Onkuri Majumdar, Wildlife Conservationist
Taking a Strategic Approach Against Wildlife Trafficking
Growing up in India, Onkuri Majumdar discovered her love of animals and has now devoted her life to prevent the trafficking that is decimating numerous species across Southeast Asia. The organization she works for, Freeland India, covers all aspects of the trade, from sting operations and arrests to legal training for enforcement officers and education campaigns.
Speaking from her office in Delhi, Majumdar explains the connection between wildlife trafficking and other forms of organized crime; the importance of strong laws and stiffer sentences; and why the plight of animals means so much to her. —Simon Worrall
You are originally from India. Tell us a bit about your childhood and how it connects with your work against wildlife trafficking.
I was the sort of child who always loved animals. It never occurred to me that I could actually make a career involved with animal-related activities. I thought the only options open to me would be a vet or a field researcher, and neither of those really appealed to me.
At college, I took up mathematics and statistics, but I soon realized I didn't want to continue in that field. So I started working with the Wildlife Protection Society of India. They dealt a lot with the big cat trade, which at that time was really heating up because of the huge demand from China. I thought, This is fascinating. And I can do good fieldwork without being a biologist. My only regret is that there's not much interaction with animals. The only interaction I have is with animal parts, when they are horribly dead.
Give us a picture of the dimensions of the illegal trade in wildlife.
It is estimated to be one of the biggest illegal trades in the world. No one knows the exact amount but it is counted among the big five, right up there with arms or narcotics trafficking. It is estimated to be worth billions and billions of dollars a year. A lot of the trafficking is done by organized crime networks, which are often moving drugs, illegal cigarettes, and alcohol. Sometimes it goes hand in hand with human trafficking. It's a terrible thing for society, and [it's] high time all governments started to make wildlife crime a big priority.
What effect is trafficking having on wildlife?
It's like a suction hose sweeping up animals. This decimates populations in the wild as well as affecting ecosystems. The traffickers remove animals from every level of the ecosystem, from top predators to little ones, like pangolins. If you say, let's save the tiger, you're not only saving the tiger, you're saving every animal that shares its habitat. You're saving trees, which are watersheds for the rivers originating in the forest, which help farmers downstream.
You are heavily involved in the legal and legislative side of the battle against wildlife crimes. Why is this so important? And what are the hurdles to effective enforcement?
Criminals generally see wildlife crime as a low-risk, high-profit enterprise. In many countries, they get off with a slap on the wrist, and that encourages them to stay in the trade. There are many repeat offenders, with people either jumping bail or paying a ridiculously low fine and going straight back into the trade. Even in a country like India, where wildlife laws are strong, the knowledge of implementation isn't that widespread.
So we have started what we call the Wildlife Legal Help Centre, a 1-800 toll-free number that enforcement officials can call to ask legal questions on wildlife law at any stage of the investigation or prosecution of a case. Many cases fail because the evidence isn't presented according to the requirements of the Evidence Act, or a crucial section has not been filled out in the police charge sheet. We also teach people how to present themselves in court or face cross-examination.
You focus on the supply side of wildlife trafficking. What about demand? Surely, until China cracks down on the use of trafficked wildlife parts, and the cultural superstitions behind it, this will continue.
Absolutely right. But it's not only China. Vietnam is turning out, more than anyone expected, to be a huge consumer. India and most of South Asia are not so much consumer countries. But they are a huge source for practically everything that is demanded in the trade, from big cats to musk deer for the musk oil, elephant ivory, rhino horn, exotic turtles and tortoises, rare insects, butterflies, even spiders. Most of the consumers are men. But pangolins are the most heavily traded mammals right now and one of the primary uses of pangolins is to improve lactation. So women are involved, too.
What are you doing to curb Chinese demand?
It's a long-term strategy, working with the government. For example, the Chinese government recently banned shark-fin soup at all state-run banquets. That wasn't the direct result of anything we did, though we have been campaigning against shark fin usage for a long time. Interestingly, they didn't do it under the slogan of "let's save sharks." They said, rich people throw shark-fin banquets, so banning them is an anti-corruption measure, which is fine by us. Whatever works.
What motivates you in your work, Onkuri?
I love nature because it constantly drives home to me that we are part of something so much bigger than us. And to have something so big and thrilling destroyed because of the greed of a few people is outrageous. I almost feel personally insulted. Why would someone want to destroy something that took millions of years to come into being? That motivates me.
In Their Words
Wildlife crime is a terrible thing for society, and it’s high time all governments started to make it a big priority.
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