On the forest edges of eastern India, people stumble upon hungry, frightened marsupials they don’t recognize. The animals are kangaroos.
Three of the marsupials were rescued by conservationists this month after residents called for sightings. One was found dead. Videos of the sightings were widely shared in India, attracting national attention.
Wildlife experts say the animals were almost certainly born at breeding facilities in Southeast Asia and smuggled overland to India, where they were likely destined to become exotic pets. Some social media users have demanded the arrest of whoever trafficked them. But no arrests have been made so far.
Some consider the sightings an example of how brutal the wildlife smuggling trade has become. Lawmakers in India’s parliament are drafting legislation to close the loopholes that allow many animal traffickers to go unpunished.
India essentially has “no law” under which people can be arrested or prosecuted for possessing exotic species, said Belinda Wright, a wildlife activist in India’s capital New Delhi. The authorities can only cite customs rules that prevent people from smuggling animals without having import duties or permits for them, she added.
The police “can catch them for smuggling, but they can’t get them for anything else,” said Ms Wright, director of the non-profit Wildlife Protection Society of India. Once exotic animals have been successfully smuggled into the country, she said, people caught with them tend to falsely — and successfully — claim they were domestically bred in captivity.
Kangaroos have never been domesticated. The 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 Threatened and Endangered Wildlife in 1995.
The animals are not common pets in India, but in recent weeks kangaroos have been spotted walking along roadsides in the northeastern state of West Bengal, a known hotbed of animal smuggling.
Ms Wright said the chances of such kangaroos proliferating in the wild in India were slim, especially since they are mammals and not plants or amphibians. They are also often smuggled into the country one or two at a time, rather than as part of large groups of animals that can reproduce and form a community, she added.
In a recent kangaroo sighting, Sanjay Dutta, a forest ranger in West Bengal, was patrolling a protected area when residents of a nearby village called to say they had discovered unknown wild creatures.
The three animals were “terrified and injured, and seemed to be looking for something to eat,” Mr Dutta said of the creatures he found in the village of Milanpally.
They were dehydrated and malnourished when they were taken to the North Bengal Wild Animals Park, a safari center, according to wildlife specialists who cared for them.
The smuggling of endangered and exotic fauna is “an unfortunate and increasing trend” in India, due in part to regulations restricting trade in native species, the government’s Directorate of Revenue Intelligence said in a report two years ago.
Customs officials in the country have seized many thousands of alien species in recent years, including falcons, finches, orangutans, monkeys and macaws. Some were threatened; many were intended for sale as exotic pets.
The conservationists who found the kangaroos this month are working in a narrow landlocked corridor in northeastern India bordering Bangladesh and Nepal. The corridor is known as a major transit point for smugglers transporting exotic animals from Southeast Asia.
India was one of the first signatories to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES, a 1975 treaty to ensure that trade would not endanger the survival of endangered and threatened species .
But India is lagging behind other countries in giving CITES a “proper legislative structure” 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 Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972 would place the possession of exotic species under the purview of conservation authorities rather than customs officials. the draft law, currently on commission, is expected to be adopted when introduced in Parliament. Mr Sinha said it would most likely “address to some degree the legal vacuum in regulating exotic species in India”.
But for now, India’s patchy rules around imported animals have attracted smugglers seeking wealthy clients in New Delhi, Mumbai and other major cities who are willing to pay a premium for unusual pets.
As for the three kangaroos found alive in West Bengal this month, one died later.
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 a number of kangaroos there and the zoo has good infrastructure,” she said. “Let them grow up there.”