KARACHI, Nov 5: Wildlife traffickers have illegally ‘imported’ six lions from South Africa while federal and provincial wildlife regulators remained entirely in the dark, Dawn has learned.

The traffickers managed to bring the contraband consignment in by air and have it cleared through the country’s busiest airport, the city’s Quaid-i-Azam International Airport.

The lions belong to an endangered species whose international movement is monitored by the Switzerland-based Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) of Fauna and Flora, which keeps both importing and exporting countries informed.

The traffickers responsible for the lions’ ‘import’ also imported a pair of Royal Bengal tigers under a faked certificate purported to have been issued by Pakistan’s National Council for the Conservation of Wildlife (NCCW). As reported earlier in Dawn, the crime was exposed and the CITES secretariat informed Pakistani authorities. The traffickers, who had managed to get the tiger consignment cleared, were traced and the NCCW woke up the Sindh Wildlife Department. However, no punitive action was taken against the influential wildlife traffickers and the tigers remain with them. The SWD’s desire to bring the perpetrator to book can be gauged from the fact that the case regarding tiger trafficking has not been registered against the firm responsible, A. W. Brothers, but one of its employees. A. W. Brothers is a subsidiary of the Psittacines Avicultural Research Centre (PARC), a name that suggests that the centre is involved in research on birds rather than rare mammalian species.

The illegal movement of the lions was discovered when this reporter examined certain documents that showed that in addition to the two tigers, the consignment included six lions. These animals were not mentioned by the authorities since both the federal and the provincial wildlife authorities were unaware of their existence.

Release allowed by customs

Dawn’s investigations have revealed that the Karachi-based A. W. Brothers purchased six lions at $600 a head and two tigers at $700 each from Letsatsi La Africa, a firm based in Johannesburg, South Africa, for a total consideration of $5,000 in August.

A. W. Brothers, who have a head-office on the 13th Commercial Street in DHA Phase II, approached the Customs Air Freight Unit at the airport with the information that their shipment of live animals — three male lion cubs, three female lions cubs and a male and a female tiger cub — were due to arrive at Karachi through Singapore Airlines flight SQ460. The letter said that the consignment was booked under the name of the firm’s bird/animal farm PARC, located in Gadap off the Super Highway.

The traffickers informed the customs department that under shipment protocol, the animals would not have been fed for over 30 hours and would therefore be hungry upon arrival. It therefore requested that the approximately 250kg, 8-cage consignment, [which was in fact contraband] be released as soon as possible after arrival. Customs ACP Afnan Khan reportedly ordered “release allowed.”

Sources told Dawn that the customs department did not accept the value of the animals as declared by the smugglers. Upon re-evaluation, the animals were priced at Rs50,000 per head, the total consignment therefore valued at Rs400,000. The various taxes and duties, including customs duty and income tax, amounted to Rs45,000 and were paid on Sept 4, 2007.

Mr Waseem of PARC, who had been communicating with the SWD over the tiger smuggling case, told Dawn that that his company was not associated with a zoo and had imported neither lions nor tigers. Earlier, however, his operator had said that the telephone number dialled was that of the company’s city head office, not the zoo — suggesting that the company did have an animal handling facility. This fact is conformed by PARC’s communication with the customs department urging for the early release of the animals.

Influential traffickers

Sources in the NCCW told Dawn that no permit or certificate had been issued for the import of six lions to this particular wildlife trafficker, A. W. Brothers of PARC. Similarly, SWD sources also said that the department had issued no permission in this regard, which made the lion ‘import’ clearly illegal. Officials of both the federal and the provincial organisations said that “until you asked, we were not aware that lions were brought in with the tigers.” They stressed that without the required permits, the imports would be considered smuggled and would be treated as such.

When contacted, Sindh Wildlife Conservator Ghulam Rasool Channa said that he would return the call in a few minutes but failed to respond.

The sources alleged that the SWD was trying to protect the smugglers, a move made clear by the fact that a case was registered regarding the tigers alone, and the department was feigning ignorance about the illegal import of the lions.

Meanwhile, conservationists have urged the authorities to set a high-level probe into motion to detect whether the SWD was being inefficient or whether “other considerations” were persuading it to go soft on the wildlife traffickers.

South African authorities have already approached Pakistan for the return of the tigers, which has embarrassed Pakistan internationally. With the discovery of the smuggling of the lions, matters will only be further complicated. In India, filmstar Salman Khan was served a long prison sentence for violating wildlife protection laws in Rajasthan. Sources pointed out that in Pakistan, the stern punishments provided for under the law are never handed down to small-time violators, let alone influential traffickers such as those involved in the lions and tigers’ case. With time, the issue will be swept under the carpet and traffickers will continue to violate the law with impunity, they said.

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