Predators of the TIGER TRAIL

Sansar Chand's conviction might shake the underworld poacher's empire. But what about the Barbarian  Bawariyas?
Akash Bisht Delhi

In a historic judgment a Delhi court awarded six years imprisonment - the maximum term mandated by the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act - to notorious wildlife trader Sansar Chand, also known as the Veerappan of north India. The case dates back to 1995 when he was caught red-handed with a leopard skin. This judgment has brought cheer to many conservationists who hope it can dissuade people from entering and pursuing the banned trade. 

Chand is considered responsible for the complete wipe-out of the big cat from the Sariska Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan. According to wildlife law enforcers, around 250 tigers have fallen prey to Chand's vicious demand for tiger parts. 

Poachers killed 832 tigers from 1994 to 2007, says a Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI) report. The killings have not stopped and, indeed, the crime continues to be committed in an increasingly professional and organised manner.

It is alleged that some nomadic hunting tribes form a crucial cog in the wheel of this organised crime. A large number of tigers have been eliminated to feed the demand across the border for their parts. This growing demand makes poaching a lucrative business. Even as the lure of making a quick buck ensnares many new recruits to the poacher's vocation, traditional poachers bank upon their ancestral wisdom and expertise to hunt down every tiger they can. 

Traditionally, members of the Pardhi, Mongya, Kanjar, Banjara, Baheliya, Nat and Bawariya tribes have been involved in poaching. Baheliyas have been active in central India and the Kanjars in Uttarakhand and the Terai region. There have also been reports of Nepali poachers crossing over into the Indian forests near the border.

However, it is the Bawariya tribe that is held responsible for most of the killings of the big cats in north India. To avoid suspicion, poachers from this tribe employ new tactics such as using women as carriers of the banned wildlife parts. Reportedly, the Bawariyas and other tribes involved in poaching have now set their sights on south India and even the Northeast. 

"Locals in the Valmiki Tiger Reserve in Bihar are not involved in poaching as they have been living with the animal for centuries. It's the outsiders, especially poachers from Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, who are responsible for the tiger disappearances here," says Sanjay Jaiswal, MP, West Champaran, Bihar.

"The Modus Operandiof the tribes involved in poaching has not changed over centuries. The cycle of poaching begins only after a middleman places a demand. Then, these groups get active and dispatch their members to different parts of the country to make a kill," reveals Tito Joseph of WPSI. 

Sources told Hardnews that sometimes, especially in the case of the Bawariyas, it is the tribal panchayats that decide who goes where and how many they would kill. "To save money they prefer trains. Earlier, they moved in large numbers but with increasing vigilance, the average size of the groups has come down drastically," informs Ramesh K Pandey, an IFS officer, who had apprehended several Bawariya poachers during his stint at the Katerniaghat Wildlife Sanctuary, UP. 

Bawariyas travel with minimalist baggage and are known to camouflage their trade by selling plastic flowers, clay sculptures, herbal medicines et al. "Some even resort to rag-picking and begging while getting familiar with the landscape and taking locals into confidence. The locals later provide them information about tiger presence in the nearby forests," says Joseph. 

On reaching their chosen destination, the poachers touch base with their local contacts - some of them established by their forefathers - who help them identify strategic locations for setting up their deras (temporary camps with makeshift huts made of plastic sheets, often blue). To facilitate easy movement into the forests, even while avoiding confrontation with forest officials, the deras are usually located 20-30 kms outside the forest area. 

"Bawariyas also remain in close contact with other nomadic tribes who provide them intelligence about the movement of animals and forest guards. Linkages of Bawariyas and local poachers from tribes like the Kanjars and the Ghiaras, with Narain (brother of Sansar Chand) have recently come to light," informs Pandey.

 In better protected reserves like the Corbett National Park, Bawariyas prefer to move in smaller groups and erect a single tent made of empty fertiliser bags. "They carry a tawa, a thali and a lota. The tawa is used for cooking vegetables like potatoes, onions and tomatoes, and for making chapattis; the thali is used for kneading dough and eating; and the lota serves several purposes. To cook their meals, they make a makeshift chulha by placing two bricks. They even use fake names to hide their identities," says Pandey.

In towns with railways stations, they stay at railway yards, making it difficult for enforcement agencies to recognise them among the hundreds that throng these places. Also, they prefer to settle in the bordering areas of forest divisions, districts or states so that they can easily move across the border when their cover is blown.

"These poachers are highly motivated and no other criminal I have seen can match their conviction," claims Pandey.

In a typical Bawariya household, most members are closely related to the trade. And as the household is always on the move, the children are seldom enrolled in schools. Despite their illiteracy, Bawariyas carry diaries with phone numbers of middlemen and traders. They keep small brass statues of Hindu gods and celebrate some Hindu festivals, but they also follow the Bawariya norm of cattle sacrifice after a successful hunt.

The traditional Rajasthani dresses that the Bawariyas used to wear have given way to shirts and trousers for the men, and salwar kameez for the women - mainly to avoid profiling by law enforcers. "This is how they manage to hide their identities in areas adjoining protected areas, despite constant patrolling by forest officials," says Pandey.  

Traditional norms govern the division of labour among Bawariyas, which is done on the basis of age and gender. The elderly sell the goods, children gather information, and women do the daily chores, while young men ravage the forest during the night. Once familiar with a particular area, they prefer venturing into the forests on a full moon night when there is sufficient natural light. They can easily cover a distance of more than 30-40kms in a single night. 

"They leave at 10-11pm and reach the identified spot in the forest at 4-5am - prime time for tiger movement. They lay traps at quick intervals at various places according to their traditional wisdom and the local intelligence. Then they wait for a few hours before the first rays of the sun reach the woods. If the hunt yields no result, the traps are removed and the process is repeated every night till a tiger is trapped," says Joseph. They use home-made iron traps - called kudka, khatk, phanda, khadaka etc in local dialects - that inflict severe pain and damage to the animal.

"To avoid detection they are now using dismantled iron traps. The trap has a circular ring tied with an iron chain, two semi-circular rings attached to the iron base ring, and two inverted-V-shaped solid plates that act as springs. A wooden piece is tied with iron chains at the end of the chain, to securely bind the trap to the ground," divulges Pandey, who also claims that these traps are distributed among locals to entrap the magnificent cat. 

Once trapped, a tiger lies down calmly, trying to figure a way out. It is a wrong to imagine that the tiger starts to growl once trapped, a senior official told Hardnews. "The tiger fears no one, and when trapped, he is onl;y beleaguered and surprised. He just tries to get out of the trap by chewing it away and this sound alerts the poachers hiding close by," reveals Pandey. 

Then the poachers reach the spot and club the tiger to death. Guns are detested - not only do they make a lot of sound, they also leave a mark on the tiger skin. "A bullet mark on the skin can almost halve the price, so the poachers try to procure a clean skin," says Joseph. 

After the tiger breathes his last, a small knife is used to de-skin it - a process that takes just a few minutes. Then, for roughly tanning the skin, the Bawariyas apply salt and turmeric on the softer parts. The prized skin is then carried to a safe place by one of the poachers. The others use choppers to remove bones from the flesh with precision. "I once stumbled upon a tiger carcass and was shocked to notice that there was more than four buckets of flesh but not a single bone were left on the carcass. When it comes to de-skinning and de-boning, the Bawariyas are perfectionists," tells Pandey.

Wild life experts reveal that poachers either burn or hide the carcass to veil the crime. Sometimes camphor is used to conceal the smell. The poachers leave the area immediately and it's usually the women who carry the skin and other parts in small bags. Word about a successful kill is passed on to the middlemen in Delhi, who then select a place where the transaction would later take place. 
"For this, due to better vigilance in Delhi, the poachers prefer towns like Samalkha, Faridabad, Panchkula and Pinjore. Most of the middlemen operate from Majnu ka Tila in Delhi, while the rest are based in Nepal. Presence of groups even stronger than Chand's has been brought to the notice of enforcement agencies," informs Pandey.

Once the contraband reaches the middlemen, they pass it on through the porous Indo-Nepal border, from where it reaches prospective buyers. "Various modes of transportation are used to smuggle the tiger parts to Nepal. Most of the trade routes are similar to those used for trafficking drugs," says Joseph. Some of the frequently used routes are Leh, Dharchula, Banbasa, Mahendrar, Rupaidiyah, Sanoli, Raxaul, Kakarbita, Dudhwa and Siliguri. 

Poachers cock a snook at wildlife laws that lack teeth and a judicial system that often fails to deliver justice on time. They believe they can never be caught, and even if they are, they can easily bribe their way out.

"Sometimes they plead guilty and wait for the sentence to get over so that they can get back to poaching," says Pandey. However, Chand's sentence must have shaken their confidence as no poacher has ever been sentenced to more than five years in prison.  

Experts are unanimous that demand from across the border is the core issue and that it would go down if the trade routes are manned and managed well. But porous international borders act as a major deterrent. "Every tiger is under threat and while poachers and middlemen, armed with modern technology and firepower, are hell bent on wiping off the wild tiger population, our enforcers are still using obsolete technology. You can't fight a 21st century crime with 18th century tools and a 19th century mindset," says Samir Sinha, India Head, Traffic, a joint programme of World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). 

Moreover, according to experts, forest officials often refuse to acknowledge instances of tiger-poaching as the system does not encourage honesty. "If you do not accept the problem, it only gets aggravated and enforcers find it even more difficult to plug the loopholes," says Sinha. 

A complete overhauling of the forestry sector, training of frontline staff to understand the poachers' use of iron traps and their other modus operandi, intensive checks at border areas, regular monitoring of tiger movement, and a robust judicial system - all this and more is required to save the magnificent big cat, say experts.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: OCTOBER 2010