The decline of tigers across the world has been swift! Three subspecies of tigers became extinct during the second half of the 20th Century and the world’s wild tiger population has declined by over 95% since the turn of the 20th century. In 2014, the tiger population in India stood between 2011-2226 tigers only. With over 66 recorded tiger deaths in 2014, and 49 in 2015 (so far) we cannot afford to lose even a single tiger to poachers. Parks like Sariska (Rajasthan) and Panna (Madhya Pradesh) lost all their tigers to poaching some years back and are now on a slow path to recovery.
Organised poachers and local forest fringe communities layout metal jaw traps and wire noose snares which are hidden in the undergrowth and trap unsuspecting animals as they step into them. The animals either suffer slow agonizing deaths in these traps or are brutally killed by poachers who come to retrieve their “kill”. Snares are basically wire nooses which tighten around the animals’ limbs or body more and more as the animal struggles to get free. Both traps and snare can cause fractures and grievous wounds which get infected even if the animal manages to free itself.
This project has a multi pronged approach. The first is as a deterrent to villagers on the fringes from even laying the snares. The second is the actual removal of snares that have already been laid out. The third is building a strong network of informants to gather intelligence on wildlife crime in the region.
As the news of regular walks spreads, it deters poachers from carrying out their snaring activities as there is a strong possibility of their being caught and also of losing the traps they put out. The removal of snares is a preventive measure to protect the wildlife in the forest as snares will lie dormant until they are triggered.
The anti snare walks are carried out along the fringes of the forests. The anti snare walk teams comprise of between 4 to 12 members including Forest Department staff, WTI staff and local youth volunteers. These teams walk distances of between 8 to 14 kilometres a day. All snares and traps that are found are geo tagged to mark their locations, disarmed and bought back to the Department office as evidence.
Plotting the locations of snares helps identify poaching hot spots. The locations of the anti snare walks are kept a secret until they start to avoid tip offs to poachers.
The N Begur Range of Bandipur Tiger Reserve has been an area with high incidences of snares. It was thus decided that the anti snare walks for the financial year 2015 – 16 would start off here. The anti snare walks this year have covered 6 ranges of Bandipur TR, namely Gundre, N Begur, Nugu, Omkar, Hediyala and Moliyur Ranges covering a total of 189.2 km. The other side of the park will be covered during the remainder of the year. 185 snares have been recovered so far.
Solar fence wires and bike clutch cables are the most preferred materials at Bandipur as these are easily available in the local village shops. They are also easily concealable under clothes and small bags. It has been observed that snares are mostly laid in the peripheral areas of the park. Suspects have also been caught red handed laying snares during the walks.
Meetings have also been held with the Forest Department to strategise further. The team is also aiding the Forest Department in compiling and creating a centralised database from 10 districts of all cases related to Wildlife crime. There are 128 cases that are being compiled to create a centralised intelligence cell.
The team has also been aiding the Forest Department with dealing with Human Animal Conflict. A two and a half year old female leopard was rescued from Bachahalli village.
The Bandipur Forest Department has commended the anti snare walks and their importance in protecting the wildlife of the region.
The State of Nagaland falls within a global ‘Biodiversity Hotspot’ and an Endemic Bird Area and supports considerable forest and other natural wealth. With a human population of around two million, the State is inhabited by 16 major tribes, along with other sub-tribes. A majority of the tribes are involved in subsistence agriculture. Hunting has been a tradition and an important part of the livelihood for the local people.
Although hunting wildlife is illegal under the Wildlife Protection Act (1972), the tribal people in Nagaland continue to hunt. Though local-level illegal hunting has been going on for years with little check, the recent (2012) mass killings of a migratory bird species, the Amur falcon (Falco amurensis) garnered considerable national and international attention. Every year, theses falcons migrate in large numbers from Eastern Russia and Northern China to Nagaland during October and stay on till December, as a part of their 22,000-Km-long annual migration to Southern Africa. Protected under the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS) to which India is a signatory, these raptors are killed primarily for their meat and for live-bird trading. In 2012, an estimated 60,000 birds were illegally killed in three villages of Wokha district alone, causing widespread alarm all over the world regarding endangerment of the species and the blatant violation of national and international laws.
The major site of hunting is the Doyang hydro-electric project reservoir in Wokha district, which hosts the raptors in tens of thousands, believed to be the single largest aggregation of Amur falcons recorded. The hunters hoist their fishing nets high above the ground, close to the trees where the birds descend to roost; the birds get entangled in the nets, and are collected by the hunters, who sell them dead or alive, enabling them to earn lucrative amounts of money in a short span of time.
The local forest department made efforts to stop the mass hunting of these raptors. Seizures were made and all trapped birds found alive were released. Additionally, nets were also seized from the poachers. However, it was felt that much more needed to be done besides enforcing the law on the community, and that it will be useful to sensitize locals on the issue of illegal hunting of wildlife, highlighting the case of Amur falcon. WTI, through its Rapid Action Projects initiated a preliminary assessment of the on-ground situation near the Doyang reservoir in Wokha district, where the hunting had been reported. During the early phase (2013), the organization implemented:
Livelihood Support: From Pangti and Sungro, WTI identified 30 families of former hunters and provided them with communal poultry sheds along with a 1000 young birds and veterinary support and training.
Grain for Grain: As a confidence-building measure, under its ‘Grain for Grain’ scheme, 11 WTI distributed 50 kg each to 99 families affected by crop losses due to elephants.
Hunters turn watchers: WTI initiated the formation of three local watch squads, consisting of ex-poachers from the villages, to monitor and prevent hunting of the falcons during the 2013 (November-December) season.
No Amur falcons were reported killed since then. However, the people in the area still need support to ensure that their livelihoods improve and the people continue to remain the custodians of their natural wealth. Although, there has been a considerable change in the attitudes towards hunting, the villagers are yet to achieve an improvement in their basic living, educational and developmental facilities. Continued and consistent awareness activities and further community-development activities are needed to find a long-term and sustainable solution to the matter.
The project team has now conducted an assessment of the roosting sites of the Amur Falcon around the villages, with participation of the representatives of Pangti Village Council and assistance from landowners. The meeting identified 156 landowners, trees in whose canopies are used by the falcons to roost. Ex-gratia payment was provided to the landowners to discourage the slash and burn style of agriculture that is popular there.
Various meetings have also been conducted with all key stakeholders, including the villagers, former hunters, Nagaland Forest Department and the Nagaland Government to formulate a long term strategy for the conservation of the falcons and the development of the people.
Future plans involve developing an eco tourism plan for the villagers to enhance their income through home stays as well as developing the peoples’ skills in traditional crafts like weaving, sericulture, bamboo and cane work etc.
Awareness activities will also continue throughout the year in order to ensure that no Amur falcons are killed and the whole community continues to support their conservation.
A tip off from an ex elephant poacher in July and former forest watcher, led to an investigation by the Kerala Forest Department (KFD) in association with WTI’s Enforcement Team. He claimed that a gang of elephant poachers had camped out in Kerala’s verdant forests and had killed more than 20 elephants in a period of just 10 months.
Special software allowed the KFD and WTI’s Enforcement Team to track connections between suspected poachers through their call records. After many tedious hours of work, enough information had been collected to make the first arrests.
Over 30 people were arrested with respect to ivory poaching with over 40 elephants believed to have been killed in the past year alone.
In October, after more months of intelligence gathering, the team had their biggest breakthrough yet .In a carefully planned operation, a kingpin of the ivory trade was apprehended by a team comprising the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB) and Kerala forest officials with assistance from WTI staff during an early morning operation in Delhi.
The trader arrested was a well to do businessman dealing in art and collectibles was operating his business from a three storied house in a posh locality of Delhi. A fully equipped carving unit was operational at the basement of his house where the authorities suspected the artisans turned ivory into high valued ivory articles to be exported. The suspect confessed his involvement in the illegal trade of ivory from the 90s. He used his company ‘Art of India’ which dealt in various artefacts from India to other countries and mixed ivory and ivory articles along with sandstone and resin statues to avoid detection. He also openly manufactured and displayed articles which looked and felt like ivory in various art exhibitions to attract customers for genuine ivory products. His involvement in preparation of fake ownership certificates for ivory goods is also under investigation. From the initial assessment and findings it is clear that he was purchasing ivory from most of the elephant bearing areas across India.
Less than ten days later, another covert operation led to the seizure of 487kg of ivory. The entire examination of goods lasted for 12 hours as each item was examined and packed. The team also managed to recover some documents and pen drives which will be investigated.
The trader’s highly paid lawyers are working to get him released on bail and WTI’s team will also be providing the best possible legal assistance to the Kerala Forest Department in order to ensure pro-conservation judgments in this case.