On the fringes of forests in eastern India, people have stumbled across hungry, frightened marsupials they don’t recognize. The animals are kangaroos.
Three of the marsupials were rescued by wildlife agents this month after residents drew attention. One was found dead. Videos of the sightings were widely shared in India, drawing national attention.
Wildlife experts say the animals were almost certainly born in breeding facilities in Southeast Asia and smuggled overland to India, where they were likely destined to be exotic pets. Some social media users demanded the arrest of those who trafficked them. But so far no arrests have been made.
Some see the sightings as an example of how brazen the wildlife smuggling trade has become. Lawmakers in India’s Parliament are drafting legislation to plug legal loopholes that allow many animal smugglers to operate with impunity.
India essentially has “no law” under which people can be arrested or prosecuted for possessing alien species, said Belinda Wright, a wildlife activist in India’s capital New Delhi. Authorities can only cite customs rules that prevent people from smuggling animals without paying fees or having licenses for them, she added.
Police “can catch them for smuggling, but they can’t catch them for anything else,” said Wright, executive director of the nonprofit Wildlife Protection Society of India. Once the exotic animals were successfully smuggled into the country, she said, people who are caught with them tend to falsely – and successfully – claim that they were domestically bred in captivity.
Kangaroos were never domesticated. Marsupials are native to Australia, where they number in the tens of millions and have been hunted for generations. They were removed from the US list of endangered wild animals in 1995.
The animals are not common pets in India, but in recent weeks, kangaroos have been seen roaming the roads in the northeastern state of West Bengal, a known hotbed of wildlife smuggling.
Mrs. Wright said the chances that these kangaroos will multiply in the wild in India are slim, mainly because they are mammals and not plants or amphibians. They also tend to be smuggled into the country one or two at a time, rather than being part of large groups of animals that can breed and establish a community, she added.
In a recent kangaroo sighting, Sanjay Dutta, a forestry officer in West Bengal, was patrolling a protected area when residents of a nearby village called to say they had discovered some unknown wild creatures.
The three animals were “terrified and injured, and seemed to be looking for something to eat,” Dutta said of the creatures he encountered in Milanpally village.
They were dehydrated and malnourished when they were taken to North Bengal Wild Animals Park, a safari centre, according to wildlife experts who care for them.
Smuggling of exotic and endangered wildlife is “an unfortunate and growing trend” in India, and is in part a result of rules restricting trade in native species, the government’s Revenue Intelligence Directorate said in a report two years ago. .
The country’s customs officials have confiscated many thousands of non-native species in recent years, including hawks, finches, orangutans, monkeys and macaws. Some were in danger; many were intended for sale as exotic pets.
Wildlife officials who found the kangaroos this month work in a narrow, landlocked corridor in northeast India that borders Bangladesh and Nepal. The corridor is known as a major transit point for smugglers transporting exotic animals from Southeast Asia.
India was among the first signatories to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES, a 1975 treaty designed to ensure that trade did not jeopardize the survival of endangered and endangered species.
But India lags behind other countries in giving CITES an “adequate legislative framework” in its legal system, said Debadityo Sinha, a senior resident fellow at the Vidhi Center for Legal Policy in New Delhi.
A proposed amendment to India’s 1972 Wildlife Protection Act would place ownership of alien species under the purview of wildlife protection authorities rather than customs officials. The law project, currently on commission, should be approved whenever it is introduced in Parliament. Sinha said it would likely “solve the legal vacuum in the regulation of alien species in India to some extent”.
For now, though, India’s ragged rules on imported wildlife are a lure for smugglers looking for wealthy clients in New Delhi, Mumbai and other big cities who are willing to pay extra for unusual pets.
As for the three kangaroos found alive in West Bengal this month, one later died.
The two that remain are slowly recovering and are likely to be sent to a zoo in the city of Kolkata, a few hundred kilometers away, said Dawa S. Sherpa, the park’s director.
“There are already several kangaroos there and the zoo has adequate infrastructure,” she said. “Let them grow up there.”