A supari for the Tiger

Close to 48 tigers have succumbed in the first six months of this year to an inefficient WCCB and an untrained wildlife department 

Akash Bisht Delhi 

After wandering through the forest for the entire night, he would come to this waterhole; it quenched his thirst and also provided a refuge during summer. This was routine for him. But tonight was different; it had something sinister about it. As he walked towards the water source, his paw was trapped in one of the several ‘iron jaw’ traps laid by poachers to kill him. He must have growled in helplessness through the night before life ebbed out of him. By dawn, another tiger succumbed to the deadly traps that had claimed several tigers in the past in the Palasgaon range in the buffer zone of Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve in Maharashtra.  

The next day, the forest guards, on their daily beat, found him dead with his bloodied paw still stuck in the iron trap. Before they could even decipher what had happened, pained growls of another tiger were heard in the vicinity. They discovered that he too had fallen victim to the traps that had been laid around the waterhole. Such was the precision with which the traps had been laid that one of the forest guards accidentally stepped on one,  failing to detect it. Luckily, he was wearing boots that saved his leg. But the two tigers, devoid of any such luxury, had run out of luck.  

The second tiger was tranquilised and rescued, but he suffered renal failure and chances of his survival were grim. It all happened under the nose of the
forest department.

However, these were just two of many such cases in the recent past. In another instance, the  mutilated carcass of a tiger was found in Chandrapur forest range of Maharashtra. Poachers had mercilessly chopped the tiger into 10 pieces that were scattered along the Chichpalli-Borda road. This was the sixth tiger mortality in Chandrapur in 2012 and it happened despite the fact that a red alert had been issued after the Maharashtra government claimed that poachers from neighbouring Madhya Pradesh had been paid Rs 40 lakh as supaari for killing 25 tigers in the state. A massive outcry followed these deaths and firebrand MNS leader Raj Thackeray blamed locals for supporting poachers. “It is impossible for any outsider to lay traps in the deep forest without help from local people. It is the local people who are responsible for the act,” he said.    

Close to 48 tigers have succumbed in the first six months of this year to an inefficient WCCB and an untrained wildlife department

This year has been especially brutal as tiger mortality stands at 48 in just six months. Nearly 40 per cent of these killings have been done by poachers. Experts believe that these are official figures and the actual toll could be much higher. What is alarming is the fact that this year’s toll will be much higher than the 56 reported in 2010 and 52 in 2011. Reserves in Maharashtra and parts of northern India have emerged as the hotspots for poaching activities. The threat isn’t confined anymore to particular reserves, poachers have spread to different parts of the country. A red alert has been issued in the Terai Arc region as well as in northern India that has a healthy population of tigers. 

“The situation is definitely alarming and we have initiated several steps to put a check on poaching, but the Corbett Tiger Reserve and Taboda remain vulnerable. Even Panna, Bandipur, Dudhwa, Kanha and Pench face poaching threats,” says SP Yadav, DIG, National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA). The statutory body had earlier issued an advisory wherein every tiger death is to be extensively examined by an independent team consisting of an NTCA official, a veterinary officer and a non-governmental expert. “This should bring transparency so there is no scope left for forest officials to hide things,” says a forest official. 

After the Chandrapur incident, the NTCA issued another directive wherein every tiger death would be treated as poaching unless proved otherwise. In a letter to all chief wildlife wardens, Rajesh Gopal, member secretary, NTCA, wrote, “To ensure proper due diligence and topmost priority, every case of tiger and leopard death will be henceforth treated as a case of poaching, unless otherwise proved beyond reasonable doubt… There is a need to ensure adequate caution while classifying tiger deaths as occurring due to ‘natural’ causes.” The letter also mentions that the spot should be meticulously checked to eliminate possibilities of traps, use of firearms, poisoning of water bodies or livestock kills. These steps, many believe, would deter forest officials from positioning cases of poaching as death by natural causes. 

Also, to rein in poachers, Maharashtra government then decided to adopt a controversial policy of dealing with the situation. The state government decided to provide firearms to the forest department with shoot at sight orders to kill anyone found poaching. Maharashtra Forest Minister Patangrao Kadam declared, “Forest guards should not be booked for human rights violations when they have taken action against poachers.” He believed that this was the only way to dissuade poachers from hunting wildlife species, especially tigers. Assam has adopted a similar policy for rhino poachers and it has helped the state immensely in facilitating the recovery of the endangered species. However, rhino poachers are known to carry firearms and have shot at forest guards on multiple occasions. 

This year has been especially brutal for tigers as tiger mortality stands at 48 in just six months. Nearly 40 per cent of these killings have been done by poachers. Experts believe that these are official figures and the actual toll could be much higher 

The diktat has found acceptance amongst many others including Dr Ullas Karanth, who believes that the order has been quite effective in states like Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Assam where forest staff carry guns and retaliate if their life is under threat. “This has been quite effective, as there are also built in safeguards for reporting of incidents to authorities, and an enquiry to follow, and so on. I am not sure what the specifics of the Maharashtra order are so I cannot comment. But many Northern states still do not empower forest staff to carry and use fire arms and these days with poachers who are armed this puts them at great risk,” says Karanth, Director, Centre for Wildlife Studies..    

However, many conservationists and activists have raised serious objections against it. “Tiger poachers do not carry firearms so how would you distinguish between an innocent villager and a dreaded poacher. This policy must have been successful in Assam where poachers are hostile towards forest department, but in other states it just gives too much power in the hands of forest officials,” says Dharmendra Khandal of Tiger Watch. Meanwhile, some believe that the order could be just a ploy to discourage poachers from entering the forests. Experts’ point that there have been very few instances of poachers being caught in the forest doing the act and it is usually the carriers who are apprehended. “Poachers operate in total discretion and avoid any confrontation with forest staff. So, the question of shooting at them doesn’t even arise,” says a forest official. Meanwhile, only time will tell how effective this proposal would be and whether it would deter poachers from making a kill.  

Amidst dwindling tiger numbers, a sudden spurt in incidents of poaching has once again raised questions over the country’s preparedness in dealing with poachers who are freely and fearlessly operating in these forests. There is hardly any intelligence being shared with enforcement agencies and this has been a major bottleneck in putting an end to organised syndicates. Reacting to this lack of intelligence, Yadav says, “Intelligence gathering is the backbone of anti-poaching activities. Delay in reaction allows the poacher to get the upper hand.” 

‘The agency is relatively new and there is a trust deficit which has seeped in with other enforcement agencies that are not so forthcoming in sharing information. We have no brand value and not many people want to work with the bureau. Also, while agencies like IB and CBI give certain incentives to their workforce, we have no such provisions and that is discouraging people from joining’

This brings the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB) into focus, it was created with the mandate to complement the efforts of state governments and other enforcement agencies in combating organised wildlife crime. However, even five years after inception, the agency is still struggling to provide any substantial leads. There is a big question mark on its survival. The bureau has become a one-man show as there is only one officer doing the job of five. Another setback for the WCCB was the end of the term of its regional deputy director, RK Pandey, who was phenomenal in getting crucial leads about poaching networks. He had recently busted a poaching syndicate operating in Uttarakhand. 

 

“The agency is relatively new and there is a trust deficit which has seeped in with other enforcement agencies that are not so forthcoming in sharing information. We have no brand value and not many people want to work with the bureau. Also, while agencies like IB and CBI give certain incentives to their workforce, we have no such provisions and that is discouraging people from joining,” says a WCCB official. Even conservationists and non-government agencies are miffed with the WCCB’s approach and the kind of people who are at the helm of affairs. “The regional director of the WCCB in Mumbai is a scientist while we need someone with experience in intelligence gathering. This reflects the incompetence of the WCCB and how it has become a defunct organisation,” says a wildlife activist.    

The failure of intelligence agencies to provide any leads has led to poachers operating without any fear of being caught. “Poachers who are caught are just pawns in this organised trade and stress should rather be put on busting these networks. Have you ever heard of a poacher being caught in a forest? And the poachers who have been caught were usually caught because of the insistence of non-governmental organisations,” says Khandal. 

Experts claim that this inaction by responsible agencies has made poachers bolder, especially Bawariyas, who are not only dispatching body parts to China but are also employing other hunting tribes like the Baheliyas, Pardhis et al to poach tigers. “Pardhis are active in Central India, but the presence of Bawariyas has been reported from even far-flung areas. They travel to south India and have also been seen in the northeastern states. They have also established direct contact with Tibetans, Nepalese, and local poachers and have even gone to the Tibet border in Nepal to deliver consignments,” says Belinda Wright of the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI). 

Experts attribute this growing boldness of poachers in visiting unknown areas to the huge demand for Chinese medicines in Southeast Asia. Tiger parts are used in traditional medicine and its growing popularity in other countries, some believe, has led to a spike in demand. However, Khandal disagrees with this argument and believes that the demand had never gone down. “In some instances, the forest guards have been able to reach the carcass before the poachers, but it doesn’t suggest that demand has increased. The demand has always been high,” he adds. 

‘Pardhis are active in central India, but the presence of Bawariyas has been reported from even far-flung areas. They travel to south India and have also been seen in the northeastern states. They have also established direct contact with Tibetans, Nepalese, and local poachers and have even gone to the Tibet border in Nepal to deliver consignments’

The arrival of the monsoon presents another big challenge for wildlife authorities and conservationists alike as accessibility to most parts of the reserves becomes almost impossible. These months provide a window of opportunity to poachers to kill at will. “An alert has been issued by experts in Africa who believe that high-end animal part traders are now shifting attention to India. With modern technology and weapons, they plan to strike during the monsoons,” says a Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) official. 

However, experts in India believe that though reserves are vulnerable during the rainy season, it isn’t easy for poachers to operate either. “I do not think the monsoon per se is an issue, but reduced movement of vehicles due to restricted access and reduced tourist movement may make it easier for poachers to enter. On the other hand, it is more difficult for poachers to operate during rains, camp in the forest, poison waterholes and so on,” says Dr Karanth. Poachers also dread these months for fear of poisonous snakes and the difficulty they face in drying the skin—the most valued body part. “So, it’s not worth the effort,” says a WCCB officer. 

Increased protection in tiger reserves dissuaded poachers from entering parks at will, but encouraged them to shift base to buffer areas and adjoining forests that are frequented by dispersing tigers. Since most of these dispersing tigers are males, young and old, their skin and other parts fetch better rates than those of  a tigress.“Tigers will certainly go out of the reserves and that is what makes them vulnerable and any laxity in proactive management will benefit the poachers. Lot of poachers are in action mode and with no financial support to the forest department and protection in the buffer and adjoining forests, tigers are bound to succumb to this increasing demand,” says R Murthy, Park Director, Panna Tiger Reserve. 

Joseph Vattakaven of WWF has been documenting tigers in such areas and has expressed great concerns about the safety of these dispersing animals. “If you look at the Ramnagar forest division then our study has proved that there are close to 15 tigers  for every 100 square kilometres. This is a very healthy number and poachers must be aware of it. With the kind of protection that exists in these areas, it shouldn’t be difficult for poachers to kill,” he says. 

Once out of the core area, these tigers face direct conflict with humans and sometimes have to pay with their lives. Also, when these tigers move into territorial divisions or plantations, they become extremely vulnerable as wildlife isn’t the priority of forest officials in these areas. 

Karanth adds, “Dispersal away from natal areas at the age of two years is natural for tigers and they cover large distances in search of territories to settle in, and become more vulnerable to poaching or conflict-related mortality. And not much can be done about this.” With no mechanism in place to protect these tigers, Karanth’s helplessness is evident. It’s not just Karanth even forest officials repeatedly express this difficulty. 

With the WCCB clearly underperforming, some believe the only way out is to train forest officials to tackle wildlife crime. “The Forest department has no orientation for wildlife crime despite the huge resources and hence the need for training, especially in forensics. If the WCCB can’t deliver then forest department will have to take the onus on themselves to save the species,” says a MoEF official. 

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: JULY 2012

#Tags: