COVID-19 emerged as an endemic zoonotic disease and has now become a pandemic that poses a critical threat to global health security. Over the past several years, humanity has faced a number of zoonotic diseases such as Ebola, Hanta, Influenza A (H1N1), Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), and now COVID-19. It is estimated that the top 56 zoonotic diseases are responsible for 250 crore cases of human illness and 27 lakh deaths worldwide each year. Researchers from the South China Agricultural University have opined that viruses isolated from Pangolins are 99 percent similar to those spreading COVID-19.Though scientists are yet to find conclusive proof to connect Pangolins with the COVID-19 outbreak, there is significant evidence that humans are susceptible to diseases transmitted from wildlife traded illegally in wet markets. Dr.Stephen Turner, head of the department of microbiology at Monash University, Sydney, suggests that COVID-19 most likely originated in bats. Pangolins were perhaps an intermediary between bats and humans. Human impact on wildlife could be blamed for the spread of viruses. Wildlife crimes such as hunting, illegal wildlife trade, and habitat destruction increases the risk of diseases spilling over from animals to humans. Thus, wildlife crimes must be addressed to protect the general population.
The Government of India enacted the Wild Life (Protection) Act of 1972 (hereafter WPA) with the objective of protecting wild animals, birds, and plants to ensure the ecological and environmental security of the country. Hunting and illegal harvest of protected animals/plants specified in various schedules under WPA, and unauthorised possession, transport and trade of wild animals or plants, and destruction of protected areas/habitat are punishable, predominantly with imprisonment and fines. Forest Departments of every state/UT are historically the custodians of wildlife protection. Each state must have a dedicated wildlife wing headed by the Chief Wildlife Warden who is the statutory authority under the Act. Wildlife Wardens who head field formations in Protected Areas and Tiger Reserves, are responsible for ensuring that preventive mechanisms in the form of a multi-tiered protection system comprising foot patrols, mobile patrols, anti-hunting camps and check posts along highways are in place.
The Government of India established the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB), an agency under the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change. The bureau’s mandate is to gather intelligence related to wildlife crime, coordinate efforts and action between stakeholders, and capacity building for enforcement officials for professional investigation of wildlife crimes. For the first time since 2014, environment-related offences were added to existing Crime in India statistics of the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB). It contains data on cases registered under WPA by the police department.
Although legislation to address these crimes was well-meaning, it did not go far enough. The WPA provides to officers from the forest as well as police departments the power to investigate wildlife crimes. The Honourable Supreme Court of India (vide Case No. Appeal (crl.) 476 of 2002) reiterated that police officers are not excluded from investigating offences under the WPA. Registration of wildlife cases by police is deficient even though India has eight percent of the world’s known biodiversity. Consequentially, the need is evident. From 2014 to 2018, there were only 4066 cases registered by police under WPA for the whole of India. During these five years, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Karnataka top the list based on wildlife crime reporting. Interestingly, an aggregate total of cases registered in Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan alone constitutes 55 percent of the total (i.e., 4066 cases) of wildlife crime in India. Goa, Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland, Tamil Nadu, A&N Islands, Chandigarh, Lakshadweep, and Puducherry saw registered cases in encompassing single digits by their respective police. In Meghalaya, Sikkim, Tripura, D&N Haveli, and Daman & Diu, no cases were registered.
Conventional crime (such as murder, sexual assault, theft, robbery, etc.) reporting rates based on NCRB data have never considered capturing the actual incidence of crime. The proportion of actual crime reported to police is not estimated empirically through a victimisation survey. With wildlife crime, it becomes even harder to estimate the rate as, unlike other forms of conventional crime, the victims of these crimes cannot report it. As a result, registered wildlife cases are assumed to be just the tip of the iceberg.
WCCB, through an advisory to the Chief Secretaries of all states/UTs, has asked to establish Wildlife Crime Control Units in Police and Forest Departments. However, many states have not established dedicated Wildlife Crime Control Units for the prevention, detection, and investigation of wildlife crime.Further, the bureau has advised state forest departments to share the criminal records of residents who are convicted under WPA to the appropriate police stations for the purpose of compiling a record of wildlife offenders. But, during verification of the antecedents of some notorious wildlife offenders, it was found that concerned police stations had no criminal record against them.
How Should the Gaps in Data be Addressed?
Crime is temporal in nature. As technology has advanced, so have the means and modus operandi of criminals due to developments in information and communication technology. To address this, police and intelligence agencies have worked to develop a robust crime database to anticipate, prevent, and monitor criminal activity. Thus, wildlife crime databases are a vital information system that helps officers to detect and prevent wildlife crime and pursue the perpetrators of wildlife crime. There is a considerable gap in the availability of wildlife crime data in India. This is due to the two agencies involved in the enforcement of WPA not sharing a common database. The data on wildlife crime registered by the police is compiled in Crime in India statistics, whereas data from the Forest Departments is not available in the public domain. There is an obvious need to integrate wildlife crime data from the police as well as the Forest Departments. The WCCB has developed an online Wildlife Crime Database Management System (WCDBMS) to address this gap. Through an advisory from WCCB sent to the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Head of Forest Force) and Director Generals of Police of all state/UT, it is known that information from these departments is not reaching the WCDBMS in time to initiate multi-agency efforts to counter wildlife crime. The Forest as well as state Police Departments, should share wildlife crime data among themselves and also to the WCDBMS. Further, WCCB should consider integrating wildlife smuggling data from the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI) and Central Board of Indirect Taxes and Customs (CBIC) in order to have a more holistic wildlife crime database.
Availability of Data
With the exponential growth of information and communication technology, accurate and timely information is essential for law enforcement. Information and intelligence have been collected in the form of data and stored in the crime databases. Given this background, WCDBMS should be diligently used to protect wildlife, as the wellness of forests and humans are dependent on wildlife. However, the responsibility of the government does not end with just having a WCDBMS. Data pertaining to wildlife crime needs to be accessible to the general public. As the NCRB brings out Crime in India statistics, the WCCB needs to openly share data pertaining to levels and types of wildlife crime.
From the lessons learned with the COVID-19 outbreak, conservationists, wildlife and public health researchers have rightly insisted that their respective governments address wildlife crime in a serious manner. As a nation and a member of the community of nations, we need data-driven enforcement to combat wildlife crime to ensure public health as well as to foster sustainable development, good governance, the rule of law, and national security.