Tiger trap

Some NGOs are encouraging poaching by offering villagers money for animal body parts

Akash Bisht Delhi 

It’s a case of the fence eating the crop when it comes to non-governmental organisations (NGOs) working for wildlife conservation and their methods of operation. Recently, a sting operation in Corbett National Park by an NGO opened a Pandora’s box over the way some NGOs are actually driving the demand for body parts of wild animals and encouraging poaching. It is an open secret that several high-profile NGOs offer to buy such body parts of wild animals from villagers. The latter, living in dire poverty, often become tempted to kill animals.

The trend is worrying the law enforcement agencies and the ministry of environment no end. The recent Corbett incident is hardly isolated. Earlier this year, the undercover representative of a Delhi-based NGO struck a deal with a stranger who told him a beautiful tiger skin was available and also showed him a picture. A time and place for the sale were finalised – near the Baur Bridge in Kaladhungi at 10 am. At the appointed hour, a Tata Innova with five occupants halted at a temple near the Baur Bridge. Four of the men then entered the temple – it is customary among poachers to seek divine benevolence before carrying through a profitable deal.

Inside the temple, they were taken aback to find a team led by the warden of Corbett waiting to apprehend them. The warden took the men to the Kaladhungi Bungalow for further questioning and was suddenly startled by 35 armed men surrounding them. They included an inspector from the IB, a senior operative of the Wildlife Trust of India, a Wildlife Crime Control Bureau inspector and a Special Task Force inspector. It was then discovered that, while the buyer belonged to an NGO, two of the four apprehended men were actually the warden’s spies and worked for the Uttarakhand Special Task Force.

The sting operation meant to bust the buyer-poacher nexus ended up a farce due to the lack of coordination between the various law enforcement agencies and the NGO. Even the Chief Wildlife Warden of Uttarakhand hadn’t been kept in the loop — which, many believe, was a clear violation of the law.

The incident triggered alarm among the enforcement agencies who felt NGOs should avoid laying such traps as even artificial demand could lead to killing of tigers.

NGO operatives hover around the periphery of the wildlife reserves, trying to entice villagers to provide any clue to poaching that would lead to discredit of park authorities. After luring villagers, often poverty-stricken, to indulge in poaching, the NGOs then launch a witch-hunt against them. All this helps the NGOs earn brownie points with foreign donors who supply considerable financial aid for their work for tiger conservation.  

A ministry of environment official said, “We recently had a similar incident wherein a tiger was killed to meet this artificial demand created by NGOs. These trends are disturbing and if this continues then many more tigers could die to facilitate foreign funds for these NGOs. Such fake seizures also help them in getting publicity for their individual brands and castigating wildlife agencies and authorities for their laxity.”

Confirming the trend, a senior officer of the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB) revealed it had been tapping the telephones of prominent conservationists. “We knew that villagers were being paid for providing animal parts, including tiger parts, leopard skins, ivory, and other banned items. We decided to investigate and were successful in recording a conversation between a prominent conservationist and a villager in which the villager is being pressured to provide some parts to the NGO by any means,” said the officer.

Ministry of environment officials are equally concerned. “These NGOs have a moral authority to protect tigers and by creating such demands they are only encouraging people to kill these animals. Their heart must be in the right place, but they should also reassess their strategies in dealing with wildlife crime,” said another officer. 

However, some experts in the field of wildlife conservation point out that these covert operations do help sometimes in busting networks and apprehending those making a living out of poaching. “Commonsense would say that creating new demand that will lead to poaching is wrong, but if some criminal already has a poached product, using undercover operatives to convict them may be okay. This is true whether the work is done by the government or NGOs or in combination, as is often the case. Often, the government and NGOs operations  together and that gets better results in undercover work. But sometimes either side may make mistakes of this kind by creating demand. It is complicated,” feels Dr Ullas Karanth of the Wildlife Conservation Society.  

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