NEW DELHI -- Indian authorities set fire Sunday to a stockpile of tiger skins, elephant tusks, rhino horns and other illegal animal parts in an effort to discourage wildlife smuggling in South Asia. Animal poaching and smuggling have flourished in India, driven by black market demand from China, Vietnam and other Southeast Asian countries where many believe exotic animal parts have medicinal or aphrodisiacal properties. In most cases, there is no scientific evidence that they do.
Indian Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar loaded more than 42,000 illegal animal parts Sunday into a large, blazing oven at the Delhi Zoo. The parts included tiger and leopard pelts, reptile skins, rhino horns and shawls made from endangered Tibetan antelope called shahtoosh.
Wildlife officials and members of the media crammed into the small room at the zoo to witness the inferno.
“The exercise is an attempt to deplore the unethical, indiscriminate and most unlawful activities of harvest and trade of wildlife products,” the Environment Ministry said in a statement, linking India's future development with the health of its biodiversity.
Indian wildlife — already struggling with habitat loss due to the expansion of human settlements — has been hit hard by poachers and the illegal trade in animal parts. India holds half of the world's estimated 3,200 wild tigers, but those numbers have declined drastically from the 5,000-7,000 tigers India was estimated to have had in the 1990s.
The once-obscure pangolin trade has soared, with at least 320 of the scaly mammals now seized from smugglers each year. Star tortoise seizures by customs officials have also shot up, from less than 800 a year before 1999 to more than 3,000 a year since 2002.