Sunday, February 29, 2004

Musical instrument triggers noise of protests
Jatindra Dash

SALE of musical instruments made of lizard skins, though prohibited by law, flourishes at a religious fair held in an Orissa town, say activists.

The instruments are sold at the grand annual religious fair at Joranda, a pilgrimage centre in Dhenkanal district, 130 km from here, for followers of the Mahima Dharma religious movement founded in 1828.

There are over half a dozen temples in Joranda dedicated to the movementís founder, Mahima Gosain. Every year, people congregate there for a fair in January and February.

Followers of the religious group play a musical instrument known as khanjani that is made of a small hollow round ring of wood across which the skin of a monitor lizard is stretched.

Wildlife activists said at least 5,000 such instruments were sold at this yearís fair. "At least 6,000 monitor lizards must have been killed for these instruments," says an expert who visited the fair.

But wildlife officials deny this. "Every year, we patrol the fair and arrest the people selling them," district wildlife officer Sashi Pal maintained.

"This year too our officials are keeping a close watch. We donít have any information of anybody selling the instruments secretly," he said.

But activists claimed most visitors at the fair had the musical instruments and wildlife officials were afraid of seizing them or making arrests.

The skins used in the instruments come from two species of endangered monitor lizards ó the Indian monitor or varanus bengalensis and yellow monitor lizard or varanus flavescens ó that are protected under the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972.

Due to their endangered status, the lizards have also been listed under the Red Data Book to Appendix I of the Convention for International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna.

Kelas or snake charmers, supply the lizard skins to traders for as little as Rs 5 each and the musical instruments are sold at prices ranging from Rs 50 to Rs100 each.

The lizards are mostly killed in the coastal districts of Jagatsinghpur, Kendrapara, Balasore, Puri and Bhadrak.

Orissa has a flourishing illegal trade in wildlife products like ivory, skins, freshwater turtles, birds, snakes, snake and crocodile skins that are obtained from endangered species protected under the law.

Offenders found killing, trapping or selling such animals are punishable with up to seven years in jail.

A proposal to set up a specialised wildlife crime cell to tackle such crimes has been lying in the cold storage for the past eight years though the Central Government is ready to provide funds and equipment for its operations, wildlife activists said.

"The wildlife wing does not act against the rampant trade in wildlife products. Even in cases where authentic information is passed on to it, there is no effort to seize products or arrest culprits," said an activist. IANS