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A De Brazza's monkey
Chennai, India

Chennai Has Become India’s Illegal Animal Farm

It’s 12.01am on a November night in 2022. Passengers of Thai Airways Flight TG 0337 from Bangkok await their luggage at the Chennai international airport. A stinking bag draws the attention of customs officials, who open it and find four sedated marmoset monkeys native to South America. 

Thousands of such exotic animals reach Indian shores to feed the clandestine markets in Chennai. The trade in such species is illegal, but once the animals reach the market the law is virtually toothless.

While there are no official records of transactions, the Times of India’s calculations based on inputs from traders and officials show that Chennai’s exotic pet trade could be worth ten billion rupees (US$ 120 million). Well connected to the Far East, the southern metropolis has emerged as a hub of this illicit market.

Sold under law’s nose

At the Pallavaram Friday market, barely a couple of kilometers from Chennai airport, exotic animals worth more than a million rupees (US$ 12,000) are sold in a day. At Broadway, on Sundays alone, wildlife worth the same amount is sold. And six breeding farms in Chennai each stock exotic wildlife worth at least a billion rupees (US$ 12 million).

A pair of macaws fetches up to 1.5 million rupees (US$ 18,000), and a pair of cockatoos up to 500,000 (US$ 6,000) in the markets that function openly at Red Hills, Kolathur, Pallavaram and Broadway. The list goes on. You can buy a De Brazza’s monkey for Rs 800,000-1 million, a marmoset for Rs 400,000-1 million, a tamarin (a squirrel-sized monkey) for Rs 200,000-600,000, an iguana for Rs 100,000 and a spectacled caiman for Rs 200,000.

Srinivas Reddy, wildlife warden of Tamil Nadu, says the Wildlife Protection Act has been amended, but officials like him are awaiting guidelines. Without new guidelines, the maximum legal action is a fine of 50 rupees (US$ 0.6) under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, he says.

Mules easy to find

Customs officials say it’s the stench of animal urine that alerts them every time to exotic wildlife in the luggage of passengers. Shanthi Pillai, inspector with the state Wildlife Crime Control Bureau, says the smuggling has grown fast over the years. 

“When I joined the department in 2013, the first call I got was about aquarium fishes. The next was about six snakes. Now the frequency of calls and the number of species have gone up,” she says. Recently, she seized 300 reptiles, including 200 snakes, from a passenger from Bangkok.

It all begins with the ‘wildlife carriers’ who are much like drug mules. Many of them are residents of Thailand, Malaysia and Sri Lanka. Some are laborers from southern Tamil Nadu in India in need of quick money. They carry the animals from Bangkok, where they are bred after being sourced from across the world.

In one consignment caught in October 2022, officials seized 162 ball pythons, 198 albino red-eared slider turtles, 7 monitor lizards and 53 corn snakes. In August the same year, six monkeys and over 150 iguanas were seized. 

“Once, we caught a young engineer who worked as an e-commerce company operator,” says Pillai. “They get 10,000 rupees [US$ 120] plus ticket and expenses.”

They’re breeding animals too

But what’s more worrying is the large-scale breeding of all kinds of wildlife without checks. This increases the risk of zoonotic diseases spreading and of local fauna being overrun by exotic species. 

“Many are now doing genetic breeding, creating their own new species without understanding the ecological risks,” says E. Prashant, Chennai’s Wildlife Warden.

In Chennai, around two dozen breeding farms function like factories, with state-of-the-art infrastructure, on East Coast Road and at Tambaram and Koyambedu. They churn out hundreds of thousands of exotic pets every year. 

Other cities in the state are not far behind, with their own breeding farms for sugar gliders, meerkats, all types of monkeys, birds, and reptiles, including crocodiles from North America and Brazil. 

Activists say the law should ensure these animals are not let into the wild. There must also be more stringent punishment for those caught in illegal possession of exotic wildlife

Komal Gautam produced this story with a grant from EJN’s Biodiversity Media Initiative. It was first published by the Times of India on 8 October 2023 and has been lightly edited for length and clarity. The Biodiversity Media Initiative is supported by Arcadia — a charitable fund of Peter Baldwin and Lisbet Rausing. 

Banner image: A De Brazza's monkey / Credit: Garret Voight via Flickr.