They may have got quick money from it, but killing a full-grown tiger in the forests of Melghat around January-February 2013 was a tedious, frightening and a very risky affair, going by the statement of a 30-year-old Madhusingh Pardhi, convicted along with three others by an Amravati court in the case.
“We were very frightened, when we heard the roar of a tiger,” Madhusingh says in his confession before the court. The tiger had perhaps fallen into their snare after several days of their attempts but “we were not sure”, he says in his statement recorded in Hindi. So he and four of his accomplices waited for hours before they were absolutely certain that the wild cat had indeed been trapped. Since the snare was tied to a tree by a chain, the tiger could not break free. “A tired wild cat sat down, its leg in the snare.”
“That’s when we went there and hit the tiger with a sword-stick just before the fall of dusk, after which it fell down and began to bleed; we then stabbed it with sharp weapons,” he says in his statement.
This was the first time he killed a tiger, for quick money. But the man who had trained him and placed the order wasn’t new in the trade. That man named Ranjit worked for a supplier in the dubious wildlife trade and was part of an old syndicate whose kingpin actually sat in New Delhi, investigators say.
As the Maharashtra forest officials and the CBI have discovered in the last three years, several wild cats in Vidarbha nay the central Indian tiger habitats were killed by the gangs of organized poachers before many of their members got arrested in the ongoing investigations into some cases of tiger poaching.
The gangs work in a pyramid-like structure and perhaps with much better application of their traditional wisdom about tiger behavior and habitat than the educated guardians of this majestic animal.
Most of the suspected tiger poachers arrested in separate cases are third or fourth generation poachers, just out of their teens – and very ferocious killers, according to forest officials probing the cases.
Investigations and independent studies into India’s multifarious tiger poaching gangs and their recent history reveal their modus operandi – from mutual bonhomie to territorial rights to switching locations to being ruthless in killing their targets, among other things.
“Tiger poaching in India has always been a specialized job mostly led by family groups and individuals with traditional expertise,” says a comprehensive study published last August by executive director of the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI) Belinda Wright, ecologist Koustubh Sharma, WPSI’s central India coordinator Nitin Desai and colleagues. The study published in the journal ‘Biological Conservation’ says the poachers prefer to operate in specific tiger habitats, mainly because of their familiarity with these areas and the trusted networks that individual poaching gangs have set up over several years. The illegal trafficking of tiger parts has two components, it says, that of poaching tigers and that of selling, buying and smuggling the parts out of the country to feed illegal global markets.
Forest officials in Nagpur engaged into the tiger poaching probe say the organized gangs deploy every tactic: from tracking tigers to chasing their targets long distances for days to monitoring the monitors (forest officials), to taking the wild cats off stealthily before one wonders where they’ve gone.
One of the arrested accused even told the investigators in the Melghat poaching case that they target the courting pairs during the mating season immediately post-monsoon when tigers are most vocal.
In other times, they target full grown males for their robust bones and skins.
Madhu Singh was the one who did the dirty job of killing a tiger on the field with his accomplices, but they were not the only ones doing that. Many others, who are now arrested in connection with the tiger poaching cases in Vidarbha, form part of the poachers’ gangs, who work separately in tiger habitats in the country yet completely linked with each-other, investigators say citing information that the accused have shared during their interrogation. They call their working area a ‘desh’ (or region), and each gang has an understanding that they would not violate each other’s areas of operation, investigations show.
“It looks like once a year, usually during the monsoon season, these gangs belonging to two nomadic tribe communities, one from Madhya Pradesh and the other from Haryana and Rajasthan, meet at an undisclosed location and divide the geographies among themselves,” Advocate Kartick Shukul, one of the prosecution lawyers, said. Each team roughly comprises 30 members, including women, he said, on the basis of the statements and information provided by some of the accused arrested in the cases.
The defence lawyers have argued that the prosecution has no evidence and that their allegations are concocted, but barring two persons, not a single person arrested in these cases has got a bail.
“The actual tiger poachers never had any direct links with international buyers,” Nitin Desai of the Wild-life Protection Society of India (WPSI) says. “The parts and skins always shift hands at several layers.”
Madhu or Chika-Mambru, or others belonged to the gang of Sarju Bagdi, a suspected poacher-trader who was trying to scale up to the level of another man called Suraj Pal alias Chacha. Now behind the bars, both Chacha and Sarju virtually ran the trade together in the post-Sansar Chand era; with former taking the contracts from abroad, and the latter placing the contracts in the field with his contacts.
Pal ran a grocery shop in New Delhi, but a CBI dossier on Sansar Chand around 2005 says he was a major player in the tiger parts and skin, though the agency did not have any evidence or case against him. It shows Chacha was allegedly active even then in tiger trade.
“Even after being active in this field for such a long time, he has never been arrested or involved in any case,” that dossier said of Chacha.
“His network with smugglers based in Majnu Ka Tila (a place in New Delhi) is possibly the biggest and strongest in this field. Even in terms of trading, he is supposed to be the best for supplies of Tiger skins.” Chacha’s main suppliers were poachers of the Bawaria community belonging to Rathdhana near Samalkha in Haryana’s Sonipat district. Of them was Sarju’s father.
In Dhakana case of Maharashtra, it came to be true. Sarju is from that place and has confessed that he would supply the wildlife items to Chacha. It was on Sarju’s statement that Chacha was finally arrested from his house in Delhi; the Delhi police, the wildlife crime control bureau and Maharashtra forest department recovered 18 kg tiger bones and over Rs 60 lakh in cash from him at the time of his arrest.
In his confession statement that is now before the local court, one of the main culprits in the ongoing tiger poaching cases, Sarju says his father worked for the notorious tiger poacher Sansar Chand.
Another accused, who’s now behind bars facing charges of killing a tiger in Dhakna area of the Malghat Tiger Reserve, Ranjit, says he has been coming on the trail of tigers for decades.
Sarju’s grand-father too hunted the wild animals, though there is no evidence or knowledge if the trade was that commercial then as it is today.
Suraj Pal alias Chacha began his career in poaching and trading in tiger skins and parts under Shabbir Hassan Qureshi, one of the biggest alleged tiger traders before the dawn of the new century. He died in 2012, after having given up on the trade sometime in early 2002. Shabbir’s reign, according to several experts of wildlife crime, preceded the emergence of Sansar Chand, but later both ran their networks parallel, at times even competing with each other in the same geographies for the same booty.
The recent history shows, Shabbir and Sansar Chand had their own network of poachers, mainly from the hunting communities. In South India, there was another player, who we are not naming, since he is now out of the trade since mid-2007. Shabbir got arrested around 1999 and confessed to killing virtually dozens of tigers all over India in the preceding decade. He came out of the custody and was re-arrested in Allahabad in December 2007 by the Uttar Pradesh Special Task Force probing another poaching crime and during his Narco-analysis test confessed to killing and selling something like 600 tigers, a figure that is still debatable. Shabbir died in 2012. After first arrest in 1999-2000, Sansar Chand emerged the biggest player and reigned supreme until his arrest in 2005, according to the CBI’s dossiers on him.
Suraj Pal, Chacha, was Sansar’s supplier. When Sansar Chand was arrested, Chacha was already on the radar of the CBI and other agencies. With Shabbir down, Sansar arrested, and other major players either old or maimed by the enforcement agencies, this tall and lanky man now in his mid-sixties and originally from Khaga in Fatehpur, became the numero uno in the tiger trade.
In mid-2014 Chacha was granted bail by an Additional Sessions Judge in Nagpur, but it was revoked by a Nagpur bench of the Bombay High Court when the forest department went in appeal.
The High Court acknowledged in its observation that Chacha, who seems to have international links in the trade, had paid Rs 20 lakh to Sarju and Naresh as an advance sum for buying tiger skins, nails, bones and other vital organs from poachers in Maharashtra and the latter had already made some deliveries.
With Sansar Chand and two other big traders dead and a couple of others like Chacha in jail, there’s a vacuum at the top of this murky trade – but experts like Desai warn: “Someone may already be ready to play the new don.”