Hunting the hunters

Around two months ago, customs officials in Chennai came across two boxes at the Kasimedu fishing yard, which contained 490 Indian star tortoises meant to be sent to Kuala Lumpur.

Published: 24th February 2019 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 24th February 2019 07:57 AM   |  A+A-

Around two months ago, customs officials in Chennai came across two boxes at the Kasimedu fishing yard, which contained 490 Indian star tortoises meant to be sent to Kuala Lumpur. A little before that, the Uttar Pradesh Wildlife Crime Control Bureau—in one of its biggest seizures in recent times—recovered 56,000 paintbrushes made of mongoose hair, besides 156 kg of the animal derivative.

These figures would imply that thousands of these agile mammals had been killed. On the eve of the Telangana polls in December 2018, poachers from Karnataka who had captured owls confessed that they had acted on behalf of a politician from the neighbouring state, who wanted to bring misfortune to his rivals.

What’s troubling investigators these days is the fact that traffickers are using ingenious means to offload their cargo, be it selling on the net or taking the help of social media platforms to display the smuggled wares, while also opting for a barter-like trade to keep their businesses well-oiled and running. For instance, hatha jodi (penis of the monitor lizard) was being passed off as rare plant roots in Ayurvedic stores. Technology is helping poachers and traders to evade the watchful eyes of the agencies. While Facebook and WhatsApp have come in handy for effective networking across the world, online monetary transactions using modern technological tools such as PayTM and Google Pay are helping in greater anonymity. 

Assisting the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB) is a number of wildlife investigators who are taking recourse to technology and intelligence-gathering to net the culprits. WCCB was set up in 2007 with the aim of combating wildlife crimes in the country, which feeds into a multibillion dollar international industry.

Shekhar Kumar Niraj, Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forests and Director, Tamil Nadu, says what is changing the game in a big way now is online trade. “Internationally, the practice has been there for the last two decades with several websites active until strict government action took care of the problem somewhat. But the products still appear on smaller websites.” 

Jose Louies, who switched careers from IT to wildlife and is now in his 12th year of heading the wildlife crime division at WTI, says unlike the traditional poachers who operated in a certain way, now the most preferred platform for exchange of information are Facebook and WhatsApp. For instance, buyers can get in touch with a trader who is sitting in Egypt. “Star tortoises are found only in India but the biggest network in the trade is controlled by two or three people from Egypt. On Facebook, they connect with their suppliers and clients. Even the key words keep changing; for instance, if someone posts they want to sell some star-shaped buttons, only those who know what it denotes will understand. A telegram group, which is closed and encrypted, makes interception much more challenging,” shares Jose.

Tilottama Verma, Additional Director of the WCCB, says that now anybody can become a poacher, thanks to the online trade. “Let’s say two boys who want to have drugs will catch two turtles or tortoises and sell it online. In 2017, we started working on this and met all the online portals and told them of the need to monitor their sites. Also, if someone selling an Alexandrine parakeet has a code word for the same, we provided the same to the portals so that they could put a filter on it so that it didn’t come up. Thereafter, we did an operation over a month called ‘Operation Wildnet’ and this we disseminated to all the enforcement agencies in all the states asking them to partner us and it was moderately successful.”

Besides the encrypted social media interactions, which help traffickers and smugglers evade surveillance, the real threat comes from online transactions. Explains Jose: “If a person sitting in Kolkata wants to buy an animal, the seller will show a video on WhatsApp in real time and the buyer will then use PayTM or Google to pay the amount. The money will be sent to a bank account operating in someone else’s name. Barter is another way out to erase money trails. For instance, a trader from India will send a turtle (banned in India) to Malaysia where it is not banned. In return, the Malaysian trader will send two fishes which will fetch a good price in India. So this is the smart ploy used to mix and match legal-illegal trade.”

Knowledge of IT has been a big boon for Jose, a snake conservationist who has been helping nail the poachers. It is a well-organised trade, he shares, pointing to the recent seizure of mongoose hair. “You have a hunter probably somewhere in Tamil Nadu or Karnataka with middle men reaching them and collecting the hair with another set of people quality-checking the product and bundling it as per the length, texture and quality. The consignment then makes its way to Bijnor in Uttar Pradesh where a skilled work force turns it into paintbrushes.

This, in turn, is sold to middlemen and large dealers who supply it to shops across the country, with some unsuspecting schoolchildren buying and using it.” It was Jose and his team who had tipped off WCCB about the hair brushes with the latter conducting a sting operation at 12 different locations across five-six states on the same day and recovering 3,000 brushes.

WCCB is the central body to fight wildlife crime, but there are many other agencies and NGOs that render assistance to the bureau. For instance, Wildlife SOS, a conservation nonprofit, which has a dedicated wildlife crime intelligence gathering and anti-poaching unit called ‘Forest Watch’, actively gathers intelligence through informers in the field. “Information, once verified, is passed on to appropriate enforcement agency with Wildlife SOS also offering legal support and prosecution assistance to forest department where required,” says Kartick Satyanarayan, cofounder and CEO of Wildlife SOS, recalling the arrest of notorious tiger poacher Bheema Bawaria two years ago in Gurgaon.

Tilottama says WCCB has reached out to maximum enforcement agencies. “The forest and police departments were dealing with this crime, but we even had to rope in paramilitary guarding the borders, the customs and the navy in the south. Training is an essential part of my job and now I am targeting the training academies. For instance, we are now training 700 people at National Industrial Security Academy, Hyderabad, making the whole exercise a bit more structured. Intelligence was never a part of training for forest officers and hence we tied up with the Intelligence Bureau to remedy this.” The international partners are Interpol and SAWEN (South Asia Wildlife Enforcement Network), she adds.
Shekhar, who won the Green Warrior award (by the Royal Bank of Scotland Foundation) in 2017, has been involved in 500 cases during a three-year period of fighting against 

In the time of Trafficking

Illegal wildlife trade is next only to trade in arms and narcotics 

Tiger and leopard claws, bones, skins and whiskers
Elephant tusks
Rhino horn
Tokay geckos
Brushes from Mongoose fur
Pangolin scales
Monitor lizard’s penis
Snake venom
Shahtoosh (high-quality wool from the neck hair of the Himalayan ibex) 
Bear bile
Musk pods 
Deer antlers
Civet cat

Smuggling and poaching in Mumbai and Tamil Nadu. “Many a time, I have gathered intelligence myself. For instance, with the help of a few young volunteers I almost decimated the wildlife trade at Mumbai’s Crawford Market having raided it thrice. When in Tamil Nadu, I also got myself arrested as part of a decoy operation in which five people with 2,600 sea horses were held at Rameswaram, while in Assam, I brought down rhino poaching,” says Shekhar.

The charismatic species such as the tiger, elephant and the rhino being hunted for their skin, tusks and horns respectively are as much on the poacher’s radar as are the smaller and lesser-known animals such as the pangolin, civet cat, turtles, tokay gecko, snakes and birds such as birds-of-paradise, macaw, cockatoos, etc. Prakriti Srivastava, country director, Wildlife Conservation Society, India Program, throws light on the large-scale illegal trade of tiger and leopard claws, bones, skins and whiskers, tokay geckos, star tortoises, mongoose, pangolins besides products such as hatha jodi, brushes from mongoose fur, snake venom, shahtoosh (high-quality wool from the neck hair of the Himalayan ibex), bear bile and musk pods etc. 

According to Krithi Karanth, chief conservation scientist, Centre for Wildlife Studies, there is a lot of demand, particularly from China and Southeast Asia where medicine is animal-derived. “It is also hard to detect shipments because of our porous borders,” she adds.

What is also targeting the smaller animal species is the desire by people to house exotic pets and fitting the bill are star tortoises, green iguanas, ball pythons, chimpanzees, orangutans and many overseas birds. Krithi shares that there is a fascination for keeping smaller birds and animals as pets. “In Indonesia, for instance, there is an exotic bird in a cage hanging in every house. A huge online trade exists in orchids too,” she says. According to Shubhobroto Ghosh, who works for the global NGO World Animal Protection, there is a burgeoning trade in the non-native species. “We are pushing for rehabilitation of animals and birds rescued from the illegal wild trade, both native and non-native, so that they are kept in the best possible captive conditions,” he says.

India has, in fact, become a hub for inbound trade with people buying venomous snakes, mammals and birds such as macaw, cockatoos, etc. Says Jose, “About three months ago, a consignment containing Chinese spitting cobras was seized at Trichy airport. We also have to look at the larger impact of the wildlife trade. For instance, the red-eared slider turtle, a non-native species, the size of a two-rupee coin when small, will grow into a big one or weigh 2 kg. The good Samaritans, who bought it, might then decide to relinquish it by releasing it into the nearest pond where it might meet another of its kin and multiply, displacing all the native wildlife. There is no legal provision also to file cases against those housing non-native species. What happens if you have a Gaboon pit viper, one of the largest species of vipers in the world, slithering in our forests?” explains Jose.

Besides fauna, poacher gangs have decimated even the flora wealth of the country. “The red sanders mafia is backed by money power and political clout. It happened with tigers as well. The shark trade for that matter cuts across continents,” says Shekhar. Prakriti had to deal with cases of forest crimes throughout her career. “The teak mafia in Nilambur and the sandalwood mafia in Munnar posed significant challenges for me as DFO there, in addition to issues of encroachment and hunting. An honest and motivated team that acted on every piece of information received made it possible for us to seize illegal contraband and arrest the guilty,” she says.

Poachers today have been actively pursuing two things —hatha jodi and pangolin scales—placing the pangolin in danger of extinction. “Everybody first mistook hatha jodi as some kind of plant material. It first looked like a bamboo clump to me when an informer showed it to me. Identifying it for me, he asked me to check the internet wherein we found that there were 81 websites selling it. That is when we went to the WCCB, asking the online sites to ban the product while taking off the key words,” says Jose.
The pangolin is nocturnal and shy, living in localised habitats across the country.

Around 300 of the only scaly mammal in the world are poached every day—making them the most illegally trafficked mammals in the world. “Besides their utility in traditional Chinese medicines, pangolin scales are also used in making wine, mixed in hard drinks in the party circuit in developed countries. Smaller scales derived from baby pangolins are also used which could mean the extinction of the species,” says Shekhar. Kartick had some time back along with the Madhya Pradesh Forest Department and WCCB arrested poachers in Gwalior who were in possession of several kilos of pangolin scales. “They were a part of a larger trafficking network that worked within the state and that they were shipping the contraband across transnational borders to Nepal and onwards into China,” he says. The Indian star tortoise is another hot favourite. Says Kartick, “An estimated 20,000 Indian star tortoises, which are perhaps the most trafficked tortoise species in the world, are poached (for meat, used in Chinese medicine and for the exotic pet trade) in India each year.”

Kartick through Wildlife SOS has found worldwide recognition for successfully ending the brutal and barbaric practice of dancing bears across India. The organisation rescued over 628 endangered sloth bears while providing sustainable alternative livelihoods to the nomadic Kalandar community that depended on the animal for livelihood. Those indulging in the dancing bear trade if convicted will have to undergo a jail sentence of seven years, as per the Wildlife Protection Act 1972, adds Kartick.
Bringing the poachers to book is easier said than done.

“According to the National Crime Records Bureau, only 852 cases were registered under the Wildlife Act in 2016. Of these, 492 were in Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan. That leaves only 360 cases in the remaining states, which is an alarmingly low figure, considering the situation on the ground. Not only are wildlife offences not reported, they also have an abysmal conviction rate of 17 percent in the country,” says Prakriti, adding that “India arguably has one of the strongest laws in the world to protect wildlife. The beauty of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 is that it provides for hunting and trade as offences very specifically. Its implementation is the real challenge.”

Killing for profit is one thing and subsistence hunting is another matter. “I am not blaming the occasional hunter who will kill a wild pig to feed his family, because members of the tribal communities do hunt. Recently, I had gone to Nagaland and had encountered a Naga tribesman who was wearing tiger claws around his neck. He admitted to having killed a tiger five years ago,” shares Jose.

Amateur wildlife conservationist and co-founder of Conservation India, Ramki Sreenivasan says in the northeast, like most of Southeast Asia, communities still depend on wild meat for their pot. This is a continuation of their tribal hunting practices even though livestock is widely farmed in the region, he adds. “If unchecked, the current merciless, rampant and all-year round hunting at most places of all life forms will in all probability wipe out wildlife in states such as Nagaland, Mizoram and parts of Arunachal Pradesh.

Intanki, a national park in Nagaland, abounds with hunting camps. Only snakes are not consumed —though they are promptly killed on sight. Endangered Blyth’s tragopans are captured by villages in East Nagaland. Pastors send hunting parties for bush meat. Real hornbill casques and feathers are sold at the Hornbill Festival,” says Ramki. Another challenge too abounds. “In the northeast, there exists government land and community (private) land. One (wrongful) interpretation is that Indian laws do not hold good in community-owned land. Technically speaking, the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, is applicable everywhere, be it community land or otherwise, forests or cities,” he says, adding, “While trekking in the Murlen National Park in Mizoram, which is government land, we found hundreds of virtually invisible bird traps in small fruiting shrubs set up by local villagers. We released birds caught in them and removed all the traps we could find. In addition to traps, guns and catapults are also extensively used to kill animals.”

The region, however, has reported successful conservation of the Amur falcon which was being massacred in thousands (in Doyang, Nagaland) and sent to markets. This has now stopped, thanks to the efforts put in by a team of dedicated conservationists of which Ramki was part of.
Laying claim to the natural resources is not that difficult a task as well. Shares Shekhar, who earlier headed TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network: “The forest department’s preparedness is wanting. The working conditions of the forest guards and forest watchers are tough and the vast areas to comb make it conducive for poachers. Technologically, they are ill-equipped also. Hence, they are no match when pitted against the wildlife crime syndicate. Moreover, there are lots of gaps at the level of information. We do not spend on intelligence gathering.”

As if the existing challenges were not enough, ancient and rural myths, religious blind beliefs, recommendations by soothsayers, astrologers, black magicians make sane citizens covet wildlife products such as elephant hair for a finger ring, ivory, tiger claws etc. Tiger penis soup, penis of the monitor lizard and snake blood are believed to have aphrodisiac properties, says Kartick, adding, “For some, handicrafts made from ivory, tiger bones, claws and pelt is a status symbol.”
Our natural heritage is not inexhaustible. Once gone, it’s gone forever. It’s time we realised this and learnt to co-exist peacefully without destroying and killing animal and plant life to further our own caprice and greed.

Laws To Rescue

India has some of the most progressive wildlife protection laws in the world. The powerful Wildlife Protection Act 1972, if enforced well, has the capability to be impactful. Trade in over 1,800 species of wild animals, plants and their derivative is prohibited under the Act.
❖ The Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 is an important statute that provides a powerful legal framework for:
    Prohibition of hunting
    Protection and management 
    of wildlife habitats
    Establishment of protected
    Regulation and control of
    trade in parts and products
    derived from wildlife
    Management of zoos

❖ The Forest Conservation Act, 1980
❖ The Indian Forest Act, 1927, and Forest Acts of state governments
❖ Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960

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