The following blog is a first-person account on how the International Fund for Animal Welfare-Wildlife Trust of India team uncovered a trade in dried monitor lizard penises sold as lucky charms across the world by Indian occult practitioners. WARNING: Some descriptions of animal cruelty are graphic in nature. –The eds.
My informant, a seasoned covert operative, pushed a strange forked object at me.
“Do you know what this is?”
I suspected it to be an animal product, but after multiple wrong guesses, even after sniffing the object, my informant interjected.
“It is the dried penis of a monitor lizard,” he casually told me. My partner, a veteran in wildlife product identification, and I were aghast.
This informant of mine suddenly morphed into a cybercrime guru. “Type Hatha Jodi in search,” he said. I was hearing the name for the first time.
The search engine revealed numerous references to Hatha Jodi, touted as a rare plant root that could bring good luck to the person who possessed it. The listing of ‘good luck’ ranged from winning court cases to fixing marriages and even boosting the holder’s attractiveness.
But the Hatha Jodi root is not a root at all; it is the dried penis of a monitor lizard. Apparently, buyers of this product have been duped with the penis of a dead lizard instead of a rare plant root. A ‘root’ from a ‘plant’ that doesn’t even exist.
I asked my informant for details on how this product came to be.
Hunters seek out monitor lizards in jungles, where they trap them in their burrows or chase them into the hands of others waiting with a net, spear or another weapon or trap.
The hunters don’t kill them at capture; the animal is immobilized by tying its legs together after pulling the claws out and its long tail is tied like a noose around the neck. It is kept in a gunny bag.
Once taken home, the male lizards will be identified by the distinct pair of penises, or hemi penis.
The area around the penis will be burned while the lizard is still alive so the penis will protrude. It will be then excised with a sharp knife and sun-dried to produce an item that has a clenched hand look – hence called hatha (hand) jodi (joined).
The animal dies an excruciating death.
The very thought of an animal being burnt alive and its organ chopped off was sickening. I wondered if instead of luck, this would bring misfortune to the holder, as this is the product of torture and pain.
Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB) officials sent samples to the Centre for Cellular Molecular Biology (CCMB) in Hyderabad for scientific confirmation of the product. Once confirmation was made that it was lizard penis, we presented the findings to Mrs. Tilotama Varma, a senior official in her Delhi office. She was quick to respond: If the product in question is indeed a product derived from the monitor lizard, we should crack down on the trade immediately. Within three months, Mr. Ratnakaran Sharath from WCCB was assigned as the lead investigator and a joint investigation began, both online and offline.
Together, IFAW-WTI and WCCB listed out all the websites that sold the product and started identifying major dealers. Various key words like hatha jodi, hatha jori and hath jori were used in searching websites that sold the product. Most of the sellers marketed it as the rare plant product, telling tales of Hatha Jodi’s origin and powers. Many sites were also selling other banned / suspicious items as well. All together we were on the trail of a well-established market based on occult religions, animal cruelty and deception.
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We decided to investigate some trade off line by meeting dealers on the pretext of buying Hatha Jodi. Sharath and I tried calling few suppliers but their response was standard: if you want it, you order it online and we will deliver the goods to your door step; if you are not satisfied, we will return the money or replace it with another product.
None were ready to meet us in person, but we wanted to verify a few more facts about the product in person.
That’s when my female colleague joined the investigation. She was quietly doing all the online searches for us and was aware about the product and the story behind it.
She was our decoy, named Preeti.
Her phone calls just worked like magic: The sellers were ready to meet her in person and allow her to examine the goods by herself. Preeti posed as an aspiring astrologer who just started shipping Hatha Jodi to the UK.
One of her meetings was in the small town of Rajasthan, where the supplier had established an online site selling various items used in occult practices. He agreed for a meeting with the three of us – the WCCB inspector, our decoy and me.
The meeting happened at the seller’s shop. Preeti was so convincing. I was posing as her driver, constantly complaining about the heat, the long road etc. The seller was a young man in his late 20s with tattoos running up his hands. He was operating from a small room in the middle of a crowded market in Rajasthan.
“I cannot show so many of them here in the shop. I will show it in the car,” he said. At this statement Preeti acted upset and angry, unwilling to go anywhere else to inspect these “roots.”
“The reason is that one of my major suppliers from Madhya Pradesh was arrested a few days back for selling Hatha Jodi, and he is still in custody,” the dealer said. “You know this item is banned in some countries and there have been some problems in the recent past by enforcement officials.”
All of us sitting in front of him were very much aware about that incident and how it happened.
“I am not here to waste time,” Preeti said, feigning impatience.
Reluctantly, the dealer signalled to another young man standing outside and he quickly disappeared.
A few minutes later the boy returned with a small box in his hand and the owner asked him to stay watch outside the door. I could sense the sudden alertness in the behaviour of the owner
Inside the box there were about 25-30 Hatha Jodis. As he placed them on the table he started explaining the quality of his products. “Madam, look this one is straight, with a nice shape at the head level and bigger in size. My products are genuine, and they are of the best quality.” I had a tough time suppressing my guffaws.
The owner showed a few fakes, warning us of plastic ones.
Then came his advice on long-term sales of these items and how we should avoid detection in customs.
“You should send it by post, declaring them as gift items, immerse the product in vermillion and put camphor in it,” he said with confidence. “This will ensure that no one will touch these goods during shipment. Many of the westerners are very fearful about tantric /occult products they don’t want to do any close examination. If someone is carrying it in person, just keep it in multiple bags and no one will examine it. I have customers all over the world and I am sending these items to them for a long time, no one could detect ever.”
We fixed a date for delivery and left the shop with the promise that we would send our boy to collect the goods soon. An hour later, we were sitting with the District Forest Officer briefing them about the product and the trader.
Our work done, we went to the local shrine of the Sufi saint to pay our respect and seek blessings on our future work to crack down the business of baseless occult practices where animal products are used. Everyone has a reason to pray.
Another trader we busted was an ex-customs officer who claimed to be an astrologer. Our decoy who was using an assumed name sat in front of him and he used an electronic device with two arms to check her aura, telling her about her future and what rituals she should do to attract good fortune. He had a well-established website, about eight tele callers and online sellers including engineering graduates manning computers and selling various tantric items online including Hatha Jodi.
Within 24 hours of the visit by our decoy he was arrested by the Forest Department officials for selling various banned wildlife products in his shop. Documents indicating serious tax and identity fraud also were recovered from his office.
Our work across the country has led to many seizures based on an alert issued by the WCCB. The union minister for Environment issued a statement that wildlife crimes like this will be taken very seriously and he asked the WCCB officials to give him an update about the trade in Hatha Jodi. The Hatha Jodi investigation helped us list out many items that could be derivatives of various animal products which are banned in India and other countries.
Monitor lizards are protected under Sch-I of the Indian Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972 and the trade is restricted under CITES – Appendix I.
IFAW- WTI has since initiated an online campaign to stop the use of animal products in faith / occult practices in India. This is being done in association with the WCCB Delhi office. Websites that are selling such items will be examined and authorities will be alerted about the suspected products.
We hope to rid the internet of such items so that people are not getting fooled by criminals and buying wildlife trade products unbeknownst to them. As our investigation and efforts continue, online sites that were previously selling the items openly are now withdrawing their Hatha Jodi. We hope that Hatha Jodi will disappear from these websites altogether in the near future.
Article source: IFAW