Tiger Conservation: Wildlife trafficking is Fuelling Insurgency

Published: Wed, 02/10/2016 - 10:44 Updated: Wed, 02/10/2016 - 10:46

Hardnews, in association with Aircel, organised a panel discussion on wildlife trafficking and trade on January 14 in New Delhi. Leading names associated with wildlife conservation and wildlife protection, from different institutions, attended to share their viewpoints.

The panel consisted of Dr SK Khanduri, Indian Forest Service officer currently serving as IG, Wildlife in the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF); Samir Sinha, Indian Forest Service officer, currently serving as the Director of Corbett Tiger Reserve and former head of TRAFFIC (a leading international NGO combatting illegal wildlife trade); Dr Shekhar Neeraj, head of traffic; Arvind Chaturvedi, Indian Police Service officer from Uttar Pradesh and part of the Special Task Force (STF) for countering organised crime including wildlife crime; Vivek Menon, founder, executive director and CEO of Wildlife Trust of India (WTI), also an adviser to the International Fund for Animal Welfare; BS Bonal, member secretary of the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA); Anil Kumar, former Indian Forest Service officer currently working with the Government of India; and Brinda Malhotra, Head of CSR, Aircel. MK Ranjitsinh, a former bureaucrat and someone who is regarded as the father of Indian wildlife protection programmes and the architect of the Wildlife Protection Act was also present as a special guest.

The discussion was moderated by Prerna Bindra, leading conservationist and author of several books on wildlife and nature. She is a former member of the National Board for Wildlife, a member of the state board for wildlife, Uttarakhand, and a trustee of BAGH (an NGO for tiger conservation).

The discussion saw an in-depth analysis of the issues related to illegal wildlife trade. The panellists discussed the causes of the problem, factors sustaining it and possible solutions. Here is a summary of the key points discussed and debated.

Poaching and the growth of illegal wildlife trade in India

The phenomenon of poaching of prized and rare wildlife species has existed in India for long. But, as Menon pointed out, the scale and seriousness of the problem came to be recognised much later. Specifically, the causes behind the poaching of tigers began to be understood around the beginning of the 1990s. Menon recounted an important incident: “When we started in 1989-90, the idea was that the tiger was being killed for its skin but then in late 1989 in Jaldapara we found two tigers who were poached but their bones were taken away and the skin was left behind.” The investigation revealed that tiger bones were a much sought after commodity in the market. This led to the national tiger crisis being declared in India. But it’s not only tigers who are being targetted, as Menon pointed out, “Almost every two or three years, we get a completely new object in trade. Today it’s a snake, tomorrow it’s pangolin scales, another day it’s a gecko.”

Another major factor resulting in poaching and trading of animals is the huge amount of money involved. Sinha described how this trade has become extremely lucrative over the years, “Earlier, 10-15 years ago, when I was working at Corbett as a Deputy Director, we used to catch poachers and ask them what was the money transaction. They would say,  ‘Woh, sahib, teen-char’; ‘Teen-char kya?’; ‘Teen-char hazaar.’ Last year I caught poachers again, they led us into the forest from 5 ’o clock in the afternoon to 1 ’o clock in the night, and we asked, ‘Kitna paisa hai isme?’; ‘Sahib, teen-chaar’, ‘Teen-char kya?’; ‘Teen-char lakh’.” What is even more worrying is that this money is likely financing militancy and insurgency. As Sinha pointed out, “A lot of groups which are otherwise involved in other forms of organised, trans-national crime, like drug-running, weapon-running, are now using wildlife trade as a soft option to finance their activities. And that money is, in all likelihood, coming back to us in the form of support for militancy and insurgency.”

Growth of demand for wildlife commodities in India and abroad

For many years it was believed that the dem and for things like tiger bones and other illegal wildlife commodities is based outside India, especially in China. Sinha made the point that it was external demand that had made this trade so profitable, “That kind of money cannot be sustained by something that is local in nature. It is very obvious if you track the trade links that the demand is growing outside our country.” But, as Dr Neeraj pointed out, the rot has set in within the country as well, “The real concern came when we detected that there is a growing demand for tiger parts within the country itself.” This, according to Dr Neeraj, has to do with improved financial conditions within India, “We have money now, we have much better per capita income, we can afford tigers. Tigers are consumed in China, tomorrow we can also demand the same thing. We can pay as much as the Chinese.” There is also a threat to other species, as Dr Neeraj noted, “There is also a growing culture of eating monitor lizard meat within the country...if you travel from Chennai to Bengaluru or Chennai to Hyderabad on any Sunday, you will find IIT people from Bengaluru, some of them working in multi-national companies, queuing up to buy monitor lizard meat.” 

Legal challenges faced by authorities

Combatting the menace of wildlife crime is both difficult and tricky. One key problem was mentioned by Sinha: “The forest department is not identified or recognised as a force of the government...the police department and the police staff have immunity embedded in the CrPC, which is not the case for forest departments.” On top of that, the experts also talked about the legal issues that forest staff face. Chaturvedi mentioned the attitude of the judiciary: “The courts are less sensitised to the wildlife Act.” He described how his department deals with the problem: “Whenever we make a case, we also involve sections from the IPC, for example, any wildlife produce that is in Schedule 1, 2 or 3, that is a national property. So, if somebody is in possession, that means he has stolen national property. So, it attracts Section 379.” Sinha, though, struck an optimistic note, saying that the younger judges are very sensitive to these issues. Chaturvedi also flagged another problem: “In wildlife, you don’t have any witness, the animals who have seen the crime happening cannot come to the court as witnesses.” Bonal mentioned the problems he faced in Kaziranga, “The poachers used to get arrested by the staff and sent to court and within 15 days they would be out on bail and again do poaching.” There was consensus among the panellists that the environmental laws of the country are strong and adequate but implementation is the problem. 

The state of the frontline staff

They also agreed that serious attention needs to be paid to the frontline staff as they are the first and most important line of defence against poachers. Anil Kumar said, “At the moment, we don’t have more than one lakh frontline staff and if we see the age, it is ranging from 50 to 55, and the equipment is also not as good as it should be.” Bonal drew attention to the dangers that forest guards deal with when they face armed poachers, “They have AK 47s, silencers and other such sophisticated weapons.” He added, “When the poachers are there to kill the animals, even the forest guard can be killed.” Menon explained the lack of support for forest guards:  “I still get requests from heads of forests saying, Please give uniforms to our guards. As an NGO, I should not be giving uniforms so I give jackets. I have a letter saying, There is no shirt to wear under the jacket you have given. There are such guards who still exist in this country.” Yet, as Menon stressed, “Our forest staff are the unsung heroes of this whole thing...tiger numbers have gone up and forest guards are, I think, a primary reason for this...I am not saying there aren’t other reasons but this is an extraordinarily important reason.” 

Steps required for improving wildlife protection

A lot has happened in India in the last few decades to preserve wildlife and curb poaching, but there remains a lot of scope for improvement. One serious problem is the lack of intelligence which Menon brought out: “The key is intelligence and I think that has still not been taken seriously enough. Intelligence on one side and then the guard, if you do these two things, I think we have got some sort of a handle. I don’t think, institutionally, we have got a mechanism which keeps collecting data nationwide, analyses it nationwide and acts on it.” Chaturvedi felt that intelligence gathering has been there and has helped in the cause, “I believe that the success story of STF in handling wildlife crime is only because of successful intelligence collection. We have the advantage of putting the numbers on interception of wildlife traders, poachers and carriers. So, we get the exact location and the exact sense of whatever the transaction is about.”

There is also a dire need to improve the institutions that are engaged in the task of protecting wildlife. Sinha stated the basis of the problem, “The problem lies in the fact that the forest department is not identified or recognised as a force of the government.”  The Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB) also needs improvement, as Dr Khanduri noted. To combat wildlife crime, the role of forensics is extremely important. Dr Khanduri said, “Wildlife forensics is in a very poor state right now. So, not only on the capacity side but on the legal side also, wildlife forensics is going to be addressed.” Chaturvedi added, “You have to be more and more sensitive to collect forensic evidence and we are giving forensic
evidence in terms of voice intercepts as well as forensic evidence in the form of contraband.”

MK Ranjitsinh, at the end of the discussion, gave his take on what needs to be done. “As long as there is demand, there will be supply, money is too powerful a motivating factor. That is why people are prepared to risk their lives...That has to be scotched now.” He also called for international action for dealing with the demand  from outside the country. He said the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) “has to play a much more prominent role...they have not bothered, they have not pushed to the extent they should. That is where the External Affairs Ministry and MoEF come in. CITES is not just about the control of international trade, it’s also about getting to countries and saying, Stop this.”

The issue of co-ordination between the forest department and other wings of government also came up during the discussion. Ranjitsinh described the situation prevailing now. “The forest department also has to take a couple of more steps...we do not want to involve another partner, we want to take all the credit ourselves. The forest department does not have the wherewithal to gather information...That is where the police comes in, that is where the coordination with police is extremely crucial. The forest department goes in
and does not bring in the police department enough. There are dedicated people who should be brought in to be a part of the whole investigation and prosecution infrastructure. As far as the prosecution part of it is concerned, again the forest department does not have enough knowledge about the procedure.” 

His conclusion was sombre: “As long as there are communities who are traditionally thriving on wildlife capture and killing, we will have difficulties of this sort...what have we done to give them an alternative, nothing...it is about time that the NGOs be brought into the act...to take these people into the mainstream.”   

-Akshay Sharma 

Hardnews, in association with Aircel, organised a panel discussion on wildlife trafficking and trade on January 14 in New Delhi.

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This story is from print issue of HardNews