Mukerian, February 24, 2015: In a joint operation, Punjab Police and Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB) arrested four people and seized 20 skins, tiger parts and 94.370 kg of leopard bones from them. The entire operation was assisted by International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW)-Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) team.
(In another operation the Himachal Pradesh Police Department seized 6 leopard skins and apprehended five people in a covert operation in Bilaspur town of the state.)
The arrested individuals belong to a traditional hunting(Bawariya) tribe and were being monitored for the last few weeks before the covert operation was initiated through a network of informers and technical surveillance. Tracking the movement of suspects was extremely difficult because of their nomadic lifestyle and the code language they used during their conversations. On February 12, 2015, Dr. Nanak Singh, Assistant Superintendent of Police, Mukerian, formed two teams to catch the suspects red handed. The tip-off led the team to a house where the police found 11 Leopard skins, nine Asian small clawed otter skins and 95 kgs of leopard bones.
Totaram, Sanju, Rohtas and Sadhu were arrested and during interrogation they revealed their involvement in the illegal trade of animal parts. They also gave information on their modus operandi and others who are part of this wildlife trade nexus. Acting on their information, the police conducted a raid and recovered an air rifle and tiger parts from another location.
All the suspects were booked under section 9/39/49B/51 of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 by the Mukerian Police in Hoshiarpur district of Punjab. Asian small clawed otter, tiger and leopard are listed under the Schedule 1 of the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972.
The average size of the seized leopard skins is around 8 feet by 4 feet while the biggest leopard hide is about 8.6 feet. The average size of the otter skins is around 3.9 feet by 1.3 feet. Meanwhile, leopard bones were put in four different gunny bags weighing a total of 94.370 kilograms. The seized tiger part was around 80 grams. The seizures were examined by RS Sharath, Inspector, and were later handed over to Mukerian police.
During the investigation, the enforcement agencies found out that Bimla and Ramswaroop are the owners of the house from where the illegal wildlife articles were seized. It was also revealed that Sadhu’s father, Chandrabhan, and his uncles, Surajbhan and Sohram, were apprehended for their involvement in illegal trade in Tiger parts in the year 2013 and 2014 respectively.
This is one of the biggest and most successful operations done in the last five years of which IFAW-WTI team was a part of. We must congratulate WCCB and Punjab Police for busting this network which is a great boost to fight against wildlife crime in India. We sincerely thank the enforcement agencies for being so proactive in following these cases and ensuring that perpetrators of such heinous crimes are brought to justice.
The WTI Family wishes you a very Happy New Year!
Thank you so much for having been a part of this amazing project and helping it achieve all that it has. Today, as this project is being retired, I would like to tell you that the calves you have cared for so much have grown up and ‘flown the nest’. They are now in Manas National Park and are taking care of themselves in the wild. Reports from the field indicate that they are doing very well indeed and all of us are looking forward to seeing them live a long and peaceful life.
It is your generosity that has given these orphaned calves a new lease of life and I do so want other animals in India to feel the same warmth. I would like to tell you about two projects on GlobalGiving that urgently requires your kind of support.
Save Birds from Kite-String injuries (https://www.globalgiving.org/projects/save-birds-from-kite-string-injuries/)
Support Mobile Ambulance Service for Wild Animals (https://www.globalgiving.org/projects/support-mobile-ambulance-service-for-wildlife/)
Of these, the first project is the more urgent of the two as we are looking at the upcoming festival of Makar Sankranti on the 14th of January (just a few days from now) when kite flying festivals are going to be organized in many cities of India. The glass coated thread (manjha) used by kite-flying enthusiasts can cause grievious injury to birds and WTI is working to discourage its use. We would be so very grateful for support that will help us increase our reach to protect as many birds as we can.
Please do support these projects and help us make it a Happy New Year – for both animals and humans.
Wildlife Trust of India
This is an account of a day spent with forest guards in Bandipur National Park in the southern Indian state of Karnataka.
As the jeep rumbled past the small houses, the villagers of Chikkaelachetti barely paused in their chores to look at the vehicle full of uniformed guards of the Special Tiger Protection Force (STPF) and three civilians – Nagaraj Bhatt (Field Officer), Jose Louies (Regional Head-South India and Head-Enforcement) and me – on their way to the jungle. A few guards walking by raised their hands in acknowledgement and Bhatt reciprocated while maintaining a firm grip on the wheel as the jeep turned off the semi-paved village road onto the uneven path leading into the jungle.
Expertly maneuvering his way around shrubs and trees, Bhatt finally stopped the jeep at a point in the Kundekere Range and said, “This is where you get off and walk. Let me once again explain the Hejje equipment to two of these watchers who will be using it for the first time and you’re good to go.”
Hejje, meaning footsteps in Kannada, is an ingenious software which with its simple User Interface (UI) has brought together technology and tracking on a platform easy for the guards to understand and use. Using, literally, only a start and stop button, this android-based software helps guards collect information on the area they are walking in. The guards can even immediately take photographs as the software allows instant documentation of direct and indirect evidence of animal movement. Ten such Hejje units have been handed over to the STPF team as part of a WTI Rapid Action Project.
After a quick training session, Bhatt fished out a map from the back seat and laid it on the jeep’s hood. “You’re here right now. This is one point 5 km from here and there’s the second point 10 km away. You see that white speck on that mountain? That’s where I’ll meet you with the jeep.” Bhatt said, pointing to a hill in the distance.
Stopping every now and then to look for snare, Dore Naika, one of the forest watchers who could converse in Hindi, remarked, “We’ll probably not actually find a snare in this walk...” “When patrolling was started some years ago with WTI’s assistance, several hundred snares were found. And in this beat alone, we must have found some 200 snares. But it has been several months since we have found a single snare in the forest,” said Naika proudly.
“So is it just the patrolling and fear of being caught that has stopped the villagers from putting the snares?” I asked curiously, trying to gauge the sustainability of such an initiative. “Not really,” said Naika. “Take any village around here. We’ve done extensive awareness work with them and now, in fact, a number of them alert us whenever they get the whiff of any illegal activity around here. We’re not saying that no one here eats bushmeat anymore or poaches anymore, but the number of incidents are negligible compared to what they used to be earlier. A sense of pride in their forest and wildlife heritage has been inculcated in the locals. The village youth are also saying that they want to come and join the Department and help protect the forests.” Naika said exultantly. “There used to be just 11 tigers here in 1973 in Bandipur. Now the landscape, spread over 1020 sq km, is home to more than a hundred tigers!” he added with all the pride of a father showing off his child’s achievement.
As we walked deeper into the jungle, all we could hear at one point were the ‘seven sisters’ babbling away. A loud crack of a snapped twig suddenly broke into their babble and we whipped around to see a sambar deer galloping away at full speed, anxious to put as much space as possible between itself and us.
A novice in jungle trail walking, I was impressed by the STPF staff as they took on the uneven hillside like seasoned mountain goats, jumping nimbly over loose stones and deftly avoiding thickets and thorns. About 2 km inside the jungle, we decided to stop near a stream for 10 minutes. Even though the monsoons had begun in Karnataka and it had been raining heavily for days, that day the Sun God had decided to smile upon us (albeit a little too brightly!)
As everyone clambered onto the rocks to get the best seats in the house, I noticed Naika was wearing regular flip-flops and asked him where his shoes were. “Oh, they’re at home. I was in a hurry and just put these on. I’m used to walking in these anyway. Shoes have been given to us relatively recently, infact by WTI,” he said.
Naika then turned around and looked at Bomme Gowda, another watcher sitting right behind me. “It’s still ok for me, you know. I’m in a relatively okay position and can at least afford a pair of shoes and slippers on my own once in a while. But a watcher like Bomme Gowda who has been walking this forest for years still get paid only the basic minimum wage. How can he afford things like raincoats and proper walking shoes when he has a family to feed and an ailing mother in his village home?” Naika asked me.
I turned to look at Bomme Gowda. He just gave me a shy smile and looked at ripples made by a tadpole in the water below. “How far have you all studied?” I asked. Naika replied, “I have done my Bachelor in Education. Puneeth, sitting there, has even completed his Bachelor’s degree in Commerce. Bomme has never gone to school. The others have passed high school at least.”
“So does support, like the raincoats and Hejje tracking systems, help you all a lot?” I asked, despite knowing the answer. “Of course it does!” Naika shot back immediately, “Like I said, our salaries aren’t too high. The forest department does all it can for us but even they have their limitation. We need as much help as we can get. With the monsoons coming up for instance, a number of us were wondering how we’re even going to carry out patrolling since most of our salaries have gone home. But now at least, we know we won’t be catching a cold everyday and falling sick!”
Wondering how much I had tested Naika’s patience, I listened as he answered my umpteenth question, “10-15 km is our usual beat. Take this route we’re on right now – of the Chigrekadu beat for instance. Now this is a known habitat for at least 5-6 tigers and we have to make sure that it is snare-free. Even though not a single snare has been found in almost a year, even one accidentally left behind by us could mean one tiger less in our forest,” he said.
I asked if he had ever come across any tiger on his beat. “No ma’am,” he said with his ever-present smile. “It’s almost as if the wildlife of this forest knows that we’re not here to harm them. They probably do see us from the distance since we have found fresh pugmarks on occasion, but as long as we leave them alone, they don’t disturb us.” “It’s the elephants that we need to be wary of! That’s one unpredictable animal. We have to constantly keep our nosed tuned to their scent. You won’t even know that they’re right behind until it is almost too late.”
Pit stop over and we continued on our way to the final point some kilometers away. I was exhilarated at being away from the din of the city and exhausted from walking uphill in the jungle.
We found Bhatt waiting for us where he said he would be, armed with several bottles of water (“Special from a pond just here!” he claimed with a twinkle in his eye) and packets of Parle-G biscuits. All fed and watered, we clambered into the jeep. I took a last look at the trail we had just come up and wondered when, if ever at all, I would have the chance to walk the forest with these companions again.
The next stop was the STPF’s anti-poaching camp a few kilometers away. Loaded with only bare essentials, my attention was immediately drawn to a very sturdy iron chest in a corner of the room. “Surely, you don’t get thieves in the middle of the jungle?” I exclaimed. The other laughed as Naika explained, “That’s for our resident bears. We have one who loves to come and raid our supplies and this padlocked strongbox is the only solution that has worked,” said Naika handing me a plastic mug of ‘special drinking water’ as they liked to call the local handpump produce!
Bhatt pointed to the far end of the room and commented on them using firewood cookstoves (chulha). “It’s not good for them. They really need an alternative in here or they will seriously start falling sick in these closed quarters. Promising to look into this, Jose and I followed Bhatt and the others out to the vehicle. “We hope that we have been of help to you, ma’am.” Naika said with all the grace of a good host. I thanked him and the others profusely for humoring me and patiently answering my queries and, of course, waiting for me when I was too tired to climb up a hill after a point.
As I waved goodbye, I couldn’t help but marvel at the resilience of this lot who could have entered any mainstream industry, chosen any career they wanted to, but their valiance and loyalty to wildlife and nature kept them where they were, insisting and demanding to be counted among the Guardians of the Wild.
The forest guards need all the support that we can give them. As the new year begins, I reach out to you with a plea to help us empower these brave men and women who have chosen to protect our forests.