In Chennai, Mumbai, Kolkata and Delhi, the Ministry of Agriculture & Farmers’ Welfare has appointed Animal Quarantine Officers for the health verification of animals before and after export/import, and to issue Quarantine Clearance Certificates. If necessary, the Animal Quarantine Officer may cause any animal (to be imported/exported) for observation at a quarantine station for the prevention of entry of such diseased animals.

Although India is a party to the CITES, it failed to effectively implement the commitments required by the said convention, as the Wildlife Protection Act focusses mainly on the protection of indigenous species and the list of protected species contained therein is largely not in compliance with that of CITES. India is also a member of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and according to the IUCN Red List, 2018, India is home to more than 683 wildlife species belonging to vulnerable, endangered and critically endangered categories, but the Wildlife Protection Act fails to protect most of the species under the IUCN list. This lack of consistency between the Wildlife Protection Act and the international obligations create many loopholes that are often exploited by those involved in the illicit wildlife trade.

According to the latest report by TRAFFIC (a non-governmental organization working globally on trade in wildlife), notwithstanding concerted interventions by the law enforcement agencies, the incidents of wildlife poaching for their trade has increased significantly during the lockdown period. The report indicates that 88 cases of poaching were reported in open source media during the lockdown period, which is considerably higher than the 35 cases of poaching reported during the pre-lockdown period.


In light of the ongoing pandemic and its ties with the illicit wildlife trade, it is high time to take stern measures against the illegal trade in wildlife so that potential pandemics of similar magnitude can be prevented. In order to significantly mitigate the risk of another zoonotic disease pandemic, we need to take concerted action at a scale comparable to the danger posed by another pandemic. Options for potential action may include enhancing the surveillance of emerging zoonotic diseases, reducing the demand for wildlife products, dismantling the infrastructure that promotes illicit wildlife trade and strengthening wildlife protection laws.

On 24th February 2020, the People’s Republic of China announced its decision to place a permanent ban on trade in wildlife. Nevertheless, an analysis by the Wildlife Conservation Society suggests that the decision does not ban the trade in wildlife for non-food uses (e.g. biomedical research, fur, etc.), which in turn creates a loophole that may be exploited by the traffickers to trade in wildlife. Consequently, we may conclude that while this ban is a significant move towards mitigating the root cause of zoonoses, there is still scope for illegal activities.

Recently, in a public statement, the acting Executive Secretary of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity called for a global ban on wildlife markets to deter future pandemics. She said that nations across the globe should seek to ban wildlife markets, as they are a major cause of the outbreaks of zoonotic diseases.

Moreover, the Centre for Biological Diversity (organization based in Arizona for the protection of Endangered Species and Wildlife) and the National Resources Defense Council (United States-based international nonprofit environmental organization) has released a comprehensive action plan to combat illicit wildlife trade. The action plan proposes a global ban wildlife imports and restricts all other trade in wildlife until stringent laws are enforced, among other proposals. It also recommends the United States to play a global leadership role in regulating wildlife trade to prevent future pandemics.

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