On October 9, 2010, an unprecedented drive on the Kataban pet market by nature lovers and forest department officials operating under police protection busted illegal wildlife trade in the well-known Kataban pet market. The raid reveals one of the ugly faces of the illegal albeit much ignored trade in wildlife. Rescued animals include almost 300 parakeets of different species such as slaty-headed, plum-headed and red-breasted parakeets, about 500 munias, 50-60 endangered hill mynas and some purple swamphens. However, turning the tide against the traffic and sale of wild animals might be a difficult one. Scarcely a week after the raid, the Kataban market is once again dealing in wild species.
Legal enterprises are often used as a cover for illegal business.photo: Zahedul I Khan
As evening descends on the bustling city of Dhaka, a young man and a woman enters a store at the Kataban pet market. Some shopkeepers utter marketing slogans such as “Sister, what do you want, come into our shop.” The man looks uninterested and loiters around the street, while the woman enters one of the shops.
The scene is reminiscent of any regular marketplace. But this is a controversial one that is involved in the sale of illegal products – endangered, wild animals.
The customer points out to a cage of green munia birds she asks, “How much?”
The bird traders at Kataban have been continuing the illegal business of selling wild birds for a long time although the Wildlife Protection Act-1974 prohibits capturing and hunting of wild birds and animals.
“200 Taka per piece,” says the shopkeeper. The customer tries to bargain, but the shopkeeper sticks to his price. Irritably she points to another cage of black and white munia birds, “what about them?” she asks.
“These are Indian,” says the shopkeeper, “They are worth 150 Taka apiece.” The customer seems sceptical, “why are the local ones worth more than the Indian birds? Besides these ones seem better,” pointing to the cage of green munias. Having no ready answer, the shopkeeper tries to divert her attention to two other bigger species of birds, “look at these two, these are Lovebirds from India.”
The customer however seems unimpressed. She asks the shopkeeper, “Once there were eagles and monkeys in this market, whatever happened to them?”
In a week's time, the Kataban market has changed. There were fewer animals on display, discounting a few dogs, pigeons, fishes, caged munias, and some other species of wild birds. The reasons for absence of the other animals are obvious.
Following the raid a week ago, the sellers of the Kataban market have been forced to make their illicit operations more discreet but the business till continues till date.
Professor Anawrul Islam of the Zoology Department, University of Dhaka, who happens to be one of the organisers and participants of the raid on Kataban market says, “We learnt from our sources that within days, the pet shops are again selling wild animals.” He says that the speed with which the sellers have managed to revive the business, bringing stocks of birds is evidence of a more ominous trend. “We have reasons to suspect that they have a warehouse hidden somewhere where plenty of wild animals are kept in captivity.”
He goes on to say that possession of such a warehouse where wild animals are imprisoned is the most likely way the sellers were able to procure more wild animals for sale in such a short period even after so many were seized from them.
He also says that the demand for pets is rising among the young generation, particularly from the more affluent. He says that there is a lack of social awareness and as a result, educated people are buying wild animals as pets. The volume of wild animals reaching the homes of affluent households from the wild is alarming. “Even in the provincial towns, the demand for wild animals as pets is alarming.” The raid on the Kataban market is the first instance such an endeavour has been undertaken with the aim of instilling social awareness among the general public.
The professor describes an incident during the Kataban market raid. “When we raided the market, one of the shopkeepers told us that a particular minister has given them two myna birds to take care of,” he says.
Islam says that besides Kataban, Thatharibazaar in Old Dhaka is also involved in the sale of illegal wild animals like tortoises and wild birds. Besides the local market, there is also a thriving international market for wildlife.
“Bangladesh has a porous border with India and smuggling between the two nations is impossible to stop,” he says. The problem is made worse by an understaffed and under-resourced Forest department. “Bangladesh is used as a transit point for traffic in illegal wild animals. The destination is often China and Japan, where there is a substantial demand for wild animals.”
Professor Islam says that like the narcotics business, trade in wild animals is so profitable that international syndicates are involved in the dealings. “There is a global network present in Bangladesh. Without the support of local patrons, it is impossible for the international syndicates to engage in covert trade,” he says. Considering the total scenario, he says that it is impossible to guess the destination of wild animals. He cites a case when immigration officials at the Hazrat Shahjalal airport seized a cargo of Munia species. “These species are local only to a certain part of Maharashtra (India) and not in this region,” he says.
“Poaching deer in the Sundarbans is also an open secret,” says Islam. “Keeping deer as pets is fashionable in certain circles. During the previous regime, many deer were seized. Later, during the tenure of this government, there have been talks concerning deer farming. We totally oppose this.”
As happens in Bangladesh, legal enterprises are often used as a cover for illegal business. The Kataban market, for example although nominally a pet shop has openly displayed wild species for sale, before the raid took place. “Once deer farms come into operation, there shall be even lesser accountability for poaching,” says Islam. The farms, he fears shall be used as another front for trading in wild animals and the forest department will find it impossible to monitor the deer population in the wild. “The population of deer is decreasing and the government needs to address the issue very carefully. Once there were many species of deer in the Sundarbans and some in the Hill Tracts, but poaching has led to a substantial decline in their population. The loss of wildlife species upsets the balance of nature and causes irreparable damage to the environment.”
He says that the biodiversity in Sundarbans is under grave threat. “We conducted a survey in a particular area of Sundarbans and found that 37 per cent of the people have consumed deer meat this year.” He says that if in one particular area around the Sundarbans the percentage of households consuming deer meat is 37 per cent, in all households adjoining the Sundarbans, the percentage of households consuming deer meat is at least 20 per cent. “In that case, consider the number of deer being killed every year”.
“Often, people tell me that those involved in netting wild animals are poor people,” he says. But, he says that considering the volume of illegal traffic, powerful syndicates are only exploiting these people.
Meanwhile, in the dimly lit Kataban pet market, trade still continues behind the scenes. A shopkeeper says, “Do you want monkeys? The woman nods. The shopkeeper tells her that for monkeys there has to be advance orders. There are two choices – the local or the Burmese, costing 4,000 Taka and 6,000 Taka each respectively. “You pay half the money in advance,” he says.
“What about eagles?” she asks.
Another shopkeeper says, “There are no eagles in my shop.” But another man, standing nearby says to the customer, “We do not have them but there are other shops that can get eagles for you.” Wild species are still available for sale in the Kataban market, though the covert business has gone further underground.