The shocking case of hunting of two Sambars within the Bhadra Tiger Reserve presents an excellent opportunity to ensure exemplary punishment to the accused who appear to be from wealthy, educated backgrounds.
This case once again highlights the importance of constructive collaboration of active NGOs and the Forest Department through sharing of real-time information. Given the background of the accused and the obvious pressure that would be brought upon the investigating officer, it would be vital for senior officers to ensure he is effectively insulated.
The Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 (WLPA) contains strong provisions precisely to deal with such matters. This case involves violations of Sections 9, 27, 31, 39, 48A which prohibit hunting, trespassing into a sanctuary and with a weapon, acquiring and destroying a wild animal which is government property and transporting it without permission.
Under Section 51(1-C), the penalty on conviction shall be imprisonment of not less than three years extending to seven years and fine of not less than Rs 50,000 extending to Rs 2 lakh. The WLPA empowers any forest officer to arrest, search and seize without a warrant and the investigation shall be done by an officer not below the rank of an Assistant Conservator of Forests. On completion of the investigation, a complaint to the jurisdictional magistrate shall be made under Section 55(b).
Two other provisions of WLPA Section 52 which prohibit abetment of an offence and Section 57 which specifies that the burden of proof lies on the accused must be applied in this case to make it stronger. This is because there appears to be strong suspicion that others were involved and those detained were found in possession of meat and uncured trophy of a schedule animal (Sambar).
It would be important for the investigation officer to ensure that all procedures as prescribed by the WLPA and CrPC are properly complied with to thwart attempts by defence lawyers to seek acquittal based on technical defects. Ballistic examination of the weapon used for hunting along with forensic evidence must be collated to ensure all the dots are connected. It could well be the case that this may not be the first time these individuals have indulged in illegal hunting. A thorough cyber investigation of their social media accounts may reveal more information including such other networks that are operating.
It would be relevant to recall that in 2015 a group of eight people, including four from Bengaluru, were caught after a Facebook post revealed they had hunted a black naped hare in Pushpagiri Sanctuary.
Finally, for effective prosecution, it would be important for the Forest Department to seek the services of a sharp public prosecutor who is well-versed with handling wildlife cases. It is also hoped that the magistrate, who has already acted firmly by denying bail and remanding the accused to 15 days judicial custody, will ensure the trial is fast-tracked and severe punishment as provided for under law is imposed quickly.
(The writer is a former member of National Board for Wildlife)