Uncovered: India’s illegal wild bird trade hub
India’s black market in wild birds may be less noticeable than in other countries, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t just as harmful. Our research has uncovered the sheer scale of the crisis – and also shown us what action we need to take to tackle it.
A photograph of serried ranks of dead native birds including barbets, malkohas and doves is a stark illustration of India’s bird trade crisis, which encompasses both domestic consumption and international trade. “In northeast India, open sale of wild birds for food is rampant,” says Anuj Jain, BirdLife Asia’s Bird Trade Coordinator, who is working with the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS; BirdLife in India) to tackle India’s unique wild bird trade problem.
Huge numbers of wild birds are also sold as pets. In 1990, the Indian government completely banned the capture and trade of all native birds – however, a black market in more than 100 species of exotic birds has sprung up in its place, many of them wild individuals smuggled in from abroad.
“India has slowly emerged as a hub for cross-border trade in non-native species including some banned under CITES [Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna & Flora],” Jain says. Traffickers smuggle birds across the lengthy, “porous” Bangladesh and Myanmar borders to sate rising domestic demand. In one recent example (of fifty-plus cases in the past five years), Indian officials arrested two men after seizing 22 parrots from South America and New Guinea, including Hyacinth Macaw Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus and Pesquet’s Parrot Psittrichas fulgidus (both Vulnerable to extinction).
“India’s exotic bird trade has grown swiftly in recent years due to rising incomes and strengthening demand for exotic pets from the citizens of wealthier cities,” Jain explains. He considers the burgeoning demand is being driven by fundamental societal influences – “exotic pets are becoming a status symbol” – and poor implementation of CITES.
Recent extensive surveys of markets across north India, from Gujarat in the west to Assam in the east, uncovered 85 bird species for sale. Of the 42 non-native species recorded, two thirds were CITES-listed, including nine specified under Appendix I (for which international trade is prohibited, except for non-commercial purposes such as scientific research). Parrots were particularly prominent, including Grey Parrot Psittacus erithacus (Endangered) – discovered on 11 occasions – and Salmon-crested Cockatoo Cacatua moluccensis (Vulnerable). Exotic songbirds encountered included Javan Sparrow Lonchura oryzivora (Endangered).
Meanwhile, illegal domestic trade is also impacting native species, which are also in demand as pets. 43 indigenous species were also found in markets. In one survey (Patna, Bihar) the 28 native species discovered included Swamp Francolin Francolinus gularis (Vulnerable), Ferruginous Duck Aythya nyroca and Alexandrine Parakeet Palaeornis eupatria (both Near Threatened).
Responding to the risk of imported wildlife spreading COVID-19, the Indian government held a nine-month amnesty for pet owners to declare possession of exotic species. This disconcerted conservationists: might the amnesty offer a window of opportunity for clandestine imports? By 15 March, nearly 32,000 people had registered. Following the scheme’s closure, CITES enforcement is being stepped up, with BNHS helping by developing a policy brief for decision-makers and – before the pandemic halted efforts – training over 100 frontline government staff earlier this year.
BirdLife and BNHS are apprehensive that some proposed rules relating to captive-bred exotic birds will make it harder for tribal trappers to make ends meet by selling largely domesticated birds such as lovebirds and budgerigars. This, Jain fears, will prompt them to “return attention to trapping and selling wild native birds.” With the unseen tragedy of the Javan Pied Starling fresh in our mind, this is worrisome indeed.
BNHS's work to combat the illegal wild bird trade is supported by BirdLife Species Champion Per Undeland.
If you would like to help us continue this important work, you can donate to our appeal here.