On December 10, the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB) led a joint raid that included various state-level forest departments. It ended with the seizure of over 3,500 mongoose hairbrushes from Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan, West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh.
The operation was unprecedented because officials simultaneously raided 13 locations the same day. They also had the help of the Wildlife Trust of India’s (WTI’s) volunteer network.
There are six species of mongoose in India. The common grey, ruddy and the small Indian mongooses are found almost throughout the country and are the most affected by the trade in hairbrushes. The crab-eating mongoose occupy areas from the Dooars of northern West Bengal to northeast India. The stripe-necked and the brown mongooses are found mainly in the Western Ghats.
All species are listed in Schedule II of the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, so trading in them is illegal. Violators are liable to be imprisoned for at least one year and fined at least Rs 5,000. However, consumer awareness hasn’t caught up to the fact that mongoose hairbrushes are illegal.
“Efforts to poach species that have trade-value will occur regardless of whether they are protected or not, whether or not they figure in Schedules I, II or III” Prerna Panwar, an assistant manager in the Wildlife Crime Control Division, WTI, said. “So it’s the responsibility of enforcement agencies to ensure such illegal trade is stopped.”
According to Jose Louies, a conservationist with the WTI, “Paint brushes are commonly used and so the demand for these mongoose hair brushes is spread across the country. They are used for regular varnishing work and also by artists because of their quality.”
The raw hair comes from various parts of the country but the manufacturing is restricted mostly to Bijnor, Uttar Pradesh, and some in parts of West Bengal and Tamil Nadu.
The trade in these hairbrushes is significantly different from that in rhino horns and tiger pelts. “Their end users are widespread and, in most cases, they don’t know the hairbrushes are illegal,” Panwar said. “The end product is also different because it is widely available” and affordable.
Mongooses are also protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. This is an international agreement to restrain the trade of certain species of flora and fauna, although it has no enforcement teeth.
Louies said major suppliers from outside the country had confirmed to him that they routinely imported hairbrushes from India. But regulating such cross-border trade is tricky because mongooses aren’t legally protected in all countries. So Louies wishes to break “the supply chain in each state in India”.
Each adult mongoose yields 40 g of hair on average. Of that, manufacturers deem some 20 g ‘good enough’ to make paintbrushes with. So about 50 mongooses are killed for a kilogram of usable hair, which sells for Rs 3,000 to Rs 5,000.
In 2017, the WCCB seized “about 25,000 mongoose hairbrushes from Madurai and Coimbatore” in Tamil Nadu, according to Tilottama Varma, additional director of the WCCB.
“After interrogating the people running these businesses, we found that the brushes were being made somewhere near Meerut.”
The WCCB followed up with a raid in Bijnor on September 30. There, officials seized about 56,000 mongoose hairbrushes and 156 kg of raw hair. When they questioned the people there, Varma and co. found out the hair was smuggled from Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala on trains and through post.
So the WCCB and the WTI organised a larger operation – the one that played out on December 10.
Panwar explained that her colleagues are currently analysing the brushes seized to locate their manufactures and then their links to suppliers.
Through the raid, the officials wanted to uncover the extent of mongoose poaching in India. According to Louies, persons from tribal communities like Narikuravar, Hakki Pakki, Gond, Gulia, Sepera and Nath are also involved.
“It’s part of their lifestyle” Louise says. “They hunt mongoose, eat the meat and set the hair aside for buyers.”
However, many organisations are working to move them away from these practices.
One is the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust, which worked with the Irula, a tribe that lives in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Zai Whitaker, joint director of the trust’s centre for herpetology, said they’d have failed if it weren’t for the Irula Snake Catchers’ Industrial Cooperative Society, which provided alternative livelihoods.
“The society supplies snake venom to labs that produce anti-venom serum,” she told The Wire. “This has brought them an additional source of income, and also [helps] save the lives of snakebite victims.”
The organisations’ members think state forest departments are paying heed to their work – even as they continue to undermine the trade itself and nip the demand.
Additionally, scientists haven’t recently conducted population studies of the six mongoose species in India and assessed the threats they face. (It’s also known that the number of crab-eating mongooses has been falling.) This needs to be done because population studies help describe the size of the crisis. And Varma thinks the raids make just the case for it.
Rishika Pardikar is a freelance journalist in Bengaluru.