Sea cucumbers are marine animals with a leathery skin and an elongated body containing a single, branched gonad. They are bottom feeders, scavenging debris off the seabed. Not sexy: but highly valued as ingredients in traditional Chinese medicine, and in gourmet cooking. Now, demand for them is eroding the fragile ecosystem in a protected marine area between India and Sri Lanka.
Plundering sea life
Poachers are taking advantage of weak conservation laws to plunder sea life in the region, enrich themselves, and threaten the future of local fishing villages. Officials at the Gulf of Mannar Marine Biosphere Reserve say they've logged more than 200 cases of smuggling in less than a year and a half. Sea cucumbers and seahorses are the main prey – more than 13 tonnes have been taken in that time.
Local fishermen say they're finding fewer fish to catch: they blame smugglers tied to international crime syndicates. But officials say traditional fishermen are also poaching – often to sell to those same middlemen. Loopholes in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) make it easy to bypass conservation laws. Once the goods arrive in Sri Lanka they become legal exports, making it harder for enforcement officers to track them, and easier for the smugglers to make a profit.
Enforcement is further hampered by lack of manpower and equipment – and by opposition from Indian government agencies focused on boosting the fishing industry.
Learn more: Conservation International explains why illegal trade in plants and wildlife is harmful – and how you can avoid being a part of it.