3 months, 28 tigers DEAD

Far from tackling poaching with intelligence inputs, the WCCB is involved in petty ego issues

Akash Bisht Delhi

The official database of the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) states that 28 tigers have died in the first three months of 2013 and the details on their website, tigernet.nic.in, show that most of the deaths are due to poaching. Last year, too, more than 71 tigers died and, again, most were poached. Also, these are official figures and the actual count could be much higher, considering that some poachers must have left no trace of the animal behind. These deaths are, sadly, too high for a country that pumps in crores of rupees to save tigers and has an army of forest officials protecting their habitat.

It is an established fact that tigers are being killed across the country for their valued body parts to satiate an insatiable foreign demand. Poachers are known to be operating in several protected areas across the country and killing tigers at will right under the nose of the forest department. Once a tiger is killed, its bones and skins are covertly packed off to various destinations from where these are then sent on to foreign markets.

A joint report by the global wildlife trade monitoring network, TRAFFIC, and the WWF Tigers Alive Initiative, titled “Reduced to Skin and Bones Revisited”, identified five such hotspots of illegal tiger trade in the country — Delhi, Ramnagar in Uttarakhand, Balaghat and Jabalpur in Madhya Pradesh, Kolkata and the Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve in the Western Ghats. While four of these hotspots are proximate to tiger habitat, Delhi is the exception. 

“Given that Delhi is the capital of India, one may expect law enforcement to be relatively effective — which accounts for an increased number of seizures occurring here,” states the report. It also mentions that Delhi accounts for 26 per cent of all leopard part seizures and has emerged as the most important hub of illegal trade.

Corbett National Park and Ramnagar Forest Division in Uttarakhand have one of the highest tiger densities in the world and it is here that tigers are most vulnerable to poaching. The report mentions that, in 2012, a gang of poachers was found hiding in the protected area with traps and that most tiger skins have been seized from this location. Plus, Ramnagar also shares a porous border with Nepal that is infamous for trafficking of tiger parts.

Intelligence-led enforcement is a grey area in India’s tiger conservation effort and the repeated failure of the country’s leading wildlife intelligence agency has given poachers a free run

Similarly, Balaghat in Madhya Pradesh is a hub of tiger parts sourced from the Kanha and Pench tiger reserves while Kolkata gets a supply from the Sunderbans. The Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve, the largest contiguous single tiger population in the world, spreads across Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and
Kerala, and is also vulnerable to poaching incidents.

However, the most significant part of the report, that should draw the attention of India’s authorities, is the stress on intelligence-led enforcement. The report states, “While protection at the landscape level is of critical importance for safeguarding tiger populations, it must be integrated with and reinforced by intelligence-led enforcement beyond park borders. The need and value of such an approach in tackling the illegal tiger trade is being realized, with more seizures occurring due to improved intelligence. Nonetheless, more effort is needed to investigate and expose the mechanisms by which the trade chains operate, without which anti-poaching and landscape protection cannot be truly effective.” 

Intelligence-led enforcement is a grey area in India’s tiger conservation effort and the repeated failure of the country’s leading wildlife intelligence agency has given poachers a free run. Armed with the mandate to collect and collate intelligence related to organized wildlife crime activities, the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB) never really took off since its inception in 2007 and has not been able to live up to the hype surrounding it. Hardnews had earlier reported on how the Bureau was confined to issuing mindless advisories and had no coordination with other agencies. “We hoped that things would change after the exit of the former Director, but the situation has only worsened since then,” says a forest official.

A senior WCCB official corroborates this and adds, “We are under-staffed and motivational levels are at an all-time low. Top forest officials posted here are busy doing administrative duties and there is no scope for any intelligence-gathering from the field.” Distraught over the working style of the present Director, HS Negi, WCCB officials say that he doesn’t like to interact with top officials of NTCA and the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) as he feels that, being an IPS officer, he is superior to IFS officers. “How can you do any intelligence-related work without taking NTCA and MoEF officials onboard? This attitude is hurting the Bureau that, to an extent, exists only on paper,” one of the officials said.

These officials want to be transferred or sent back to their parent cadres. “I am only biding my time here as signing files is not something I wished for. Most of the inspectors working under me are just taking files from one office to another. They feel that there isn’t much difference between them and courier boys,” says another official. He goes on to add that the CBI is far more proactive in providing intelligence regarding major networks and it has been the one that has shared more inputs on organized networks. “Look at the recent incidents, you will notice that most of the arrests have been made after intelligence inputs from either the CBI or the Special Task Force. Why has the WCCB not been able to make any major breakthrough? Why are none of these networks being busted? The MoEF should ask these questions,” he adds.

The official website of the WCCB reflects the apathy of the agency. Under its alerts and advisory section, the last advisory dates to October 31, 2008, while the last alert was issued on October 11, 2009. The last press release dates to 2010 and no annual reports have been uploaded since 2009.

With the WCCB in dire straits, the fate of wildlife intelligence-gathering in India is in a limbo and hopes of breaking the back of organized crime a dream. It’s about time the MoEF overhauls the WCCB and gives it more teeth to fight this growing menace. Otherwise, tigers will continue to perish while the authorities live in denial.  

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: APRIL 2013