Poachers and traffickers would capture animals, including elephant calves, from forests in Northeast India, and sell them at a de facto wildlife auction at the Sonepur fair. Photo by Alamy
At the annual Sonepur fair in India, trading in wildlife became something of a global spectacle for people drawn to this sordid and sickening enterprise. Poachers and traffickers would capture animals, including elephant calves from forests in Northeast India, and sell them at a de facto wildlife auction through the fair in Bihar, an Indian state bordering Nepal. Traders would acquire the animals and ship them from Nepal to customers in Asia, and possibly to neighboring China with its large market for wildlife and wildlife body parts. It was one of the ugliest illegal wildlife trading posts happening right out in the open.
Thanks to a strong, well-planned, and methodically executed campaign by our Humane Society International/India team that included litigation, partnering with local law enforcement, and daily on-the-ground monitoring, the month-long fair has just wrapped up this year without the sale of any exotic and native wildlife species.
The Sonepur fair, which dates back to more than a century, used to be Asia’s largest cattle fair, but over the last few decades it gained notoriety as a hub for the illegal wildlife trade. In 2016, research commissioned by the Animal Welfare Board of India revealed that illegal trade in animals, from protected birds like parakeets and owls to reptiles and mammals like elephants, was rampant at the fair. The traffickers would create a fake document trail to sell young elephants to buyers. What is even more shocking is that all of this was happening in flagrant violation of an Indian law passed in 1972 that bans all sale of wildlife. While the illegal sale of wildlife at the Sonepur fair was common knowledge, not much was being done to end it.
Our team, working the local group People for Animals, began by using the Animal Welfare Board of India report to strengthen an existing petition in Bihar’s high court, and won a ruling instructing the Bihar government to create a task force to protect the interest of animals. Eventually, we won a recommendation for an absolute ban on the sale and display of any wildlife at the fair.
Once the month-long fair began this year in November, our HSI/India team was on the ground every day, on the lookout for even a single wildlife sale. Government agencies, acting on the court’s recommendation, posted signs around the fair warning people about the illegality of buying and selling wildlife. Working with local authorities, we ensured that traders could not exhibit or sell any wildlife, including exotic birds. An infamous market within the fair that sold exotic and native species of birds, Chidiya Bazaar, was completely shut down due to strict police vigilance.
India is in the midst of a wildlife trafficking epidemic, with poaching and illegal wildlife trafficking on the rise. While the country has strong laws to protect its wildlife, enforcement has been lax in this country of a billion-plus people, with animal body parts fetching thousands of dollars on the international market. But the work of our HSI/India team at Sonepur shows that persistence and a well-planned campaign can make a difference, as we’ve seen with our other forays to stop the trade in animals for animal sacrifice purposes between India and Nepal. In 2018, our team will concentrate on prosecuting people who have illegal custody of elephants in India, and we will continue our work to monitor and maintain strict vigilance at the Sonepur fair in coming years. But today, let us take a moment to celebrate this incredible victory for wildlife in the subcontinent of Asia.