The Wildlife Supermarket

First published in: Sanctuary Asia, April 2006

By B.K. Sharma

There are strong indications that the illegal wildlife trade in India has financed terrorism, insurrection and that there is a revolving door between international gangs dealing in arms, drugs and wildlife contraband. Protecting our wildlife and the forests in which wild species live must therefore be seen as an internal security issue for India, not merely an animal welfare issue. The author was presented with a special Sanctuary-ABN AMRO Wildlife Service Award 2005 for his work in fighting the wildlife trade. Here he sketches an outline of the manner in which the bloody business thrives, in the very heart of New Delhi, the capital of India.

In India, the illegal wildlife trade has tended to concentrate in a few prominent centres for a variety of reasons. Proximity to Protected Areas is, of course, a key factor as are rail and road communications that facilitate easier transportation of contraband, often disguised as legitimate consignments with innocuous items.

The concentration of trafficking networks are often headed by traders who have historically dealt with wildlife articles on the basis of their caste and other such considerations. Within such communities, we have observed real competition as to who is able to conduct the largest trade and therefore access the widest market for trans-border bulk buyers. It helps, of course, that large cities provide anonymity, while large settlements of ethnic populations, not all of whom are involved in any illegalities, facilitate clandestine operations.

It is a vicious circle: the notorious reputation and dubious distinction that some towns have attract more buyers and this, in turn, encourages green horns to take up the lucrative profession by emulating those who exude wealth and power, thereby further sustaining the deadly, illegal trade.
Ironically, over the years, it is the national capital region of Delhi that has emerged as the most prominent centre for India’s illicit wildlife trade. The earliest incontrovertible evidence of a gigantic market emerged in August 1993, when the Delhi Police with the assistance of forest department officials and TRAFFIC-India seized a huge haul of 283 kg. of tiger bones, estimably representing the remnants of 25 tigers. Along with the bones, eight tiger skins, 43 leopard skins and over 100 skins of sundry protected animals were seized from Pema Thinley, a Tibetan exile and Mohammad Yaqub, a known local skin trader.

The sheer scale of the haul was staggering and the claim of the accused to the undercover operator that they could produce 1,000 kg. of tiger bone within a month revealed the mammoth scale of Delhi’s wildlife market. Investigations further revealed the existence of a huge network of traders, including Sansar Chand who were procuring wildlife articles from across the country, storing and supplying those to buyers from Nepal and Tibet.


Sariska’s tigers have been wiped out and other national parks and sanctuaries are under attack right now. Rhino horn, tiger skin, elephant ivory... are all exchangeable for cash. This places the future of such cubs in jeopardy. Photo: N.C. Dhingra.

In the past 10 years, Delhi has continued to be the centre of the illegal tiger trade. In August 1994, 12 mounted tiger heads and a tiger skin coat were seized from New Rohtak Road, and in December 1994, two tiger skins were found with a relative of Sansar Chand. The Special Branch of the Delhi Police then seized six tiger skins from a Kashmiri trader in April 1996 and in November 1997, a person was arrested in Delhi’s Nizammuddin area with a tiger skin. By the end of 1998, two separate seizures in Delhi threw up two tiger skins, a leopard and some chital deer skins. There was a skin recovery in 1999 and in the year 2000, two separate confiscations in Lajpatnagar and Anand Vihar had the police on the tail of traders with international links. In 2001 and 2002, we were able to record just one skin seizure each, and in February 2003, the Delhi Police recovered a skin and a mounted tiger head. Clearly, the trade was alive and well, but equally clear was the fact that we were way behind the trade, which was thriving, but which had managed to escape detection.

When seizure data over the years is analysed, it suggests that Delhi trades in almost everything that the illegal wildlife market is willing to lift. Ivory carvings, bangles, buttons and cane handles collectively weighing 26.4 kg. were seized from two accused in April 2001 while in August 2005 a shop owner from Bhavnagar in Gujarat was arrested in North Delhi with six kilogrammes of raw ivory in his possession. In July 2004, an 18 kg. consignment of copperhead rat snake skins imported from Hong Kong was discovered and on October 15, 2005, the Delhi Wildlife Department found an illegal consignment of 95 birds, including six peacocks, at the Anand Vihar bus terminal. One of the largest seizures of birds took place at the international airport on May 13, 2001 when 1,200 Red Munias and 33 Alexandrine Parakeets were stopped before they were smuggled to the middle east. The birds had been labelled as captive-bred finches. A nationwide coordinated search operation in several cities, including Delhi and its adjoining areas in June 2002, saw the recovery of nearly 1,000 kg. of common mongoose hair, used in the manufacture of painting brushes. Heaven alone knows how many animals died to cater to this demand. The seizure of leopard and otter skins, especially from consignments destined to Nepal are almost too numerous to count.


The horn can easily be removed from a dead rhino as the forest guard in the photograph (previous page) was instructed to do when one of Kaziranga’s rhinos died a natural death. The horn is so removed to prevent theft. Photo: D.K. Bhaskar.

There is more. Over the years, Delhi has emerged as a major hub for the illegal shahtoosh shawl trade. Shops in upscale hotels and private residential areas store the shawls, mostly for foreign buyers who often smuggle the contraband out with their personal baggage for sale to the fashion capitals of the world. It is estimated that in the first three months of 1999, enforcement officials in Delhi confiscated 290 shawls, some from the international airport itself. In February 2001, 70 shahtoosh shawls were confiscated from a location in South Delhi. Starting September 26, 2001, the authorities seized 460 kg. of shahtoosh wool in three separate incidents within the span of a month. And the Wildlife Department of Delhi recovered 215 kg. of pure shahtoosh wool in April 2003 from a truck while it was on its way to Majnu ka Tila, the infamous residential area of Tibetan migrants. It is extremely difficult to nab the culprits, but over a span of four days, the Central Bureau of Investigation in a meticulously planned operation recovered 21 shawls and arrested five traders in November 2005.

It is not difficult to fathom what drives people to trade in wildlife goods. Huge profit margins and a limitless demand had turned a casual business into an organised wholesale business. Single sourcing, supplies on demand and stacking in warehouses are characteristics of this organised trade.

In early 2005, the Special Staff of the Central Police district in New Delhi arrested Sudesh Kumar near the Ramlila grounds and in his possession was an uncured leopard skin. He sang. Sudhesh Kumar’s disclosures led the police to the notorious Gali No. 10 in Sadar Bazaar, to the home of Sansar Chand from where his daughter was arrested. She had in her possession as many as one snow leopard, seven leopard and two tiger skins. Investigations further led the police to Shadi-Khampur where a veritable super mall of grizzly contraband was unearthed involving 30 leopard and 42 otter skins, three kilogrammes of tiger nails, 14 tiger teeth, 20 tiger claws, 10 tiger jaws, 60 kg. of leopard claws and 135 kg. porcupine quills. This was part of the uncontrolled empire of the notorious wildlife trafficker, Sansar Chand who takes delivery orders on telephone and supplies the products of choice to voracious international customers.

In April 2005, the Timarpur police apprehended three Nepali/Tibetan nationals as they waited to board a bus to Nepal and recovered 45 leopard and 14 otter skins. They said the skins were procured from Sansar Chand and that they were transporting them to Kathmandu, as instructed by one Chhewang, a Nepalese citizen, who, however escaped to Nepal. After issuance of an Interpol Red Corner Notice and in a classic example of bilateral cooperation, Chhewang was eventually arrested by the authorities in December 2005 by the Nepalese Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation (DNPWC).


Sansar Chand took advantage of India’s low enforcement priority to expand his dark empire. In a long criminal history that spans three decades, he concentrated on trading tiger and leopard skins, which a ready market with huge profit margins. Photo: Nature Conservation Society Amravati.

A third major haul was recorded in early February 2006, a year when a CID team from the Rajasthan Police were investigating the tiger poaching incidents in Ranthambhore. The team camped in Delhi for several days before apprehending Nema Tshering, alias Khampa, a Tibetan national living in Nepal. In his possession were 34 freshly-tanned leopard and four otter skins. The consignment had come to Delhi from Allahabad by a goods parcel and was destined for Siliguri for onward transmission to Nepal.

Delhi is a transit point for illegal wildlife products. Skins from different parts of the country reach Delhi and are then sent on to different destinations – primarily the border towns of Nepal – in concealed packets, by rail or road and, very rarely, through couriers. Investigation into one of the biggest seizures of skins at Ghaziabad on the night of December 18, 1999, revealed that the consignment of 50 leopard, three tiger and five otter skins that had originated in Khaga had transited through Delhi on its way to Siliguri on the Indo-Nepal border. A parcel containing 50 leopard and 15 otter skins recovered in the warehouse of a transport company at Haldwani in Uttaranchal in May 2000 had been booked from the capital. Delhi also records the only instance of simultaneous seizure of a leopard skin and nearly four kilogrammes of charas from two accused in April 2000, indicating possible convergence of crime.

The uncrowned king of the illegal wildlife empire in Delhi over the years has been Sansar Chand. Initiated into the trade way back in 1974, when he was just 12, Sansar has never looked back. Inheriting the trade as a family profession and operating from Delhi’s Sadar precincts, he took advantage of India’s low enforcement priority to expand his dark empire. In a long criminal history that spans three decades, he has been implicated in more than 20 registered offences, of which only two wound up in convictions. While his first conviction was upheld by the Hon. Supreme Court, he was released on probation since he was a juvenile at the time the crime was committed. The second conviction came as long as 20 years later and in this case he managed to evade an actual sentence for over a year, during the pendency of his appeal. In this period of time, he never lost a moment, utilising his freedom to solidify his criminal empire by expanding his network to more wildlife sanctuaries and national parks. It has been suggested that he has also been neutralising professional rivals and revels in the epithet he earned of being the ‘Veerappan of the North’.

Some important milestones in his bloody career are revealing. In March 1988, the Seelampur police recovered about 26,000 snakeskins, 2,000 small cat skins and some tiger skins from the house of one Maqbool. During his interrogation, he revealed that the owner of the contraband was actually Sansar Chand. The Sawai Madhopur Police in Rajasthan recovered a large consignment of tiger bones and skeletons in 1992, and investigations revealed that these too belonged to Sansar. Then in 1995, the Hardwar police and forest officials recovered leopard skins in two separate seizures and investigations proved that they belonged to Sansar Chand. In January 2003, leopard skins were seized from a man called Balwan aboard the Chetak Express at the Bhilwara railway station. No prizes for guessing where they were to be delivered… Sansar Chand at Delhi.

Arrests of carriers led to still more arrests and to fresh leads. The Manek Chowk Police in Jaipur effected a huge seizure of leopard skins and miscellaneous contraband in October 2004 and again the involvement of Sansar Chand and his family emerged. This man had virtually become a one-man army against Indian wildlife.


Sansar Chand took advantage of India’s low enforcement priority to expand his dark empire. In a long criminal history that spans three decades, he concentrated on trading tiger and leopard skins, which a ready market with huge profit margins. Photo: B.K. Sharma.

The most important characteristic of this criminal footprint is that very rarely was there an actual recovery from Sansar Chand himself. As a result, he managed to obtain bail with surprising ease. Another feature that emerged was his penchant for trading in tiger and leopard skins that had ready buyers and which offered him very lucrative profit margins.

The trade was exclusivist in nature; mainly confined to Nepali and Tibetan bulk buyers. The primary supply sources were the Samalakha-based Bawaria poaching gangs of Haryana. The mode of delivery ranged from personal meetings to parcel packets by rail or road. Sansar Chand who places secrecy and reliability at a premium tends to trust his own relatives much more than others. Consequently, more and more family members began to get caught in traps laid for them. A characteristic of his dealings was that he collected and paid advance payment in cash for supplies. This worked down the line, where the actual poacher, most often a local villager in search of quick cash, would be given money with instructions to get back in touch when the ‘goods were ready’. There is no reliable estimate of Sansar Chand’s real worth, but his ill-gotten gains have been ploughed into acquiring both movable and immovable properties.

After years of seeing him thumb his nose at the police, sustained efforts by enforcement agencies saw Sansar nailed by the Delhi Police on June 30, 2005 from Patel Nagar. He was remanded to the custody of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). As a result of meticulous investigations that revealed his connection with hardcore organised crime, for the first time in the history of wildlife enforcement, the CBI invoked the provisions of the Maharashtra Control of Organised Crimes Act (MCOCA), as extended to the NCT of Delhi, against him and members of his crime syndicate. This time he was unable to escape prison and has since been incarcerated in jail as the investigation into his crime empire continue apace.

The arrest of Sansar Chand has certainly proved to be a strong deterrent. It has demonstrated that law will ultimately catch up with the toughest, most elusive offender. But has the removal of one of the biggest players brought down the extent of wildlife crime qualitatively and quantitatively in Delhi and other places? The statistics of seizures, for what they are worth, unfortunately do not support such a notion. What the statistics suggest is that rather than go after individuals, we must target ‘the system’. India’s laws are fairly stringent and compare well with any international legislation. Where we fail is on-ground enforcement. There have been many impressive seizures, yet the quality of subsequent investigation has not been up to scratch. Consequently, we have lost the deterrence of prompt arrest, and even when arrests are made, the ease with which bail is obtained gives hardened criminals and new recruits the impression that they will literally be above the law if they are caught.

Then there is the problem of witnesses turning hostile, which often leads to acquittals. All cases under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 are instituted in the courts on the basis of ‘Complaints’ not ‘Chargesheets’. This delays trial because of statutory formalities of pre-charge evidence for long. A little fine-tuning and even minor procedural changes could multiply the lethality of the statute, while an institutionalised coordinated approach on the part of enforcement agencies could vastly increase their efficacy.

Forensic support for investigations need drastic improvement and enforcement officials need to be exposed to the latest techniques and scientific advances by way of exposure and training to international standards. Intelligence and access to reliable data-banks are the sine qua non of an effective enforcement regime, which we need to develop through the establishment of the proposed National Wildlife Crime Control Bureau.
Enhanced bilateral cooperation with China and Nepal would be another nail in the coffin of the wildlife trade, which looks upon our borders as non-existent, not just porous. It is not as though we do not know what to do. For instance, organised syndicates could begin to be dismantled through the forfeiture of illegally-acquired property; professional investigations and successful prosecution would further cripple the trade, which is actually not being run by either capable, or clever people. All that enforcement agencies need is to work in unison and to a plan.

All this is, of course, easier said than done, though some simple but vital steps could deliver a qualitative change in the existing enforcement regime. Nevertheless, we have little choice but to push ahead with the options available to us. With Sariska now empty of tigers and other forests such as Ranthambhore and Tadoba under attack, the mere arrest of one Sansar Chand, though crucial, cannot hope to stem the bloody tide because literally hundreds of budding young Sansar Chands are waiting in the wings to take advantage of this lucrative, lethal trade.

Animal Underworld – An Excerpt From a New Book ‘Black Market’ On The Wildlife Trade In Endangered Species in Asia


Of all the countries in Asia, China is the biggest destination for illegal wildlife. It is the world’s largest consumer of ivory, importing as much as fifteen tons each year, the equivalent of fifteen hundred dead elephants. China swallows up more than half of the ten thousand tons of freshwater turtles traded annually in the region. It is the biggest market for tiger bone, leopard cat, rhino horn and sea horse. As an old Chinese proverb says, the nation consumes everything with “its back to the sky.”

The magnitude of the problem is staggering. In 2001, China claimed a population of 1.3 billion. That is roughly five times the population of the United States. Nearly one out of every four humans lives in China. Growing prosperity has brought undreamed of buying power to the masses. If just 0.2 percent of the Chinese population earned enough money to buy a single bear gall bladder, it would take all the bears in North America to supply them.

“China is like a vacuum cleaner,” says James Compton at TRAFFIC, an organisation that monitors the illegal trade in the region. “It is the single greatest threat to wildlife in the whole of Asia.”

While it is easy to point the finger at China, there are plenty of other culprits. The US is the biggest buyer of exotic pets in the world. Nearly seven million households own a pet bird and a further four million own a pet snake, turtle, or iguana. Japan is a major purchaser of ivory. Taiwan and Korea have also used their immense wealth to acquire wild animals or products from around the region.

The supply routes begin far from these developed nations in some of the poorest and most remote parts of the region. Here the forests are still relatively intact and rare animals are easily obtainable. With just a few village contacts, a friend in the customs department, and the liberal dispensation of cash, almost anything is possible.

Indonesia lies at the start of the trail. Rich in wildlife but impoverished in every other way, it comprises more than 17,000 islands, each of which can be used to ship out animals for profit.

From this heavily populated archipelago, tens of thousands of pangolins, parrots, and other native species are illegally traded every year. Orangutans, once numbering hundreds of thousands, are now sufficiently rare that this species is likely to be the first great ape to become extinct in modern times. So many Sumatran tigers have been poached that less than 500 remain in the wild, a population that many believe is unsustainable.

“Indonesia’s problems are immense,” says Compton. “But at least there is recognition from the government that something needs to be done. This is always the first step towards stopping the trade.”

India is another of the major suppliers, sending elephants, tigers and rhino horn to Nepal, Burma, China, and Tibet. During the 1970s, under the watchful eye of its Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, India clamped down heavily on the trade, which allowed populations of tigers and rhinos to rebound. That period ended when Gandhi was assassinated. With its long and porous borders and poor enforcement, India today provides easy pickings for wildlife traffickers attracted by some of Asia’s last great strongholds of rare mammals.

But suppliers of wild animals need middlemen to facilitate trade and transport. That’s where more developed countries like Malaysia, Thailand, and Singapore fill the void. Thailand was once a major supplier. Having killed many of its own wild animals, it has now found an equally lucrative role as a transit centre, where middlemen buy and sell wildlife from neighbouring countries. In Malaysia and Singapore, the trade also flourishes. Under a veneer of cooperation, the nations’ shipping ports, airports, and borders are sieves allowing vast amounts of wildlife to be channelled in and out of the countries.

“Smugglers identify the loose links of the chain,” says a former enforcement officer for the US government. “Their objective is to move illegal shipments with the minimum cost and the lowest risk. It’s like gems or drugs or oil. It’s about controlling the supply routes.”
Formerly staunch communist countries like Laos and Vietnam have become the newest links in the supply chain, funnelling wildlife over their porous borders into China. To avoid the more heavily enforced land routes, smugglers use private planes to fly consignments of turtles and pangolins from Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian capital, to Vientiane in Laos. From this unregulated wildlife hub, they are sent by truck to the Vietnamese border. Shipments are also transported by boat from Indonesia to Vietnam, often transiting through intermediate destinations to avoid unwarranted attention. When officials at one border crossing clamp down on the underground channels, another one opens up to take the slack.

In the face of this global onslaught, the response from the authorities has been wholly inadequate. The loopholes available to traffickers and the weak penalties meted out to those caught only serve to facilitate the trafficking of animals. In order to contain the trade, governments have to hit the big players who control the major routes and who are often protected by politicians. So far the powers-that-be have not done so.


In a small, crowded shop in the Tsukiji district near Tokyo’s famous Fish Market, the scale and international reach of the trade is hard to ignore. Surrounded by mounted deer heads, giant turtle shells, and piles of ginseng, a stuffed polar bear wrapped in polyethylene is on sale with a price tag of US $11,000. The polar bear supposedly came from Alaska, although in the wildlife trade it is hard to corroborate such claims. Stuffed tigers, black pumas, and leopards are also up for grabs. For US $408,000, the shop will even sell a stuffed giant panda over the Internet. Asked about the blatant display and sale of endangered species, Mr. Itoi, the vendor, says that he has no problems with the police. “Buying one or two items will not hurt at all,” he says. ‘There is no way you will be in trouble.”

The same, however, is not true of the giant panda. Recently, seven people in China were executed for attempting to export the national animal. “I cannot display it here,” says Itoi, a man in his sixties. “You can get killed for that.”

All images in this box are from Black Market – Inside the Endangered Species Trade in Asia by Ben Davies. Foreword by Jane Goodall, Produced by Adam Oswell, Main Photography by Patrick Brown, Published by Earth Aware Editions, Softcover, 176 pages.
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