Get over wildlife myths

People’s belief in myths that wearing wildlife body parts benefit health and ward off evil has propelled poaching and trade of wildlife. Angry experts, officials say these must be busted
Get over wildlife myths

BENGALURU:  Possession and display of wildlife articles is a criminal offence, but is overlooked by people. In the olden days, a tiger claw in the form of a pendant was worn around the neck to showcase masculinity and strength. Today, it is a fashion statement. Similarly, elephant or sloth bear hair rings or bracelets were worn to keep away evil spirits.

However, such activity is an offence under Wildlife (Protection) Act (WPA), 1972. The focus has returned to wildlife articles after Kannada Bigg Boss contestant V Sathosh was pulled off the show for wearing a tiger claw, which made headlines. Taking this as the lead, Karnataka forest department officials searched the houses of many actors and politicians, including Darshan, Jaggesh, Nikhil Kumaraswamy, Rockline Venkatesh, Mrinal Hebbalkar (son of Laxmi Hebbalkar), ashram of Vinay Guruji at Gowrigadde near Koppa, a mutt in Tumakuru, and several locations across Karnataka. The officials also suspended and arrested Kalasa, Chikkamagaluru, Range Forest Officer Darshan Kumar M for possessing tiger claws.

Forest sleuths are now scanning social media posts of citizens, politicians, actors, influential individuals and party workers to detect those posing with such forest produce. Violators are busy deleting posts from social media accounts to evade detection.

Jewellers who make and sell jewellery made of wildlife items (genuine and fake), have also begun concealing them. Sleuths are also surfing previous records of their own colleagues who were involved in wildlife crimes and arrested for possessing wildlife articles. The list includes a deputy conservator of forests, who was caught with five ivory pieces in 2013, and a retired assistant conservator of forests with tusks in 2017-18.

An investigating forest official says, “Wildlife crime is the second biggest international racket and crime in the world after narcotics. It has not reduced. The modus operandi keeps changing. All types of animals are used in wildlife crimes and trade. People not just wear tiger claws or teeth, but also butterfly necklaces, crocodile bags, skunk mufflers and pangolin scale bags. Many still believe that consuming snake venom or monitor lizard bile is an aphrodisiac.”

Wildlife experts have criticised the state government’s offer of last-time clemency to those possessing wildlife articles, to return them. Forest, Environment and Ecology Minister Eshwar Khandre on October 26 said it was being discussed with legal experts and Chief Minister Siddaramaiah. Forest officials say the government has given multiple chances in the past -- in 1972 (30-day window was given), in 1973 (30 days), in 1986 and in 2003 (180 days).

“People don’t just possess claws and teeth, but even trophies, tusks and antlers. All those possessing such items had to get them verified and get a Certificate of Ownership. The items in possession were certified if they were procured before 1972 (when the law came in). How many chances should we give? We want poaching to end,” says a forest official.

Experts echo the idea. Says one, requesting anonymity: “They should work backwards on the chain and nab all those involved, including middlemen, jewellers, transporters and poachers. Multiple hands are involved before a man flaunts a pendant on a TV show or poses with it on social media. These pieces and information obtained is prime evidence that should be used in investigation and to break the chain.”

They also point out that forest or police officials are not capable of doing this independently, and lack the skill and zeal for it. The Ministry of Environment, Forests and Wildlife has also taken note of the statement made by Khandre and has opposed the idea. Ministry sources say: “Forest management is in the concurrent list. Laws cannot be made or amended to make provisions and issue certification. This will set a wrong precedent.”

Praveen Bhargav, former member, National Board for Wildlife, and author of Wildlife Law for Rangers, says the laws are very stern. “WPA 1972 prohibits acquisition, possession and transfer of animal articles or trophies by way of a gift, sale or otherwise, by any person, under Section 39 which also specifies that it is government property. Section 40(2A) specifies that no person other than someone who has been issued a Certificate of Ownership shall acquire, receive or keep any animal article or trophy, except by way of inheritance of a declared specimen. Section 48A imposes restriction on transportation of such articles without written permission.”  

Bhargav says the department can also make its cases stronger with Section 57, wherein there is a reverse burden of proof whereby on prima facie conclusion of possession by the Magistrate, the burden of proving non-possession or legal possession shifts to the accused. Receiving such stolen property, which is from forests, would amount to an offence under Section 411 of the IPC, apart from other sections that would apply to a trader or middleman. Further, Section 42A has been inserted after the 2022 amendment which permits the surrender of animal articles only by those having a certificate of ownership. Thus, the purported move to enable surrender by those without a certificate of ownership is impermissible. For all such offences involving a Schedule-I article, the penalty is minimum imprisonment of 3-7 years and fine, not less than Rs 25,000.

Saket Badola, head of Traffic India Programme, World Wide Fund for Nature, says new methods of operation are being found like the internet, airlines and courier services. This is apparent with increasing seizures by Customs at airports. Recently, there was a case of tarantulas being sent by air mail.
Badola says all types of land, avian and aquatic wildlife are poached and traded. Recent additions to the list are tarantulas, South American primates and kangaroos to India.

Forest sleuths are warning astrologers, mutts and jewellers who advise people to wear wildlife items or keep them at home. “People should understand that these are myths. Wearing a body part of an animal or a bird or keeping such items at home does not bring good luck or ward off evil spirits. Consuming whale vomit does not give anyone supernatural strength or make a man more masculine. A stern warning is being issued to them,” says a senior forest official.

Retired Principal Chief Conservator of Forests BK Singh says there is no solution to the problem. It can only be controlled if forest officials are on the field. Irrespective of cadre, they should walk the forests every day. Foot patrolling is a must to stop all nefarious activities.

Singh says that shortage of staff is not the reason for increase in wildlife crimes. There is a need for action on the ground. To reduce cases in 2012, when he was the PCCF, Wildlife, he had written to the Jewellers’ Association, warning them not to get involved in making jewellery using wildlife items.
The letter reads: “The members of the community are at the cutting edge level and are vulnerable to use illegal body parts of wildlife in their finished goods. I would request the association to take serious note of it and inform the members to keep themselves away from possessing or using any illegal wildlife body parts, lest they will proceed as per penal provisions of the Wildlife Protection Act 1972.” 
In 2022, former PCCF, Wildlife, Vijay Kumar Gogi had also written a similar letter to the Jewellers’ Association in Bengaluru. Forest department officials said despite repeated correspondence, the use of real and fake wildlife items in jewellery is being found.

Meanwhile, jewellers in the city defended the community, claiming no one is doing it now. SK Suresh Kumar, president of Karnataka Jewellers’ Association, says since the past 5-6 years, no jeweller has been involved. There are over 10,000 jewellers in Karnataka, of whom 2,000 are association members. He says small-time jewellers use plastic and fake items. However, an alert has been sounded to all, in the wake of recent cases.

Department officials say using fake items is also a crime as it only lures people. It acts as a trigger and should be stopped. “We are working on slapping notices on anyone possessing wildlife body parts (genuine or fake). After forensic examination, those with fake parts are warned and let off. The ones with genuine parts are booked as per law. The same was done in recent cases too. All items seized from homes and the TV show were sent to the forensic sciences laboratory of the Wildlife Institute of India in Dehradun for examination,” says an investigating officer.

CASES ACROSS KARNATAKA

VIJAYAPURA: Two cases booked in past two years: last October, forest officials arrested an astrologer for possessing tiger skin. The accused was said to be involved in black magic. On October 25 this year, forest officials seized a tiger claw pendant from the house of BJP leader Vijugouda Patil. It was worn by his son Shashwatgouda Patil

UduPI: Foresters seized wildlife items in Kundapur, and killing of animals has been reported in Udupi and Dakshina Kannada. Recently, the carcass of a spotted deer with missing body parts was found in the reserve forests of Balkadu.

BELAGAVI: Forest officials recently arrested notorious poacher Chikka alias Krishna, a native of Madhya Pradesh. He was wanted by the National Tiger Conservation Authority for killing tigers and sloth bears. Sleuths recovered sandalwood pieces and weapons from his hideout. He was part of notorious poacher Sansar Chand’s gang. Sleuths also recovered tiger claw pendants from minister Laxmi Hebbalkar’s house.

CHIKKAMAGALURU: Based on a complaint, Kalasa RFO Darshan was suspended and arrested for wearing a tiger claw pendant. Sleuths said Vinay Guruji voluntarily returned the tiger skin in his possession. Recently, two individuals were arrested in Mudigere for possessing a tiger claw. Based on a complaint from Khandwa Markandeshwara temple, two were arrested for wearing tiger claw pendants.

MANGALURU: Sleuths said no recent case has been reported. In 2019, elephant tusks were seized in Belthangady, and one accused was also arrested. Two months ago, sleuths detected a case where a person showcased a monitor lizard on social media. Accused is still absconding.

KALABURAGI, HASSAN, TUMAKURU: Four cases of hunting spotted deer were registered in the past two years in Kalaburagi. In Tumakuru, three labourers from Odisha were arrested for poaching a peacock and consuming its meat. Sleuths said no recent cases were reported in Hassan

MADIKERI: Over 70 cases were booked by the CID forest cell, for possession of tiger claws, elephant tusks, pangolin scales, star tortoise shells and deer trophies

ANIMALS POACHED/TRADED FOR WHAT

Tiger, leopard claws, nails - Strength

Sloth bear, elephant hair - Strength, to ward off evil spirits

Slender loris, owl - Black magic

Shark fin, Olive Ridley turtles - Soup, food (delicacy)

Star tortoise - Good luck

Pangolin scales -  Chinese medicine, ornamental purposes

Tiger bones - Chinese medicine

Antlers - Showpieces

Elephant tusks - Ivory

Elephant leg - Side-table

Porcupine quills - Pens, good luck charm

Bugs, butterflies - Key chains, pendants

Jackal tail - To ward off evil spirits

Crocodile skin - Bags, belts

Blackbuck, Spotted deer, Tiger, Leopard -  Skin

CODE NAMES USED BY POACHERS

Gaja muthu, Cigarette, Tubelight - Elephant tusk

20 channel - Five-toed tortoise

Double engine - Sand Boa snake

Two-wheeler - Barn owl

Krishna - Black buck

Nagamani - Cobra venom sack

Lilliput - Slender loris

Black cat - Toddy cat

(Inputs: Firoz Rozindar - Vijayapura; Prakash Samaga - Udupi; Tushar A Majukar - Belagavi; Thipperudrappa B - Chikkamagaluru; Divya Cutinho - Mangaluru; Ramkrishna Badseshi - Kalaburagi; BR Udaykumar - Hassan; Devaraj B Hirehalli - Tumakuru; Prajna GR - Madikeri)
 

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