THOOTHUKUDI: The rampant poaching of sea cucumbers, an endangered marine animal, continues unabated across the Thoothukudi coast. Sources say there is a strong and well-networked mafia operating in the district, which illegally exports sea cucumbers to Sri Lanka and from there to Southeast Asian markets.
The sea cucumbers are of high value in East Asian markets, as it’s a key ingredient in several traditional medicines. Back home, these creatures are of equally high value. It plays a crucial role in preserving the Gulf of Mannar biosphere from widespread industrial pollution that it’s subjected to on regular basis.
Patterson says the rampant poaching of this species can disrupt the ecological balance and result in severe consequences. Along the Thoothukudi coast, there are seven different types of sea cucumbers. Its trade was banned in 2001 as it’s an endangered species, protected under law.
Sources say the mafia involved in organised poaching engages conch divers and fishermen to hunt sea cucumbers. For ease of transportation, they remove the animal’s digestive system, boil the rest of it with water and dry it under the sun. Through this process, one kilogram of sea cucumber gets reduced to about 200-300 grams. It’s then packed for export.
The smuggling route, sources say, is through Ramanathapuram to Sri Lanka. The island nation is a commercial hub for trade in sea cucumber as there are no legal restrictions there. Sri Lanka is said to have direct link with international market. A sub-inspector attached with Tamil Nadu Coastal security Group (CSG) says the trade is highly lucrative.
“One kilo of processed sea cucumber fetches anywhere between Rs 8,000 and Rs 10,000. The network employs poachers to harvest the animal. They work while pretending to be fishermen. Actual fishermen are not into poaching, thanks to the awareness drives that have been conducted,” the officer says.
Data recorded says a whopping 3,500 kg of sea cucumbers were seized in 2018 alone, in 10 different cases. In 2019, till date, 2,000 kg has been seized. When the amount that has escaped action is taken into account, the quantity becomes much larger. Officials agree that what is known is just the tip of an iceberg.
“The mafia here have links with poachers in Kerala. Most of them are habitual offenders. One Meerasa of Boopalrayerpuram faces at least 10 cases related to sea cucumber poaching”, says a forest official on condition of anonymity. Though poaching endangered species is a non-bailable offence, officials say most accused manage to come out on bail in a few months, sometimes days.
For instance, a whopping 1,500 kg of sea cucumber was seized and three persons were arrested on May 29. The incident created a big buzz as it was the biggest quantity seized in recent times. However, officials say the accused walked out on bail within 10 days. The prime accused in the case was Meerasa.
Cleaners of the sea
“Sea cucumbers are important to maintain the health of marine environment,” says JK Patterson, director of Suganthi Devadason Marine Research Institute. “Recycling of organic matter is the primary role it plays in the ecosystem, especially in coral reef environments were inorganic nutrients are sparse.”