Why This Indian Market Is Allowed to Sell 16,000 Wild Animals Annually

A clear lack of law enforcement rules the day in India’s Nagaland market, according to a new report.
The White-breasted nuthatch, in profile. (Photo: Universal Images Group / Getty Images)
Jun 28, 2013· 1 MIN READ
Joanna writes about environment and energy for the NYT, Popular Science, OnEarth Magazine, and more.

The beautiful nuthatch has quite the name to live up to. But with its soft coral orange belly and brilliant blue back and shoulders contrasting with black-and-white-striped wings, it doesn't disappoint.

In its home forests in the northeastern hills of India, it is a splash of color in the treetops. It also, however, draws the eye at local markets, where researchers recently discovered the species, as well as other vulnerable animals for sale.

In theory, all large wildlife is protected in India, but during a year-long survey of a local market in Tuensang, in Nagaland state, researchers from the Sálim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History documented thousands of birds, mammals and amphibians on display by local vendors.

The amazing diversity of wildlife up for sale in this area reflects the fact that Nagaland state, which borders Myanmar to the north, is part of a region internationally recognized as one of 34 global biodiversity hot spots. In this remote part of India, tribal traditions often trump national regulations and hunting wildlife for ritual purposes and meat and medicine is commonplace.

In addition to the beautiful nuthatch, the researchers documented an additional 34 species of birds and eight mammalian species on display at market stalls. All told, the researchers estimated that over 16,600 animals were sold every year at just this one small market.

Even relatively abundant species like the common hoopoe, a ground-feeding bird with a funky feather headdress, showed up in alarming numbers for sale, marketed as a cure for asthma. Water monitor lizards are also eaten in this area, with the belief that they will increase longevity.

According to the researchers, this continuing exploitation of local wildlife is largely because the vast majority, about 93 percent of habitat in Nagaland, is owned and managed by clans, villages, and district councils. These local government bodies have the authority to enforce traditional laws, and, the authors speculate, most likely assume the authority to not enforce national laws that conflict with traditional lifestyles. Most people in this area still depend on food gathered from the forests to survive.

"Apart from Tuensang, there are at least 10 other towns where wild animals are being sold," write the researchers. "There are also markets at the village level and we do not have data on any of these.

"Given the traditional dependency of people on wild resources, cultural sentiments and livelihoods, any interventions for wildlife conservation must have the involvement and support of local inhabitants, which will necessitate offering alternative livelihoods."