Hunt for profit

Print edition : September 21, 2007

As a hugely profitable business the world over, illegal trade in wildlife is growing while the rate of conviction for the crime remains low.

in Mumbai

Actor Salman Khan after he was released on bail from the Jodhpur Central Jail on August 31.-PTI

WHEN actor Salman Khan was convicted of killing chinkaras and sent to jail in Jodhpur, Rajasthan, there was jubilation and triumph among those who pursued the case. Added to this was a sense of relief that a wildlife-related crime had finally resulted in conviction. Of course, there were others who felt it was nothing more than the targeting of a celebrity. This was clearly a mistaken notion because it was not Khan per se who was at the centre of the issue. The real issue was his a ct of hunting and killing endangered wildlife. The jubilation over the conviction, however, was short-lived because the actor managed to secure bail.

The rate of convictions for illegal hunting and trade in wildlife is extremely low. The accused often get away not because they are innocent but because of shoddy follow-up actions and provisions in the law.

Khans case dates back to 1998 when he was shooting a film in Rajasthan and decided to go hunting as a diversion. Among other animals, the actor shot chinkaras, an endangered species of gazelle listed in Schedule I of the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act. On the basis of a complaint filed by the Forest Department, the Jodhpur police filed a charge sheet. After a prolonged trial that read like a film script, with witnesses retracting evidence and disappearing and then reappearing, a verdict was given in 2006. The Jodhpur City Magistrates court sentenced the actor to five years rigorous imprisonment. Khan appealed the verdict and secured bail. On August 24, 2007, he lost his appeal when the Sessions Court upheld the verdict of the lower court. Khan spent two days in jail before he was out again on interim bail after his lawyers filed a review petition before the Jodhpur Bench of the Rajasthan High Court. The case will come up for hearing on October 4.

Thanks to a provision in the law, Khan did not have to serve the sentence given by the lower court until the case was decided by the higher court. It is this provision that those fighting wildlife-related crime want to alter.

Incidentally, this loophole was used earlier by the notorious animal skin smuggler Sansar Chand to get bail after his first conviction. It has been the bane of officials battling wildlife crime. The shortcomings they face are well known shortage of trained personnel, poor infrastructure, shoddy follow-up investigations and an administrative and political mindset that does not consider tackling illegal trade in wildlife a priority. Although the laws governing illegal hunting and trade are largely considered adequate, officials believe that some fine-tuning would go a long way in making them more effective.

The existing legal provision for wildlife protection is in the form of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, applicable all over the country except in Jammu and Kashmir, which has its own Act of 1978. The Wildlife Act extends to animals, birds, plants and anything else that has a role in conserving the ecology and environment of the country. It covers animals that are listed according to their status in the wild and prohibits their trade in any form.

The Act is amended relatively frequently in order to enable it to cope with the increasing rate of crimes. Since its creation in 1972, the scope of the Act has widened, and it has become stronger with the incorporation of stricter penal provisions and the constitution of a National Board for Wildlife. Under the Act, convicted offenders are liable to a maximum sentence of three years, extendable to seven, and a fine of Rs.10,000, which is increased to Rs.25,000 if there is a second conviction. Bail terms have been made stringent and the accused can be released only after the public prosecutor has been heard and even then only if the court is convinced that the accused is blameless.

Some more tweaking of the law is believed to be on the cards. A senior official who is at the forefront of the fight has suggested to the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) that the sentence of a convicted criminal should not be suspended pending appeal in a higher court. Another suggestion made by him is that the punishment should be calibrated so that a differentiation can be made between small-time operators and large-volume traffickers in much the same way as is done under the Narcotics Act. If these suggestions are incorporated in the Act, the rate of convictions will increase and the convicted will be unable to get bail.

A 2006 amendment to the Act resulted in the formation of the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau this year. On the cards since 1994, the bureau is meant to collate intelligence relating to wildlife crime, ensure coordination with the State governments and other authorities and develop infrastructure for scientific and professional investigation. It is also meant to assist the State governments in the prosecution. The bureau will have the power to investigate wildlife crimes in much the same way as the Narcotics Control Bureau investigates drug-related crimes.

The formation of the bureau indicates that the administration has finally accepted the vital difference between field enforcement, which needs patrolling and observation of the area under the charge of a forest guard, and intelligence gathering regarding poaching at the forest level.

Ashok Kumar, vice-chairman and trustee, Wildlife Trust of India, explains: Poaching is done at the local level for local use, selling game meat in the local market or for supply to small-town traders who sell the goods to a bigger trader and finally the goods reach a carrier who will take them out of the country. Thus there is the need for a separate and distinct level of control of wildlife crime at the city and international border. This requires a completely different set of skills, and hence the need for a Wildlife Crime Bureau. The bureau is to be headed by an Inspector General of Police. An official who has dealt with wildlife crimes observed: The trade should be treated as a police subject and not a forest one. It is a matter of investigation rather than conservation. Forest [officers] dont understand investigation and the police dont know forest [conservation].

A crucial missing link in the war against wildlife trade has been the lack of data. There is no official information on the magnitude of the trade. This is also a hurdle when it comes to convincing political masters and the public of the need to take the matter seriously. Technically, the MoEF should maintain data but clearly it has been negligent in the matter. The bureau is expected to resolve these difficulties.

With no accurate means of measuring the extent of the trade, non-governmental organisations have carried out their own investigations. But the absence of any systematic network among them means that these figures are, at best, local and do not fully represent the horror of wildlife crime. Consider these vastly varying estimates by different agencies for the period between 1995 and 1999 for poaching-related tiger deaths. According to the Wildlife Protection Society of India, 386 tigers were killed. TRAFFIC International estimated 22 killings. The MoEF claimed 140 (this figure was only of the animals poached within the sanctuaries, and the Ministry admitted that more animals could have been killed outside). This confusion over figures persists in the monitoring of the killing of every other listed animal.

Ironically, the sheer size of the trade came to light only when large consignments of animals and animal parts were confiscated abroad. The international trade in wildlife is estimated to be valued at $350 million. About a quarter of this trade is illegal. A large chunk of the contraband comes from Asia, but there are no estimates of how much originates from India. Hunting for pleasure accounts for a very small part of wildlife crimes. The bulk of hunting is for trade, with the trade in animal skin being the largest.

The diaries of Sansar Chands son Aakash, seized during a raid, revealed horrifying figures for the years 2003 and 2004: 702 leopard skins and 32 tiger skins. Aakash had kept records of wildlife articles bought almost every day during the period, totalling an annual gross of Rs.1.35 crore. It was not clear whether this was the purchase or sale price.

Animal skins surrendered by 224 traders at the Dachigam National Park, 20 km east of Srinagar, on May 28.-NISSAR AHMED

Almost without exception the skins go to the international market, with Nepal and Tibet being huge buyers. Ivory also continues to be high on the poachers list, trade in which is sustained by national and international demand. The Chinese market ensures that rhinos continue to be butchered for their horns.

The profitability of the trade has given rise to speculation that money from wildlife is financing terrorist activities. There have been rumours of Kashmiri separatist groups trading in wildlife to finance their activities and of United Liberation Front of Asom separatists trading the horns of Kaziranga rhinos for weapons. However, a well-placed source dismissed this by saying: There is no evidence to say the two forms of crime are converging. Drug-related crimes and gun running are risky because of the punishment involved, while a wildlife one is not; and so criminals may sometimes switch their choice of contraband. But this is merely part of their opportunistic behaviour.

Ashok Kumar recalls a reported incident involving an Al Qaeda operative in the rhino horn trade in Bangladesh. He, however, says that wildlife traders smuggle arms, especially Chinese-made pistols, across the Nepal-India border. The lack of an extradition treaty with Nepal is a hurdle since quite a few wildlife criminals take shelter in Nepal. He says some of them even return to continue the trade, assuming a different name.

One thing is certain. The profitability of the trade has meant that new groups are emerging, particularly in Orissa, the northeastern region and the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary in Kerala. With the demand for ivory continuing, the gang of sandalwood smuggler Veerappan is said to have regrouped since his death in a police encounter in 2004. Certain communities near Chennai carry on a flourishing trade in smuggling star tortoises. One little-known fact is that tarantulas are also smuggled out of India.

One advantage the authorities have is that illegal trade in wildlife in India is controlled by a small group. We need to exploit this fact, an informed source said. There are no more than 50 to 100 key people, and if we can infiltrate the network we will be able to cut the trade by 50 per cent. While a small group is seemingly easier to handle, there are difficulties, too, as was realised when an attempt was made to infiltrate Sansar Chands group.

The skin traders success lies in the fact that he has restricted his gang to his extended family, making it practically impossible for an outsider to infiltrate. One investigator related how he tried for long and failed to become a link in Sansar Chands chain. The Tibeti buyers of the tiger skins were so used to seeing familiar faces that they balked at dealing with anyone new.

The ideal modus operandi would be to work at targeted seizures and then follow through with detailed investigations that sew up the case. This would require a multi-agency approach with a nodal agency for coordination. Until all thi s is put in place, Indias wildlife will continue to live in the danger zone. After all, there are huge profit margins, a huge demand and a steady supply of unprotected animals.

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