On September 4, Union Environment Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan tweeted pictures of recoveries made during a joint operation by the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB) and the Odisha Forest Department — 28 kg sambar deer antlers, four bear nails, and a rock python. Plus, 34 pairs of what is commonly referred to as “hatha jodi”.
Peddled as a rare plant root in shady occult shops and on e-commerce sites, hatha jodi is claimed to possess magical powers that ensure prosperity for its owner. But as Vardhan said, the 34 pairs were in fact hemipenises — the forked male reproductive organ — of the monitor lizard, one of India’s most threatened wildlife species.
Earlier this year, the WCCB issued an alert to Chief Wildlife Wardens and state Forest Departments about an increase in the hatha jodi trade. Six seizures have taken place in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Odisha this year, in which 331 monitor lizard penises have been recovered, the WCCB told The Indian Express.
Buyers pay between Rs 1,200 and Rs 2,200 online under the mistaken belief that the penises are sacred roots. According to the WCCB, even fake hatha jodis, made of atta, sell for Rs 500 a pair.
India is home to four varieties of monitor lizard — Agra, Yellow, Water, and Large Bengal. They are protected under Schedule 1 of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, and their trade is restricted under Appendix 1 of the Convention On International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Monitor lizards share their Schedule 1 status with tigers, rhinos, elephants and leopards, and hunting or harming them can attract jail terms of at least 3-7 years; authorities, however, do not treat violations involving them as seriously as those involving the bigger creatures.
In the latest raid in Odisha, one person was picked up, Vardhan tweeted. Activists, however, say a strong criminal network of hunters, middlemen, astrologers and dealers are involved in the business. And while the raid confirms at least 34 male monitor lizards were killed, the numbers are possibly much higher. Since it’s hard to capture only the males, poachers trap or chase all lizards into nets, tie their legs, and dump them into sacks. The male lizards are separated only later.
“While the lizard is still alive, the area around the hemipenis is burnt, so that the organ protrudes further,” said a WCCB official. The penis is then harvested with a sharp knife, two sticks are inserted to keep it from shrivelling, and it is dried in the Sun. The lizard’s meat is eaten, its skin is used to make drums, and its fat is sold or boiled to extract oil, which too, is sold.
“Though there is considerable reduction in the online sale of contraband such as hatha jodi, it is still offered on private trade portals,” WCCB additional director Tilotama Varma said. “This indicates that the steps taken have not created the required deterrence among buyers, who continue to believe that such wildlife contraband are remedies to ailments.”
Wildlife Trust of India (WTI), a Noida-based NGO, first alerted WCCB in 2016 about the hatha jodi trade. “More than a year ago, one of our informers brought us a hatha jodi, and asked us to guess what it was,” said Prerna Panwar of WTI. “One of my colleagues picked it up to take a bite to identify it from the taste, but was quickly discouraged by the informer.”
At that time, Panwar said, hatha jodi was sold even on popular e-commerce websites, with sellers assuring the product could be shipped overseas. A coordinated effort, Operation Wildnet, was launched to sensitise enforcement agencies on the use of the Internet for illegal wildlife trade. The operation has since succeeded in getting the popular online marketplaces to block and take down such listings.
But Panwar and officials at WCCB point to a larger problem: 90% of wildlife cases, they said, started and stopped at the point of seizure.
“Forest officials (or police) do not know how to investigate it or document it,” Panwar said, adding that this poses a greater challenge in cases like hatha jodi, which is a “very new revelation”.
“Those who hunt monitor lizards are not the ones trading them on the Internet,” Panwar said. “The courier guys who transport the product also do not have a clue. We have to sensitise and build the capacity of the front staff, and also make lawyers and judges aware of the problem. Out of 50 cases before a judge, possibly one is related to wildlife. If he or she has just heard a case for a serious offence such as murder, how is he or she going to care if the next case is about a chhipkali (lizard),” she said.
A WCCB official said Delhi’s Tis Hazari court is among those designated to hear cases filed under Special Acts. Rajasthan and Haryana have “green” courts. “CBI too can investigate specialised cases on wildlife,” said the official.
Monitor lizard penises, however, are only one among the plethora of rare and threatened species that are easy to get hold of in the country, both online and offline. Hatha jodi, for example, is frequently bought together with siyar singhi, or a “jackal’s horn”, by people who believe it will sort out love lives and property disputes, and keep them free of court cases.
“The sea fan, sold online as “Indrajal”, is believed to absorb negative energy if kept framed in the owner’s house,” said the WCCB official.
Panwar draws a grim conclusion. “Even if one per cent of the Indian population believes in such things, they are in a position to completely destroy the country’s wildlife,” she said.