The Saran district in Bihar is infamous for its annual Sonepur Fair, which is Asia’s biggest cattle fair. The fair has been around for more than a century and draws thousands of visitors over the course of a month.
However, in the last few decades, it has become a hub for illegal wildlife trade.
In 2016, a study conducted on behalf of the Animal Welfare Board of India revealed the astonishing level of illegal trade going on at the fair.
From protected birds and reptiles to mammals — they were all being sold openly.
This included the sale of live Asian elephants. The investigation found that the elephants, mostly calves, were illegally caught from the forests of Northeast India. Later, the traffickers created a fake document trail and sold the young elephants to buyers.
The Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972 bans the sale of wildlife in India. Though the illegal sale of wildlife at this fair was common knowledge to everyone, efforts which had been taken to put an end to this issue were isolated and unsuccessful.
However, acting against this trade was especially crucial because Bihar shares a porous border with Nepal and these animals could reach China, which has a thriving market for wildlife.
The HSI/India team used the 2016 findings as a base to build a strong campaign to stop the illegal sale of animals in the 2017 Sonepur Fair. The report formed a part of the evidence used by HSI/India and People for Animals to further strengthen an existing writ petition in Patna High Court, demanding stringent action against the illegal activities at the fair.
After several hearings in court, the Honourable Patna High Court passed an order instructing the Bihar government to create a task force to protect the interest of animals. Subsequent case proceedings ensured that recommendations asking for an absolute ban on the sale and display of any wildlife at the fair were presented, along with other capacity building and awareness related activities which were to be taken up.
In 2017, the Sonepur Fair began on the November 2, and the HSI/India team was on-site, checking on the activities of the fair, right from the beginning.
Constant conversations with all stakeholders, including Mr Harihar Prasad, the District Magistrate of Saran, ensured a check was kept on the illegal sale of any wildlife species which resulted in absolutely no sale or display of wildlife, including exotic birds.
Another win for HSI/India was when the infamous Chidiya Bazaar was completely shut down due to the strict police vigilance and the fear of action against defaulters.
In fact, a police camp was set up close to the Chidiya Bazaar to ensure that the situation remained calm and positive during the month-long event.
The fact that signboards with directions to Chidiya Bazaar were painted black is a landmark step and a positive reinforcement of the fact that when animal protectors and the law enforcers come together, illegal traders can finally feel the heat of the law.
Moving forward, HSI/India will ensure that the enforcement agencies pursue strict vigilance in the coming years, by making frequent visits to the fair and communicating with the task force.
It is imperative that the people involved in the enforcement of the court directive aren’t deterred about this in the future and continue doing the great work they did in 2017.
Quote of the day:“Don't cry because it's over, smile because it happened.” ― Dr. Seuss