Odisha forest officials expose pan-India elephant smuggling racket

The Chief Wildlife Warden was perplexed when it received queries from its Gujarat counterpart about no-objection certificates allegedly issued by the former for transportation of captive elephants.
Image used for representational purpose (Photo | EPS)
Image used for representational purpose (Photo | EPS)

BHUBANESWAR: In what could be of huge ramification, the Forest department of Odisha has blown the lid off a pan-India illegal elephant trafficking racket which attempted to use forged no-objection certificates (NOCs) to smuggle captive jumbos through the State to Gujarat.

The Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife) and Chief Wildlife Warden (CWLW) have alerted their counterparts in other states and the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB) so that applications relating to the transportation of elephants and their movement across the country can be closely monitored.

The matter assumes significance in view of a proposed amendment by the Centre to the Wildlife Protection Act (WLPA) which seeks to commercialise the Schedule - I species. There already exists a huge nexus between the capture of wild elephants and their demand by temples, religious institutions and even political parties. The Ill-treatment of the gentle giants is another grim story.

At least, eight such cases have come to the fore last month. The CWLW of Odisha found racketeers tried to fake NOCs by using forged signatures. In all cases, the attempt was to allegedly smuggle elephants from Assam. Seven of these cases saw bids made to transport elephants to Gujarat’s Jamnagar for a temple trust, reliable sources told The New Indian Express.

The first case related to the trafficking of a jumbo to Odisha from Assam. Interestingly, the CWLW office in the State had earlier received an application for transportation of a captive jumbo from the Northeastern state to the Koraput district. Upon verification by the divisional forest officer, it was found that the requisites were not met and the application was rejected.

When a fake NOC reached the Assam CWLW, it sought clarification from its Odisha counterpart and the first case was detected. However, the CWLW office was perplexed when it received queries from its Gujarat counterpart about seven NOCs allegedly issued by the former for the transportation of captive elephants.

All the seven NOCs were identical - from applicant to destination. Only the description of the jumbos was different. The applicant purportedly was one Mukeswar Konwar from the Sivasagar district. In all, the signatures were reportedly forged to generate the NOCs.

Suspecting a racket, the Odisha CWLW office shot off a letter to all states as well as WCCB: “It seems that a big racket is operating in illegal trafficking. As this illegal operation is having inter-state ramifications, it is requested to examine the matter and issue an advisory from the Ministry to all CWLWs to closely scrutinize all the cases/applications of transportation of elephants and to check the authenticity of the documents relating to such transfers from the issuing authorities/states.”

Experts point out that an “anomalous” Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, which allows private ownership of Asian Elephants - a Schedule-I animal - already encourages trafficking and smuggling. “Smuggling thrives in the Northeast and Bihar, where elephants once captive but left to be feral become easy targets,” said a senior officer.

The concerns related to elephant ownership and transportation became a raging controversy last year when the Centre placed an amendment to Wildlife Protection Act in the Parliament proposing the commercialisation of the Schedule-I animal. The Wildlife Protection (Amendment) Bill 2021 was then sent to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Science and Technology, Environment, Forests and Climate Change chaired by former Union Minister Jairam Ramesh.

Prerna Singh Bindra, noted conservationist and former member of the National Board for Wildlife, had submitted a memorandum to the panel expressing strong reservations on the amendment.“Earlier, the WLPA explicitly disallowed commercial transactions of animals protected under Schedule-I and II. In the proposed Bill, live captive elephants have been excluded from this general prohibition, leaving a gaping loophole for their commercial sale and purchase. It presents the elephant, a protected wild animal, as a tradable commodity; and is, therefore, at odds with the objective, and the spirit of The Wildlife (Protection) Act. This is a serious anomaly in the law that must be corrected,” she pointed out in her memorandum.

Elephants, already facing heat from poachers and illegal traders for ivory, skin and even meat, are likely to face more stress as sourcing may go into a grey area if the proposed amendment goes through.
“One worry is that this resurgence of transferring elephants countrywide may reopen old trade networks and the passing of illegal trade under the guise of legal trade. Besides, there is the welfare question of ferrying around and keeping social, sentient, intelligent animals like elephants under captivity that seems not to have been considered at all,” she said.

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