Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Silencing the roar, one cat at a time

Around mid-2013, a full-grown striped tigress, a regular visitor to the central lake of Pench Tiger Reserve on Madhya Pradesh-Maharashtra border about 120 km from Nagpur, went missing.

The forest staff wondered about its sudden disappearance but kept an inexplicable silence.

In early 2014, they finally got the answer from the kitty of a poachers’ gang arrested by the CBI on Indo-Nepal border. One DNA in the many tiger part samples seized from them matched with that of the T-13, the same wild cat that was never to be seen again in the Pench reserve, confirming the fears of officials: it had been allegedly killed, cut into pieces, and most probably sold off separately as ‘skin’ and ‘parts’. It was a chance discovery, but not an isolated case of poaching from the protected tiger terrain. A string of cases – with one leading to another in central India mainly Vidarbha – is exposing an unabated, ugly, organized poaching racket that dents the country’s mammoth tiger conservation efforts.

Together, the magnitude of the cases is phenomenal: so far 19 primary offence reports (like FIRs) have been registered since the filing of the first case in March 2013; more than 50 alleged poachers arrested; about 80 are still wanted; four persons have been already convicted in the first case; and while officially less than ten tigers have been accounted for, the number of wild cats estimated killed and poached by the gangs in the last few years is feared many times more, the ongoing investigations are indicating.

“These are very important cases for us and something that’s unprecedented in a way,” the additional principle chief conservator of forests (APCCF), Maharashtra, Meyipokkim Aiyer, said. He is the head of a steering committee formed by the state forest department to monitor the cases. Last year, the state government handed over the three main offences to the CBI. “The interlinked gangs operate in many states with a clinical detail of each tiger habitat and with links abroad, which is why we thought an agency like the CBI is best suited to deal with those,” Aiyer said. The state government has just approved a proposal that seeks to constitute a Special Investigation Team (SIT) comprising officials from several departments. To be headed by a senior CBI officer, it would rope in officials from forest, police and revenue departments in addition to the enforcement directorate. The SIT will take forward the investigations into the poaching cases, in what’s turning out one of the biggest investigations yet.

How it began:

It was a wintry day, December 3, 2012. Nitin Desai, a central India coordinator of the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI) and one of India’s foremost wildlife crime experts, recalls a text message beamed on his cell phone about a few suspected poachers camping near a place called Aamdi on a busy National Highway 7, about 60-70 km away north of Nagpur. He immediately passed that information to the forest officials and the Nagpur rural police. By the evening, a raid was conducted but the suspects fled the spot leaving behind some SIM cards. The information was correct, but the suspects got time to escape.

“In 2012-13, the poaching scene was very hot; we would receive information from everywhere that the gangs are on the prowl,” Desai recalls. The wait for a breakthrough ended only three months later.

March 3, 2013: The first tip off came from the Melghat Tiger Reserve, 250 km from Nagpur in Amravati district. Two local men were fighting over distribution of money made from tiger poaching. The WPSI’s local intelligence network alerted chief conservator of forest in Melghat, who in turn handed the task to a young Assistant Conservator of Forest (ACF), Vishal Mali, to work the tip off. The same evening, after having tracked their location, Mali and his team apprehended six men from the reserve’s core area – a core area is supposed to be an inviolate region with little or no human presence or interference.

Tucked away in the foothills of the Satpuda hills, village Sundban from where the suspects were caught was a ghetto of huts set up lately after felling and clearing patches of the forest, exposing the chinks in the monitoring of the massive reserve. The encroachments had sprung up in the tiger habitat.

The six suspects, mostly migrants belonging to a backward nomadic tribe, confessed to killing up a full grown tiger, as per the primary offence report (POR in wildlife crime parlance) registered the following day in Melghat. The scene of the crime was a beat called Dhakana, within the reserve; the wild cat had been killed, it’s skin traded, as per their confession statement, over a month before been arrested. Among the forest officials in Vidarbha, it’s popular as the ‘Dhakana case’.

“All the suspects agreed to reconstruct the crime and hand over a snare used in trapping the tiger,” the principle investigator of this case, Mali, said. “They led us to the exact spot; narrated how they did it; and gave graphic details of the crime,” he said. The suspects had killed and sold the tiger’s skin, bones, nail and some vital organs to a trader. “We got highly decomposed meat, blood stains, and hair there.”

Investigators collected and sent 18 samples to the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB), Hyderabad, for DNA sampling etc. Among the samples were finger-nails of the accused.

“Only two samples tested positive but it was enough to establish the link between the arrested poachers and the tiger suspected to have been killed,” Mali said. The soil sample with blood stains confirmed it to be of a tiger; and the fingernail samples of the poachers arrested by them carried the same DNA as that of the tiger in the soil sample. “Since we did not have the carcass of the killed tiger as evidence,” he said, “the matched DNA sample was crucial supportive evidence in the case.”

The Dhakana probe revealed that a person from Punjab named Ranjit (now arrested) came to Melghat, placed the contract; local men killed a tiger, and handed the skin and parts to him in Madhya Pradesh.

Next: The officials had to do a manual check of the call detail records (CDR) of the suspects’ cell phones. They found that one of the six accused, Madhu Singh (convicted and sent to rigorous imprisonment for five years with three others in mid-2014 by an Amravati court) was in touch on his cell phone with some people all over India: from as far away as Punjab, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Haryana, Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, to even Gujarat. Officials wondered what this man had got to do with people across India.

Of the 2000 numbers scanned by them manually and later electronically, investigators segregated some numbers to whom Madhu frequently called; they suspected them to be couriers or tiger part traders.

Case widens; hunt begins

Then the hunt for the suspects began which has not yet stopped.

June 6, 2013: Based on the call records being tracked, the Nagpur police and some independent wildlife investigators zeroed in on two numbers believed to be of suspects and got a tip-off that a consignment of tiger parts was to be handed over to a buyer from north India at a dhaba around the same spot where officials had missed the targets just seven months ago: along the National Highway 7.

It was the culmination of a very tedious operation, which relied heavily on the call details and location of cell phone in real time.

“That day we arrested two persons named Chika and Mambru, really young men who in the first looks appeared famished and from poor background,” an Assistant Conservator of Forest (ACF)-level officer in Nagpur recalls, asking not be named. “We thought this was it – the end of our investigations.” It wasn’t. It was the beginning. As Chika and Mambru spilled the beans, officials say, murky tales surfaced.

“The two were actually the bridge between buyers in north India and the gangs of field poachers who were scattered all over Vidarbha – someone in Melghat, others in Tadoba or in Umred; still others in Gondia-Bhandara, or on the other side of the border in Madhya Pradesh,” the ACF said. They were not on their own, investigators say; the two worked for someone.

If you draw a circle with a radius of 300 km around Nagpur, you can see some pristine tiger habitats and corridors with bustling wild cat population within the protected areas and even more outside them.

In fact, as Desai explains: The huge expanse of central India forest landscape starting from Panna Tiger Reserve in the north to Nagarjun Sagar Tiger Reserve in the south and from Melghat Tiger Reserve in the west to Indravati Tiger Reserve in the east, the 15-odd tiger reserves in this region act as sources where some of the world’s last remaining wild tigers breed and roam freely and disperse into the territorial or unprotected areas. For the poaching gangs, it’s a region replete with big ticket targets and quick money.

Most of the central India forests are dry deciduous forests; tigers from these areas have historically been in greater demand for two reasons: one, they are easy to locate for poaching and two, their pelts (skins) are preferred by customers abroad, explains Desai, one of India’s frontline experts in wildlife crime.

Chika and Mambru’s arrest followed tip offs given by the accused in the Dhakana case. A Vodafone number of the north kept popping up in the CDRs of the suspects arrested in March 2013 and the two in June 2013. Who was this man? He was moving all over, another investigating officer said. In the month before Chika-Mambru’s arrest, that cell phone – which officials had strongly suspected to be of a big fish in the trade – showed up its location in Umred, 50 km south-east of Nagpur; days later it showed up in Mansar, 100 km north of Nagpur; and again a few days later, it was in Sonipat, Haryana.

With Dhakana investigations on and several phone numbers under the radar, Chika-Mambru disclosed to interrogators that they had taken off 11 tigers from March to June 2013 from all over central India.

The officials told a local court in Nagpur that after registering a primary offence report against them, the two led the Nagpur forest officials to a place called Ghatang in the Melghat tiger reserve, confessing that they had killed a tiger there. But having reached there officials realized the two had also killed a sloth bear, two leopards and a barking deer – evidence of which lay scattered over the spot, in addition to the one tiger they had said in their statement they had trapped and killed. Officials then registered another offence in Ghatang against the two, in addition to the one for the alleged killing of a tiger.

Ghatang is just outside the core of the Melghat tiger reserve. From the place they were arrested near Mansar, it would be roughly 250 km in the same line west-ward.

Post the 2012 monsoon, there were reports and intelligence inputs that the gangs of organized poachers were surreptitiously working in Vidarbha to kill tigers. A year later, the reports were coming true.

More shock was still in store. The officials collected samples of blood stains from soil and traps used in the crime and sent it to CCMB in Hyderabad. “The CCMB told us it was not one but four full grown tigers – the report confirmed the presence of four wild cats in the DNA of the samples,” the officer engaged with this particular case, which is now with the CBI, says. The CCMB report is evidence before the court against Chika-Mambru and the subsequently arrested persons in this and other connected cases.

Within a week of their arrest, Chika-Mambru had told officials they had actually taken off some 15 tigers from around Vidarbha within a span of three months.

“To us, that was sheer unnerving,” recalls Desai, who has closely tracked each of this case independently and as part of the WPSI mandate. “I have never seen so many tigers killed in such short span; when each tiger is like a percentage population in a country with less than 2000 remaining, this was sad news.”

Kingpin in custody; more arrests follow

By mid-2013, Maharashtra forest department was mighty nervous. What next? But officials like Mali, who were now part of an action team specifically tasked to crack the network, were determined.

The window would open with more arrests, but particularly of two men who are at the center of the tiger killings in the recent past: Suraj Bhan alias Sarju Bagdi and an alleged kingpin Suraj Pal, alias Chacha (68). Sarju was arrested along with his accomplice Naresh from Sonipat, Haryana, on September 8, 2013, and on his information, the same day, Chacha was rounded up from his New Delhi home.

“Surajpal has been in this business for more than 20 years; he is known to have contacts with about 50 to 60 families of Rathdhana in Sonipat and other villages, who kill animals for him,” the Delhi Additional Commissioner of Police (Crime Branch) Ravindra Yadav was quoted by the media as saying immediately after his arrest. Sarju was on his way to meet and deliver tiger skins and parts to Chacha, who ran a grocery store and small real estate business in the national capital as a front for his alleged illegal trade. All of them are now in Nagpur central prison, with courts rejecting their bails.

Their arrest, Aiyer said, helped arrange the pieces of a big jigsaw puzzle.

One, the officials were able to establish a chain of tiger trade. Investigators learnt that the Vodafone cell number that had perplexed them was of Sarju, an alleged third-generation poacher and a member of a tribe from Haryana that’s known to be involved in wildlife poaching as a tradition. Sarju was allegedly a major supplier working for Chacha, once a key associate of notorious tiger poacher-trader Sansar Chand who died in 2012 after remaining in prison since been arrested in 2005. Field poachers of another tribe from Madhya Pradesh killed tigers; people like Chika-Mambru helped as couriers; Sarju bought the skin and parts and finally supplied it to Chacha. Who did Chacha sell it to? The CBI is now probing that.

Once Sarju fell in their custody the forest officials began to crack a network of organized poachers; with it surfaced also the fact that so many tigers were killed and poached from all over Vidarbha.

Since the first arrests in March 2013, forest officials and CBI teams have conducted over four dozen raids and nabbed the alleged culprits from all over India.

Ranjit (a Dhakana case accused and one of Chacha’s suppliers like Sarju), who had twice slipped out of the CBI hands previously, was arrested in Vizianagaram; Ajit, a younger brother of a notorious poacher-trader Keru (also wanted in these cases) was nailed in Tirupati; two brothers Yarlen and Barsul (now out on bail) were arrested in Jabalpur; Sarju, Naresh and Dalbir, the trio that is alleged to be working for Chacha, were picked up from Sonipath in Haryana; Chacha himself was arrested from New Delhi with cash and tiger parts in his custody. The raids continue. The latest to be arrested by the CBI was Raslal from Satara in western Maharashtra and another major player in the trade named Kuttu Chhiyalal Rajgond from Katni in Madhya Pradesh in March this year. On their information, the CBI also arrested two brothers, Baini and Jhallu, from a village in Rajnandgaon district of Chhattisgarh. Baini and Jhallu were wanted in connection with the killing of three tigers in Gondia-Bhandara forests and have known to have killed many tigers in and around the Kanha Tiger Reserve, over the last decade or so.

During his interrogation, Kuttu also confessed to killing three men and the CBI has now asked the MP police to register separate offences in those murders. He was wanted in the killing of two tigers in Khumari near the Mansinghdeo Wildlife Sanctuary near Nagpur and one in Gondia’s Tumsar forests.

As the arrested accused began to reveal their network and the names of the associates by the end of 2013 a full-blown racket of organized poachers of tiger and other wildlife began to surface. In 2013 itself the Maharashtra Forest Department formed an Action Team to lead the cases, but when their expanse grew out of bounds, the state government decided to hand over three main cases to the CBI in 2014. With every arrest came the clue to their new associates and their old crimes, Aiyer said.

The poachers’ modus operandi is simple: they camp 20-25 km way from the forest, kill the animal, and hide the parts somewhere close to the forest area and then strike a deal with the buyers.

In one case, a poacher nabbed in 2013 in a town of Paratwada, close to Melghat, told the police that they would use train route to smuggle out tiger skins and body parts.

With huge pressure mounting on their network in Vidarbha, these gangs are now focusing on Karnataka and Goa, says an officer with the Melghat Cyber Cell, which came up in the aftermath of these cases as one of the institutional responses to the wildlife crime. It monitors the mobile data in connection with wildlife crime and is believed to be closely tracking movements of about a hundred active gangs.

Yet questions remain: While so many tigers were being killed and poached, what was India’s vast tiger conservation apparatus doing? If a tiger goes missing from your beat, it’s virtually impossible a forest guard or a ranger won’t know. Here, several tigers that were presumably monitored by authorities went missing from protected areas, but no one raised an alarm even within their institutional set up.

“The beauty of these intertwined cases is that it’s the poachers not the foresters who told us how many tigers they had killed and sold off,” Desai laments. “It’s a slap on our face – poachers killed these many wild cats while all of us, the so-called guardians, were sleeping or glossing over the gaps.”

“It’s as if India conserves tigers for poachers,” says Desai sarcastically. “We conserve, they kill.”

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