|CURRENT ISSUE DECEMBER 20, 2004|
|On The Prowl |
India has become a favourite hunting ground for increasingly organised wildlife crime networks. These cartels are being helped by weak enforcement of the law and a very low conviction rate.
|By Murali Krishnan|
"There can be no doubt that the skin trade is spiralling out of control. Patterns have emerged that indicate strong clandestine networks between traders in Indian cities who collect and process Indian tiger skins and traders in Nepal and China who buy them."
There are good reasons to believe that the illegal trade in wildlife has come back with a vengeance. Evidence of the frightening scale of this illegal trade was provided by the seizure of 31 tiger skins, 581 leopard skins and 778 otter skins in Tibet in October last year-the single largest seizure of skins to date.
The skins came from India. Not only were pages from the Delhi editions of a national newspaper stuck on some of the skins, the three Tibetans arrested spent two months in a town just across the border from Ladakh. Worse, the Lhasa customs had earlier stopped the three individuals from entering India illegally. "This seizure alone gives an idea of how extensive the trade is and the ineffective checks in place. It may just be a tiny fraction of the total illegal trade," argues Belinda Wright of the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI).
Following this big catch, there has been an unprecedented surge in exposure of wildlife crime in the country. Over a period of three weeks in July this year, 10 tigers skins, 25 leopard skins, four sackfuls of fresh tiger bones and claws of 31 tigers and leopards were seized from 11 different states across the country, including Madhya Pradesh, Uttaranchal and Haryana. The WPSI, which was instrumental in five of these catches, believes the wildlife cartels wanted to compensate for the Lhasa seizures.
India, home to around half of the world's wild tigers (the Environment and Forests Ministry figures cite less than 4,000) in 28 tiger reserves, has been the hunting ground for criminal networks which are able to continue this trade as a result of a lack of coordinated and effective enforcement of the law. The wild cats continue to be poached to cater to the illegal international trade in skins and bones. "Using the porous border between India and Nepal and moving from Uttaranchal to Lhasa, these couriers criss-cross pathways and mountain passes before delivering the goods to the syndicate leaders. Delhi is the wildlife crime capital of the country-it is one of the biggest trading points and this can be seen by the number of cases registered," says Ashok Kumar of the Wildlife Trust of India, who has been on several sting operations to apprehend gangs (see box).
Officials in the ministry say it is difficult to provide an accurate figure for the international trade in wildlife but experts claim the figure has scaled up to $20 billion (Rs 90,000 crore) in the past few years. The EIA team that followed the skin trail to Lhasa found there are two distinct markets: a local market for use in traditional garments and a market for export of whole skins. Visitors from mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Europe reportedly purchase leopard and tiger skins for decorative use in homes and pay exorbitant prices. The prices of skins have rocketed. A tiger skin, depending on the size, sells for $10,000-12,000, a leopard skin for $850-1,000 while an otter skin is priced at $250.
According to WPSI Director (Central India) Nitin Desai, the syndicates have the money and influence to ensure that none of their tanners or couriers talks when arrested. "These organised syndicates have even reached Naxalite-infested reserves in Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Madhya Pradesh for poaching," he says. In his reckoning, traditional poachers, comprising the Bawaria and Baheliya tribes in Madhya Pradesh, are engaged by "spotters"(middlemen) for as low as Rs 6,000-7,000 for skinning a leopard and Rs 25,000 for a tiger. From there, the skins are taken to tanneries in Kanpur and Allahabad and then transported to Nepal and Tibet. Says Desai: "The prices increase as the chain develops."
The EIA team, led by campaigner Debbie Banks, told ministry officials that criminal networks have not been disrupted by seizures that have taken place and urged the Indian Government to establish multi-agency enforcement units with resources to fight these networks. In response, Raja told India Today, "We plan to set up wildlife crime cells in strategic locations and will set aside funds for this purpose. We hope to have them started by early next year." These cells were first mooted in 1994 by a committee to combat illegal trade in wildlife. In March 2002, the ministry came out with an order to create a wildlife cell, but the idea remained only on paper.
Besides the inaction in setting up a task force to check poaching, the law, too, has been lax in imposing penalties or convicting those who have been caught. This has provided poachers the motivation to carry on with their activities unhindered. According to the WPSI, between 1994 and 2003, there were 784 cases of seizure of tiger, leopard or otter skins. Over 1,400 individuals were accused in connection with these cases but there were only 14 records of conviction and sentencing. A further 22 people have subsequently been caught again.
Most seizures of cat skins happen by chance. The large confiscations of late have only revealed an increasingly organised and controlled crime network. Flush with money, the cartels operate through a well-oiled system which begins from villagers living within or alongside tiger reserves. As Wright remarks, "Customs authorities multiply known offences by 10 to arrive at an estimate of the magnitude tiger poaching." That is telling.