Stephen Nash is a tall, burly Canadian, with a flowing white beard and a wry sense of humour. He introduces himself as someone who is often mistaken for Santa Claus. But he is a veteran wildlife specialist who has caught deadly snakes in his native country and has handled many other vicious creatures. As he notes, "I have been bitten, scratched and impaled over the past 32 years!" He once hosted our very own Romulus Whitaker, who started the Snake Park in Chennai and now runs a Crocodile Park outside it.

Nash heads the Capacity Building Unit at the secretariat of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in Geneva. The convention has been in operation for 33 years and fuses wildlife and trade issues with a legally binding instrument to achieve conservation and sustainable use. In other words, it tries to ensure that under no circumstances should smuggling endanger wild fauna and flora.

Tackling illegal trade at customs

At a workshop organised by the World Customs Organisation at the sprawling campus of the National Academy of Customs, Excise and Narcotics (NACEN) in Faridabad (May 18-22), he briefed customs officials from several Asian countries on the objective of CITES, and how to handle threatened animals and plants. One can well imagine the consternation of customs officials who unsuspectingly open a consignment and have to deal with poisonous snakes, spiders and countless other pesky creatures.

Contrary to popular belief, ivory doesn't only consist of elephant tusks but also those of whales, hippos and walruses. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons).

 •  An elephantine dilemma
 •  Ecology for the people

Endangered species are divided into three categories. Appendix I - this is a favourite category in UN parlance, since it also refers to industrialised countries in the Kyoto Protocol on climate change - are the most threatened, and international commercial trade in this category (as distinct presumably from exchange or research), is generally banned. This covers some 530 animals and 300 plants. Appendix II lists species that are not necessarily threatened with extinction, but for which trade must be controlled to avoid any such denouement. This is obviously a bigger category, covering 4400 animals and more than 28,000 plants. The third and last category comprises some 255 animals and 7 plants which countries ask CITES to help them protect.

India is most interested in the enforcement of CITES to curb the smuggling of tiger parts to China and other countries in South-East Asia, where people believe that these have curative properties. Indeed, while there is a great deal of controversy over who is responsible for the disappearance of tigers in this country - whether poachers (foreign or national or both) and/or tribals living within national parks and sanctuaries - there is no doubt that, were there to be effective surveillance by the customs at land, sea and airports, the trade would be considerably curbed. Just the sharing of information and better monitoring and coordination by the customs authorities of countries in this region would work wonders.

UNEP has launched the Green Customs Initiative to control what it terms "environmental crimes", among which the turnover in the trade in flora and fauna is estimated to range from $5 to $20 million a year. However, two of the biggest traded items - timber and fish - aren't covered by the treaty because these are not on the endangered list. The Faridabad workshop was to inform and instruct top customs officials from the region about different environmental treaties, most of which deal with harmful chemicals, and how the customs has a major role to play in compliance and enforcement.

Protecting plants

Readers may look somewhat askance at the need to protect plants. However, one has only to consider the enormous value to humans of many plants - as food, fuel and fibre, among other uses. We derive all our foodgrains from five or six staple plants, but there is no telling how many more there are, undiscovered in the wild, which can feed millions across the world. The threat of such plants dying out before they are even identified is similar to precious libraries of original manuscripts being burnt before anyone has read them.

Even today, some 30 per cent of all pharmaceuticals are derived from plants, although genetic engineering may gradually lower the proportion. In India, ayurveda is under serious threat because species are disappearing. Conservationists refer to rare plants in West Africa from which a substance several times sweeter than sugar can be extracted, but scientists have not yet been able to commercially exploit it.

During the protracted controversy over the Silent Valley hydel plant in Kerala in the early 'seventies, wild varieties of rice were discovered in Palghat district which possessed genes to withstand attacks of the brown plant hopper, a deadly pest which was devastating tracts of the dwarf Taichung varieties of rice grown throughout South and South-East Asia. Rice geneticists "married" genes from these Palghat (and Sri Lankan) varieties to the new dwarfs and the new variety was able to withstand the pest. This provides a glimpse of the tremendous value of wild plants.

Cultural beliefs

The tiger is particularly problematic for India because it is an iconic animal - so much so that the celebrated BBC Indian wildlife TV series, hosted by Valmik Thapar a few years ago, was titled Land of the Tiger. The CITES website ( in fact has a photograph of a majestic tiger on the prowl. The problem is compounded by the fact that Thailand has started breeding tigers on farms in order to "harvest" them for medicinal purposes.

In 2002, the Sri Racha (a corruption of 'Raja') Tiger Zoo sold 100 tigers - originally bred from a Royal Bengal pair - to Sanya Love World in China. They were widely alleged to have been bred there in captivity and slaughtered from time to time to be sold for their meat in Love World's restaurant. The Chinese denied this, since it would have violated CITES which only permits exchange of animals between zoos or for scientific purposes. Customs officers in many parts of the world may in future have to decide whether a particular consignment is genuinely from a farmed animal or has been poached.

Many conservationists like Nash take a pragmatic view of such trade and believe it can help assuage the seemingly insatiable demand for such animal parts. However, this should in no way come in the way of proper education of people who hanker over such products for purely traditional and usually irrational reasons. There is an almost exact parallel when it comes to Indian wildlife with the whale shark, one of the largest fish in the world, whose fins were cut off by fishermen off the Gujarat coast and shipped to South-East Asia for the renowned delicacy, shark's fin soup, a favourite on auspicious occasions. The helpless beasts were left to die in the ocean after their fins were cut off.

Fortunately, after a furore by Indian conservationists, this senseless slaughter and trade has been banned. The irony is that the fins actually don't impart any flavour to soup, which has to be augmented by species like abalone, but consumers blindly follow tradition.

Regulating the trophy trade

Nash told India Together that certain countries in east and southern Africa have issued a restricted number of hunting permits to cull old black rhino males. This serves two purposes: first, it earns the country a considerable amount of foreign exchange because the heads of these magnificent beasts are highly valued as trophies all over the wealthy world. Second, according to Nash, it eliminates old males and thereby helps to improve the genes of the species - a modern-day variant of "survival of the fittest"! However, Kenya has objected to this on the ground that smugglers who poach such rhinos in that country can attempt to export them through neighbouring countries by producing fake hunting licences.

Closer home, Pakistan has issued a restricted number of hunting licences - around six a year - to hunt the markhor goat, its national animal, which exists in the high Himalaya. US customs, have however, once confiscated such a trophy, assuming that it was poached, which is understandable when it comes to any rare species. Such concessions will always enrage die-hard conservationists, even as others argue that it raises revenues to protect the goats, restricts the number of licences to a manageable limit and thereby cuts down, if not eliminates, poaching. The jury is still out, but the common sense approach would be devote sufficient manpower and resources on protecting such species, which will reinforced by much stricter customs vigilance.

It should be noted that the original treaty regarding wild trophies was the London Convention of 1903, which was to govern hunting game in Africa and India. Times have changed and no civilized person today should be flaunting the heads, tusks or skins of animals from exotic corners of the world as some form of conquest, or even a form of neo-colonialism.

Jewellery made from red coral has been in existence for 5000 years, but the trade has dropped as smuggling is under surveillance.

 •  An elephantine dilemma
 •  Ecology for the people

CITES, however, doesn't govern only living animals and plants but tusks and skins of dead animals as well. India has two such items - one as an import and the other which was both and import and export.

Jewellery made from red coral has been in existence for 5000 years, but the trade has dropped as smuggling is under surveillance. In 1984, some 450 tonnes were seized, which went down to 40 tonnes in 1990. Between 1990 and 2005, only an estimated 28 to 54 tonnes in all have been seized. From the Middle Ages, coral found its way from Rome (presumably harvested in the Mediterranean) to India. From the 17th century, there was a flourishing trade between Naples and Marseilles to India and West Africa. However, it is extremely difficult for customs officers to distinguish between three types of red coral, of which only Corallium is very rare and expensive.

The other item, which goes back some aeons, is ivory. Contrary to popular belief, ivory doesn't only consist of elephant tusks but also those of the narwhal (a long-toothed Arctic whale), killer and sperm whale, warthog, hippos and walrus. Cave paintings from the Cro-Magnon era depict people hunting mammoths for their tusks. The first ivory masterpiece in historical records is an arch which dates back to 2000 BC in Egypt. Even more surprisingly, such tusks are being recovered from the icy wastes in the extremities of the globe. In Alaska, carvings out of fossilized walrus ivory are in fact permitted today. Tusks of mammoths, which became extinct 16,000 years ago, are sought after.

However, faced with the dire threat to herds of African elephants, which declined by a half between 1970 and 1985, 119 countries at a CITES meet in 1989 decided to ban hunting elephants. African elephants are more sought after than their Indian counterparts because their tusks are bigger (as, indeed, are the elephants themselves). Indian craftsmen were far more adept at carving such tusks and till the ban, used to import African ivory. Most of this trade is now prohibited. There is some unhappiness in East and southern Africa, where herds are in fact increasing and the ban is sometimes thought of as a western imposition, without any concession to the revenue it could earn for poor countries in that part of the continent.

Sometimes, even with endangered species, truth can be stranger than fiction. In the current crisis over climate change, the sight of a lone polar bear struggling to keep afloat on a tiny ice floe has become the iconic image that goads countries and individuals to take action before it is too late. According to Nash, however, of 27 polar bear populations in the Arctic, 26 are actually increasing.