PORT BLAIR, India (Reuters) - Poachers from Myanmar are increasingly preying on the fragile marine ecology of India’s remote Andaman and Nicobar islands and have even set up hideouts there, a senior military commander said on Thursday.
More than 200 poachers were arrested up to May this year, compared to 357 last year, as authorities step up a battle against the rising number of boats sneaking in from Myanmar, defense records showed.
“The poachers are taking away our marine resources like valuable fishes, killing sharks and destroying corals,” said Air Marshall P.P. Raj Kumar, the Indian military commander of the archipelago.
“We are just catching 15-20 percent of the poachers as a large number of them from Myanmar are getting away,” he told Reuters in Port Blair, capital of the island chain.
The islands are located about 1,200 km (750 miles) east of the Indian mainland, close to the Malacca Strait, the main sea lane between the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea.
Home to some of the world’s pristine beaches and rare corals, the waters have prized fish and sea cucumbers that can fetch $100 a kg (2 lb) in Japan and China for their medicinal properties, sea turtles and rare salt-water crocodiles, whose skins sell for $25,000.
The poachers usually come in small boats at night and escape in bigger vessels that are lurking outside India’s territorial waters, Kumar said.
Authorities had destroyed some permanent bases set up by the poachers but many more continued to exist in some remote islands, he said.
India has air and naval bases and listening posts across the archipelago because it considers the sea routes vital to its security and to guard against what some defense experts say is China’s increasing interest in the region.
Sea routes in the region are also known to be used to ship weapons destined for rebels in northeastern India, Myanmar and Bangladesh.
They are also prone to smuggling, piracy and poaching, besides illegal immigration.
“There is a lot of pressure on pirates in the Malacca Strait and if some group decides to hide anywhere or make camp here it will be bad for everyone and will be a headache for us,” Kumar said.
The Andaman and Nicobar Islands are also home to some of the world’s most isolated and primitive tribes and their territory is off limits to outsiders.
Thousands of people were killed and the region’s rich marine life suffered heavy damage by the 2004 Asian tsunami.