India's Black Market in Birds Threatening Rare Species

Pallava Bagla
in New Delhi
for National Geographic News
October 2, 2002

India is home to some 1,200 different species of birds. Despite measures designed to protect this rich array of bird life by banning the capture and trade of wild birds, records indicate that as many as 300 of these species are caught and traded with impunity.

The estimate comes from figures compiled by the Trade Records Analysis of Flora and Fauna in Commerce (TRAFFIC). These records show that large seizures of illegally captured wild birds in India number about 30 each year. In one of the largest recent incidents illustrating the huge scale of this flourishing black market, more than 10,000 birds were confiscated at the Mumbai (formerly called Bombay) international airport in March 2001.

Until 1991, India was one of the largest exporters of wild birds to international bird markets. Most of the birds traded were parakeets and munias, especially the rose-ringed parakeet (Psittacula krameri), the black-headed munia (Lonchura Malacca) and the red munia (Estrilda amandava). Most of these birds were exported to countries in Europe and the Middle East.

In 1991, however, an amendment to the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972 was adopted that bans all trade and trapping of indigenous birds in the country.

However, "the ban is ineffective, as illegal bird trade flourishes in almost all cities, towns, and rural hamlets of the country," said conservation biologist Abrar Ahmed, who worked until recently with TRAFFIC–India and is now with the premier body for ornithological research in India, the Bombay Natural History Society, based in Mumbai.

"The trade is not limited to domestic markets," he added. "There is continuous large-scale bird smuggling out of the country."

Ahmed said a project funded by the Indian government discovered that a number of the wild birds on the Indian subcontinent that are being widely traded are threatened species, including the swamp francolin (Francolinus gularis), green munia (Estrilda formosa), Finnâs baya (Ploceus megarhynchus), and Shaheen falcon (Falco peregrinus).

The findings indicated that of the many different species being traded, 16 are among the world's most highly endangered, 36 are listed in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), and six are included on the Red Data list of endangered species compiled by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN).

Ahmed is now updating a decade-long study on the state of bird trading across India that he conducted as part of his doctoral thesis. The initial study, "Live Bird Trade in Northern India," was published by TRAFFIC–India in 1977, and Ahmed expects to release the enlarged follow-up report by the end of this year.

Illegal But Widespread Practice

The study entailed following bird trails and documenting the numbers of birds being captured or traded. During his surveys, Ahmed directly witnessed more than 200,000 birds that had been caught in the wild by traders and kept in captivity.

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