It’s punish or perish

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Open forests cannot and should not be fortified but every sound arrest must result in conviction

Hacked Poachers breached seven tiger reserves, including Tadoba, this year
Hacked Poachers breached seven tiger reserves, including Tadoba, this year
Photo: Satpura Foundation

Jay Mazoomdaar

TIGER POACHERS are back. Separate arrests indicate that organised Pardhi-Bawaria gangs are operating in at least seven areas — BRT (Karnataka), Valmiki (Bihar), Corbett (Uttarakhand), Panna (Madhya Pradesh), Chhindwara-Tadoba (Maharashtra) and, if Bheema, the poacher arrested from Gurgaon earlier this month, is to be believed, Rajaji (Uttarakhand). There are also reports of local operators from Ranthambhore (Rajasthan), Simlipal (Odisha), NSTR (Andhra Pradesh) and Dudhwa (Uttar Pradesh).

Early this summer, the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) sent out a warning to all tiger reserves asking the local management to buckle up against heightened threat of poaching. Yet, nearly four dozen tigers have already been poached or died suspiciously this year. So, is the system tripping again?

Given our open forests, it is next to impossible to physically guard our wilderness even in high-security reserves and national parks. The task becomes more than impossible due to vacancies at the ground level and dependence on ageing forest guards. But unless we literally fortify our forests (which will convert those into zoos), there will always be the possibility of poachers sneaking in.

What can deter these killers is the fear of getting caught, prosecuted and punished. We can bell the poacher but setting up local intelligence networks takes training and a certain bent of mind not common among the majority of India’s bureaucratic field managers. What is worse, such is the fear of the P-word in the Forest Department that most officers prefer to live in denial even when poachers strike. Over the years, this has emboldened the poachers, who now operate with a sense of impunity.

We should have seen the current onslaught coming if we remembered the harvesting pattern. In the early 1990s, we lost many tigers. Ranthambhore made headlines when two forest guards were ambushed by Moghiya poachers in 1993. Then, the syndicate waited for a decade to let tiger numbers bounce back before striking big again during 2002-04, causing the local extinction of tigers in Sariska and, subsequently, Panna. After his arrest in 2005, Devi Singh Moghiya confessed that poachers harnessed 22 Ranthambhore tigers in 2003 alone. All along, the officials were in denial.

The culmination of the 10-year cycle this year has activated the poaching cells across the country. Fortunately, the official response this time has shown a shift from the customary denial. Despite occasional resistance from the top brass, field officers and enforcement agencies have managed to arrest a number of poachers — some of them wanted for years — in the past few months.

Such is the fear of the P-word, most officers prefer to live in denial when poachers strike

But the good news ends there. Like in the past, these poachers are eyeing bail and the majority may escape punishment. Even after the 2006 amendment of the Wildlife Protection Act, which created the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau, the prosecution process has not improved significantly. The most prominent tiger killers now in police custody are either out on bail or have already served limited sentences.

The challenge now is to send these repeat offenders behind bars and keep them there as long as possible. While we are happy holding only Sansar Chand (wife Rani runs his syndicate) and Shabbir Hassan Quereshi (son Sarfaraz controls the family business), all other kingpins are still active. Some, like Tashi Tshering, are busy in Nepal. Others, like Pema Thinley, operate from China and Tibet. At the other end of their network are mostly nameless shooters and trappers, silently harvesting wild cats from forests across India.

To tackle this threat, the NTCA has installed E-eyes, a thermal imagery system, in Corbett for round-the-clock surveillance. It would do better to set up dedicated legal cells in every forest division and hire or train handpicked officers to make robust cases every time a poacher is arrested. Chances of merely getting caught never deter criminals unless they learn to fear exemplary punishment.

Jay Mazoomdaar is an Independent Journalist.
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