Paper Tiger Bureau?
Dogged by charges of inefficiency and isolation, it's a tough battle ahead for the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau
Akash Bisht Delhi
Citing the grave threat that organised poaching posed to wildlife, the government constituted a statutory body, the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB), in 2007 to protect the wildlife in India. The bureau was given the mandate to complement the efforts of state governments – primary enforcers of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 – and other enforcement agencies. Conceptualised to combat the challenges that organised crime posed, WCCB seems today to be in disarray, after years of drifting from its original goal.
Since 2007, WCCB has been too covert about its operations, seeking to evade scrutiny by the public gaze. This isolation has today reached a point where the bureau stares at a crisis with two of its top bosses from the Indian Police Service (IPS) having offered to quit. They have requested to be sent back to their respective parent cadres. Sources have informed Hardnews that Rina Mitra, IPS (MP) and Additional Director, WCCB, has offered to quit. Also, her second-in-command, SB Negi, IPS (HP), Joint Director, has refused to take over from her. Ironically, a joint director from the customs department, who was slated to join the bureau at its inception, is yet to
make an entry. The customs department's reluctance is attributed to the dire straits the wildlife investigating agency is in.
"With little support for WCCB within the Ministry of Environment and Forest (MoEF) and with negligent manpower and skewed finances, the bureau's future looks bleak. The annual budget is only Rs 3.8 crore and manpower is down to 75, including peons and drivers. We need a 1,000-plus workforce to be competent," says a senior
Even other senior officers of WCCB agree that it has failed to fully realise the mandate, which could have transformed and modernised the way wildlife crimes were pursued in India. "Brilliant investigating officers like Ramesh Kumar Pandey are being asked to do administrative work. Critics should also reflect upon these grey areas," says one of them.
The bureau has been subjected to severe criticism for putting a premium on shrouding itself in a veil of secrecy. This cloak-and-dagger game isn't going down well with MoEF's bureaucratic set-up. "The negative feedback is partly because it is being run by a police officer, and officers from the Indian Forest Service (IFS) in MoEF don't want an IPS officer to be at the helm," he says. Another source informs Hardnews that Jagdish Kishwan, Director, WCCB, and Additional Director General (Wildlife), MoEF, has visited bureau headquarters only once in five years since its inception – to inaugurate the premises.
The genesis of the conflict dates back to the Subramanium Committee's 1994 report on preventing illegal trade in wildlife and wildlife products. The comprehensive report was the first to suggest the formation of a directorate of prevention of crime against wildlife.
"Subramanium had suggested that the CEO of any such body should have a police background," says a former IFS officer.
Since 2007, WCCB has been too covert about its operations, seeking to evade scrutiny by the public gaze
This led to the inclusion of two IPS officers of IG and DIG ranks in the bureau as Additional Director and Joint Director, respectively, when the Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972 was amended in 2006. "Subramanium wanted a police officer with the temperament of a forest officer, as the forest department doesn't have the expertise to take up organised wildlife crime. Police officers, on the other hand, don't have the sensitivity of a forest officer," says the former IFS officer.
However, even NGOs and wildlife activists are miffed with WCCB's 'we don't need you' attitude. Amid this muddle, the bureau has turned into a paper tiger that has failed to crush the backbone of organised wildlife
crime in India. "A lost cause": this is how a senior wildlife expert describes the bureau.
"It is not clear what they are doing. Since 1993, when police recovered 400kg of tiger bones and eight tiger skins, nothing big has happened. Tigers and other wild animals are falling prey to poaching, but even NGOs seem to have more information than WCCB," he says.
MoEF officials claim that the bureau has done no value addition, and has had little correspondence either with them or other agencies like National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA). "The bureau has only created hurdles and made no visible impact at the ground level. They have no understanding of wildlife management and there is no sharing of intelligence," says a ministry official.
Even NTCA isn't too pleased with the bureau's efforts – and the "embarrassing, mindless advisories" it hands out at various levels. "Once there was an advisory saying any domestic kill by the tiger should be burnt in order to avoid the poisoning of the kill. If you burn the kill, then the tiger would make another kill, with even greater chances of poisoning. By securing the kill instead, one can ensure the tiger's well-being and
avoid man-animal conflict," says an NTCA officer.
The bureau, on another occasion, issued an advisory stating that radio-collars make it easier for poachers to locate tigers and should, therefore, be avoided. This faced severe criticism from all concerned officials at MoEF and even within NTCA. Similarly, the bureau once called for a meeting of all Park Directors and ignored NTCA. "WCCB's advisories are typical; it's like when other enforcement agencies, for the sake of it, claim there is a terror threat on January 26 or August 15," says another official.
Experts from NGOs and other agencies also complain of the bureau's high-handedness while dealing with information shared by them. "They don't listen to us. Wildlife conservation is a two-way street and you can't hope to succeed by treading a lonely path. We provide intelligence inputs, but they don't follow it up. Other intelligence agencies are forthright in taking inputs, but not WCCB," says Ashok Kumar of Wildlife Trust of India.
Another wildlife expert says that while the CBI's wildlife unit seeks his inputs, bureau officials have only displayed ignorance. "I feel that there is no point going to them. If we approach the bureau, it feels they are doing us a favour," he adds.
However, Ramesh Kumar Pandey – one of the few WCCB officers who have earned praise for their work – defends the bureau's role and claims that tiger seizures have gone down drastically. Mortality trend is on the lower side, and for the first time in India, there is some intelligence-based enforcement.
"Earlier, enforcement agencies overlooked backward and forward linkages, and arrested only carriers and not poachers. We wanted to know where the tiger came from and where it was destined to go. We have tried to develop and understand these networks, and coordinate with all the top agencies, including CBI, Directorate of Revenue Intelligence, Narcotics Control Bureau, National Crime Records Bureau and various paramilitary forces. Our efforts have led to several seizures, and even convictions of poachers from some top gangs," says Pandey. He cites several examples of WCCB's role in cracking several cases and keeping a tab on several wandering communities that have been part of trade in tiger parts and other wildlife contraband.
Pandey claims the bureau has identified several groups who kill animals for a living, and a tight vigil is kept on their movements. It even got 13 Pardhis convicted in CBI courts and, along with CBI, busted a whole module at Delhi's Majnu ka Tila. "Earlier, the poachers had no fear of law, but that perception has changed as bail is hard to come by and conviction rates are higher," he adds.
Expressing hopelessness and despair, the officials blame a human resource crunch in the bureau for their unpopularity. Hardnews was informed that the bureau has asked for the creation of 1,000-odd posts, and till that happens, the officials don't see it functioning as a full-fledged enforcement agency. "We have got approval for a total for 274 posts, but that won't do. That is why we can't be compared to the CBI and other agencies that are flush with government funds," says a senior WCCB officer.
A senior wildlife activist, who has been associated with the creation of the bureau, says the ministry has no experience of 'enforcement' and focuses only on 'conservation', and this is leading to growing tension between the two. "While other ministries have the expertise to handle enforcement agencies, MoEF doesn't. If the bureau were under the Union home ministry, only then would other enforcement agencies have been forthcoming in sharing information."
The bureau, however, claims it has been successful in creating synergy with other enforcement agencies and keeping regular checks on strategic exit points for wildlife contraband across the country. "WCCB's role has been phenomenal in Manipur, Assam and other parts of the Northeast through which goods are smuggled into Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand and China," says Belinda Wright of Wildlife Protection Society of India.
‘Since 1993, when police recovered 400kg of tiger bones and eight tiger skins, nothing big has happened. Tigers and other wild animals are falling prey to poaching, but even NGOs seem to have more information than WCCB’
Despite the criticism, the bureau has won two major awards in five years of its existence – Chief Dave Cameron Award for Excellence in Environmental Crimes Enforcement and Education in 2011, and Clark R Bavin Award for Excellence in Wildlife Enforcement. "How do you think we got this? It can't be a fluke. We are far ahead of NGOs, but choose not to ask for unnecessary publicity. We have held workshops for sensitising judges about wildlife crimes, negotiated with neighbouring countries, participated in foreign office consultations, and created vigilance by ensuring the participation of people from the grassroots," argues Pandey.
However, another senior wildlife activist feels the bureau is yet to prove itself and show results on the ground. They have been concentrating only on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and ignoring other aspects of poaching. "Only when you deliver would the government think of meeting your demands. You have to show results. As of now, they haven't," he adds.
Experts also blame WCCB for defying the mandate of collaborating with other agencies, and fighting a lonely battle. They believe the whole process of wildlife conservation and enforcement could only be made more robust by greater sharing of intelligence among agencies and wider participation of people.