How he made his pile

Print edition : November 19, 2004

A file picture of the sandalwood seized during a joint operation by the Karnataka and Tamil Nadu police forces in Sylvekal forests in Karnataka. -

ALTHOUGH Veerappan was notorious for poaching elephants for ivory and looting forests for sandalwood, actual figures relating to both crimes have, according to experts, been grossly exaggerated. And although his crimes have caused immeasurable ecological damage, he and his gang made more money from extortion and kidnapping.

Contrary to media reports, Veerappan did not kill 2,000 elephants. The figure is more representative of the number of tuskers (male elephants) killed in the entire peninsular region over a period of 25 years by various poachers. Neither did he make crores of rupees through sandalwood smuggling.

According to Raman Sukumar, one of the world's leading authorities on Asian elephants, it is more likely that the bandit and his gang were directly involved in the killing of a few hundred elephants, maybe 500-odd. However, the tendency in the past two decades when Veerappan became a dreaded name in very household in the trijunction of Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu has been to blame the death of every tusker on him. Initiated into the crime by the poacher Sevi Gounder in the late 1960s, Veerappan reached the zenith of poaching during the 1980s, with tusks of elephants in the Erode, Dharmapuri, Satyamangalam, Chamarajanagar and Kollegal forests, and also those on the fringes of the Niligiri coming under his saw. Very rarely did he venture into the Western Ghats to poach.

There is little doubt that he did make money from ivory and sandalwood. According to Sukumar, the mean tusk weight during the late 1970s and early 1980s was around 20 kg a tusker (two tusks) and the weight, thanks to intense poaching of adolescent tuskers, had dropped to around 10 kg an elephant by the late 1980s. In 1980, the price of raw ivory in the open market was around Rs.1,300 a kg; in 1989 (when the international ban on ivory finally came into effect), it had crossed Rs.3,000; by 1995 it was Rs.5,000; and by 1996 it was Rs.10,000. (Today it hovers around Rs.12,000.)

A conservative estimate would mean an average tusk weight of 15 kg an elephant. The amount of raw ivory that the Veerappan gang would have sawn off if it had poached 500 elephants would be above 7,500 kg. Taking an average price of Rs.3,000 a kg, it would translate into a monetary value of Rs.2.25 crores. And even half that amount - since a good portion of the sale proceeds would have been swallowed by middlemen - would have been a princely sum in the 1980s and early 1990s. (There are indications that the number of elephants killed by the Veerappan gang during the past eight to 10 years is negligible.) Living almost exclusively in the forests, Veerappan's living expenses would have been at the barest minimum. A portion of the ill-gotten wealth would have gone towards buying provisions, tents, guns and ammunition. Where he hid the rest, or who took the money are questions that may never be answered.

Police informants told Frontline that Veerappan had used a major part of his money to buy political protection. The bandit also allegedly bankrolled the political campaigns of quite a few politicians. According to people living in the many villages that dot the forest, he had campaigned on behalf of candidates belonging to the Vanniyar community on more than one occasion. Residents of Gopinatham told this correspondent that he had "humbly" wooed voters there with betel leaves and arecanuts for a now deceased Congress politician.

Veerappan is said to have sold most of the ivory he poached to traders in Kerala, from where it found its way to carving centres.

According to Sukumar, poaching by the Veerappan gang and others gradually picked up in the late 1970s and peaked in 1987, a period when up to 150 tuskers were slaughtered every year. "The international ban on ivory had brought down the number of elephants poached. But the figure again rose to a peak in 1996. Today the number of tuskers poached every year in South India may be 20 to 30." He says, "In a normal elephant population, adult males make up 12 to 15 per cent of the total elephants. The selective removal of tuskers has brought down the numbers drastically. Today there are around 14,000 elephants in South India, but there are hardly 500 adult males. And among these you also have males that do not have tusks."

Felling sandalwood stumps was certainly easier and more lucrative than poaching. In the 1970s, sandalwood fetched Rs.100 a kg. Now it is worth Rs.600-800 a kg. According to the tribal people, Veerappan used to sit atop lorries stacked with smuggled sandalwood and lead the way, a gun nestled in his lap. However, the actual amount of sandalwood that was directly smuggled by Veerappan or his gang is unknown.

Said A.S. Sadashiviah, a retired Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (PCCF) from Karnataka, who was the Working Plan Officer of the Mysore Division in 1972: "Even in the 1970s, when we surveyed forests in Chamarajanagar, Kollegal and Nagarhole (all in Karnataka), we could hardly find sandalwood trees of the size or quantum that could have fetched crores and crores of rupees. However, the yield was better in the Satyamangalam (Tamil Nadu) forests. What Veerappan did was to use the Karnataka forests (given their isolation and Veerappan's own intricate knowledge of them) to store and then transport the logs to Kerala."

However, K.S.N. Chikkerur, Inspector-General of Police (Forest Cell), Karnataka, disagrees. He cites the seizure of sandalwood worth over Rs.1 crore in 1990 in the Sylvekal forests (close to the Malai Mahadeshwara Hills). Rangers who served in the area also vouched that there was a large quantity of sandalwood in the area.

Foresters like S. Subbarayalu, a retired PCCF from Tamil Nadu, are firmly of the view that Veerappan's smuggling activities were not the only reason for the depletion of sandalwood trees in the forests of the two States. According to him, "Sandalwood does not regenerate easily. The seed disposal is poor, and factors such as rainfall and soil conditions have to be favourable for it to regenerate. When we did a survey on the Tamil Nadu side we did not even find [naturally generated] sandalwood saplings or seedlings. This is a stage that no one will cut them, so if they had regenerated we would have found them."

Sadashiviah, who was the Conservator of Forests, Mysore, when Veerappan beheaded his fellow forest official P. Srinivas in November 1990, added that it was quarry owners (in Karnataka) who were Veerappan's biggest paymasters. "They had to protect their illegal operations as most of them quarried granite from revenue and forest lands," he said.

The Karnataka government banned quarrying in over 55 quarries in the M.M. Hills and Kollegal areas in 1993 after Veerappan and his gang allegedly detonated explosives near the Palar bridge killing 22 policemen. It was hoped that a ban on quarrying would seal off one of the brigand's biggest sources of income, and also prevent explosives from falling into his hands.

Veerappan was certainly no friend of wildlife, but had unwittingly played the role of a conservator. He was instrumental in killing leopards, sambar, deer and monitor lizards, all for their meat. But ironically, quite a few forest officials found Veerappan's presence in the forests as a help to keep away other poachers and timber smugglers. There are already indications that a number of fortune hunters have sneaked into some of the forests that were hitherto no-go areas, prompting the Tamil Nadu Forest Department to ban unauthorised entry into the Bargur and Satyamangalam forests. Said an officer: "The fear of Veerappan protected the forests from small-time criminals who would have otherwise degraded it continuously." .

While the sandalwood reserves have almost been exhausted in the Sathyamangalam-Bargur-Kollegal forests, timber and medicinal plants could be a major attraction to new adventurers, especially the Kerala timber mafia that has been active in these forests for decades.

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