On the edges of forests in eastern India, people have been stumbling upon hungry, scared marsupials that they do not recognize. The animals are kangaroos.
Three of the marsupials were rescued by wildlife officers this month after residents called in sightings. One was found dead. Videos of the sightings were shared widely in India, drawing national attention.
Wildlife experts say the animals were almost certainly born in breeding facilities in Southeast Asia and smuggled overland into India, where they were probably destined to be exotic pets. Some social media users have demanded the arrest of whoever had trafficked them. But so far no arrests have been made.
Some view the sightings as an example of how brazen the wildlife smuggling trade has become. Lawmakers in India’s Parliament are drafting legislation to plug the 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 exotic species, said Belinda Wright, a wildlife activist in New Delhi, India’s capital. The authorities can only cite customs rules that prevent people from smuggling animals without paying duties or having permits for them, she added.
The police “can get them for smuggling, but they can’t get them for anything else,” said Wright, the executive director of the nonprofit Wildlife Protection Society of India. Once exotic animals have been successfully smuggled into the country, she said, people who are caught with them tend to falsely — and successfully — claim that they were bred domestically in captivity.
Kangaroos were never 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 U.S. list of endangered and threatened wildlife in 1995.
The animals are not common pets in India, but in recent weeks, kangaroos have been seen walking along roadsides in the northeastern state of West Bengal, a known hotbed of wildlife smuggling.
Wright said the chances that such kangaroos would multiply in the wild in India were 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 as part of large groups of animals that could reproduce and establish a community, she added.
In one recent kangaroo sighting, Sanjay Dutta, a forestry official in West Bengal, was patrolling a protected area when residents of a nearby village called to say they had discovered some unfamiliar wild creatures.
The three animals were “terrified and wounded, and seemed to be searching for something to eat,” 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 have been looking after them.
The smuggling of endangered and exotic fauna is “an unfortunate and increasing trend” in India, and is partly a result of rules that restrict the trade of native species, the government’s Directorate of Revenue Intelligence said in a report two years ago.
Customs officials in the country have confiscated many thousands of nonnative species in recent years, including falcons, finches, orangutans, monkeys and macaws. Some were endangered; many were destined for sale as exotic pets.
The wildlife officials who found the kangaroos this month work in a narrow, landlocked corridor of northeastern India that borders Bangladesh and Nepal. The corridor is known as a major transit point for smugglers moving exotic animals from Southeast Asia.
India was among the early signatories of 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 imperil the survival of threatened and endangered species.
But India lags 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 1972 Wild Life (Protection) Act would put the possession of exotic species under the purview of wildlife protection authorities instead of customs officials. The draft legislation, currently in committee, is expected to pass whenever it is introduced in Parliament. Sinha said that it would most likely “address the legal vacuum in regulating exotic species in India to some extent.”
For now, though, India’s patchy rules around imported wildlife are a draw for smugglers eyeing rich customers 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 later died.
The two that remain have been slowly recovering and will probably be sent to a zoo in the city of Kolkata, a few hundred miles away, said Dawa S. Sherpa, the park’s director.
“There are already a number of kangaroos there, and the zoo has proper infrastructure,” she said. “Let them grow up there.”