SMASH the Nexus

Published: March 24, 2012 - 17:47 Updated: March 24, 2012 - 17:51

The busting of a deadly network of organized poaching in North India signals hope for the big cat
Akash Bisht Delhi

A major crackdown by the UP Special Task Force (STF) and Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB) on a poaching nexus operating in the state did not make it to the headlines, even as most newspapers were filled with news on the ongoing assembly elections. Earlier in February, the UP STF in a joint operation with WCCB nabbed seven poachers from Bijnor district for poaching and trading of illegal wildlife parts. The team recovered one tiger and four leopard skins, tiger bones and two iron traps from the accused. The enforcement agencies claim to have busted a major network of poachers operating in the forests of North India, who were smuggling animal parts to China.

The investigation had begun after the UP STF received information on certain individuals trying to sell off tiger and leopard parts in Najibabad, a town in Bijnor district and the gateway to the Pauri Garhwal region of the Himalayas. The UP STF, which was aware of this flourishing trade in wildlife organs in the state, sought crucial inputs from WCCB that had been monitoring this network. The enforcement agencies zeroed in on Rajaji National Park, Lal Danga Park, Kotdwar-Najibadad forest division and Corbett National Park as the possible sources of these animal parts.

"Hunting tribes residing in these forests or on the fringes were carrying out these killings, in nexus with some locals in Najibabad, who then smuggled these parts to foreign destinations," says an STF official. He went on to add that these individuals encouraged and even offered sops to the tribals for killing wild animals.

On the basis of credible information, a team under the guidance of Inspector PK Mishra was formed to gather intelligence in Kotdwar, Najibabad, Bhaguwala and adjoining areas. On February 9, 2012, the team intercepted a Tata Indica car near Kotdwar and recovered two leopard skins. One of the occupants informed the STF of the entire network, run by one Dharamveer, who was also in possession of a tiger skin.

The STF, then, with the help of local police, raided Dharamveer's house and recovered the tiger skin and two leopard skins. They also received crucial information on the modus operandi of the gang and others involved in the trade. Two Gujjars were also arrested for killing the felines. STF sources informed Hardnews that they are looking for some more individuals who could help in busting other poaching networks.

Dharamveer was identified as the kingpin of the gang and a key link in the tiger trade in North India. "With most of his accomplices behind bars, we have been successful in busting the entire backward linkages of the network. Dharamveer had earlier been arrested in 2005 for possession of leopard skins," says RK Pandey, Regional Deputy Director, WCCB.

It was later established that the poachers were smuggling parts through Dharchula in Uttarakhand, which is considered a crucial exit point for animal parts on their way to Nepal and China. "There's a huge demand in China for animal parts, and this is fuelling poaching of wild animals in India. Animal parts fetch much higher rates at Dharchula than anywhere else in the country," says Pandey.

Interestingly, the operation revealed that the poachers no longer camp in Delhi and prefer to take the consignment straight to Dharchula. Earlier poachers would usually camp at Majnu ka Tila, a ghetto inhabited mostly by Tibetan refugees in north Delhi, to look for prospective buyers. "They are too scared to come to Delhi, which is a positive development," Pandey adds.

‘If UP STF had not busted this module, many more tigers would have fallen prey to this organized syndicate’ – Belinda Wright

"Rajaji acts as a gateway for poachers who live on the fringes of the park. The park has good forest connectivity with Corbett Tiger Reserve, which enables the free movement of these tribes from one forest to another," says Belinda Wright of Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI). Wright told this reporter that WPSI, too, had provided some leads to enforcement agencies on the poaching network. "I am extremely relieved. If STF had not busted this module, many more tigers would have fallen prey to this organized syndicate," she adds.

Moreover, soon after pictures of the tiger skin were flashed in the media, a Wildlife Institute of India (WII) scientist ran through his database of images gathered through camera traps and identified the stripes as that of a tigress named RT 28 or the 'Mazaar tigress' of Rajaji National Park. The tigress was last seen on camera in October 2009.

Soon after pictures of the tiger skin were flashed in the media, a WII scientist ran through his database of camera-trap images and identified the stripes as that of RT 28 or the ‘Mazaar tigress’ of Rajaji National Park

Wildlife experts believe that the identification of the tigress through camera traps is a step in the right direction, which would be useful in bringing transparency and accountability. "We have been using this technique in South India, wherein we compare stripes of the dead tiger with whatever data is available. The use of modern technology to ascertain these crucial aspects would be of great benefit in establishing the source of these animal parts," says SP Yadav, DIG, National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA). The NTCA also plans to set up in New Delhi a repository of pictures captured by camera traps from various tiger reserves across India.

Meanwhile, the UP STF and WCCB are trying to ascertain the forward linkages of this network and have zeroed down on certain individuals. "We are waiting for them to make a move, and then we will surprise them. That these individuals still operate fearlessly can be seen both as the best and the worst element of the recent crackdown," says an STF official.

Listed as one of the most flourishing networks of organized poaching in North India, the busting of this crucial module is being hailed as one of the key developments in curbing poaching and wildlife trade in recent times. The tigers and other wild animals that would have fallen prey to Dharamveer and his accomplices may be safe for the time being. But for how long? That is anybody's guess!

The busting of a deadly network of organized poaching in North India signals hope for the big cat
Akash Bisht Delhi

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This story is from print issue of HardNews