It is a first in Karnataka, the nation’s tiger capital. Prior to this, wildlife officials and police had only arrests to crow about. The 3-year sentence is paltry, but conservationists are happy as it is ‘a beginning’ all the same.
For a country which wants to slap a fine of Rs 1-crore on citizens who are cruel to their pet dogs, chickens and buffalos, poachers of India’s national animal — tiger — have been let off rather lightly. But the unthinkable happened last week: For the first time in Karnataka, the nation's tiger capital, three tiger poachers were convicted and sentenced to three years' imprisonment by the 9th Additional Chief Metropolitan Magistrate's court in Bangalore.
Prior to this, it was only arrests of wildlife poachers that made news as conviction eluded sleuths of the CID Forest Cell and other police personnel.
Nabbing the culpritsA team from Upparpet police station comprising inspector M R Mudavi, sub-inspectors S D Shashidhar and Sridhar K Poojar and some constables nabbed a three-member gang on August 17, 2008, in Gandhinagar. Acting on a tip-off, the police contingent arrested M David Kumar (29), Kodandapani (29) of Koramangala and P Venkataswamy (33) of Krishnagiri and seized two tiger pelts, tiger paws and a few pieces of tiger bones worth Rs 15 lakh. The booty was sourced from Chandapura, on the city outskirts. The three were booked under various provisions of the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972.
Upparpet police station inspector Lokeshwar, who took over as investigating officer in the case, said, "We provided enough documents to the court and are happy that the poachers have been convicted. This will teach other poachers a lesson."
Conservationists smilingThe rare conviction has put the smile back on the faces of conservationists. Sanjay Gubbi, member of the Karnataka State Wildlife Board, said: "The conviction is a welcome change on the conservation front. All these years, it was only reports of arrests which made news but culprits would eventually go scot-free. Even though the punishment is inadequate, I am happy that it has started happening."
Upparpet: Wildlife trade hubFor years, areas within Upparpet police station limits including Gandhinagar, Majestic, KG Road, Avenue Road and the infamous Tulasi Thota were the hub of wildlife trade in IT city.
In 2008 alone, 24 cases relating to the wildlife trade were registered including the trading of six tiger pelts, nine leopard pelts and one rhinoceros horn. The numbers kept increasing over the years.
The high number of cases gave the area the dubious distinction of entering the national wildlife crime database managed by the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI).
Poaching unabated every yearEven though the dwindling tiger population set off alarm bells and led to calls for stringent laws, poaching in various national parks and tiger reserves continues unabated. Last year, in Karnataka alone, the forest department recovered as many as six tiger pelts and arrested a couple of poachers. And 50 tigers have fallen prey to poachers in the last 30 years, says Sanjay.
It's only in the last couple of years that tiger deaths have been properly tracked in India after the setting up of the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA). Till then, there were no efforts to keep track of the big cats' mortality rate even though their population was slowly being decimated.
Karnataka, with more than 390-400 big cats, has four tiger reserves including Bandipur, Nagarhole, Anshi-Dandeli and Bhadra Tiger reserves. Recently, the central government also notified Biligiri Ranga Temple Wildlife Sanctuary as a tiger reserve. Bandipur, Nagarhole and Dandeli were once the hub of poachers though such incidents have come down in the last one year due to the efforts of forest officials.
Poachers and their code wordsChamda: Pelt
Chamda dedo: Get me the pelts
Fancy item: Tiger pelt and tiger paws
Rose products: Leopard pelt and paws
Kutta chamda: Otter skin
Veerappan of the NorthOne of the first high-profile convictions for tiger poaching in India came in January 2003 when Sansar Chand was arrested on a train in Rajasthan while carrying pelts. Known as ‘Veerappan of the North,’ Sansar established a strong network in Karnataka and succeeded in poaching dozens of tigers. However, none of his men were convicted in any of the courts in the state.
Chand, who took to the illegal trade at age 16, has killed 250 tigers, 2,000 leopards, 5,000 otters, 20,000 wildcats and 20,000 wild foxes. It was Chand who turned the Sariska Tiger Reserve into a tiger-free zone.
His confession to the CBI revealed that in 2006 alone, he had sold 470 tiger and 130 leopard pelts to customers in Nepal and Tibet. With strong family support from mother Manuka Devi, wife Rani and son Akash, Chand decimated the population of tigers and other wildlife across the country.
He and his associate Yakub Chacha were grilled by the state forest cell sleuths in connection with the arrest of Karnataka’s notorious wildlife traders – Prabhakar Gajakosh from Hubli and Abdul Khader Chaudhury of Hyderabad.
Government of India enacted a comprehensive legislation "Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972" with the objective of effectively controlling poaching and illegal trade in wildlife and its derivatives. This has been amended recently (January, 2003) and punishment and penalty for offences under the Act have been made more stringent.
Offences pertaining to hunting of endangered species and altering of boundaries of protected areas
For offences relating to wild animals (or their parts and products) included in schedule-I or part II of Schedule- II and those relating to hunting or altering the boundaries of a sanctuary or national park the punishment and penalty have been enhanced, the minimum imprisonment prescribed is three years which may extend to seven years, with a minimum fine of Rs. 10,000/-. For a subsequent offence of this nature, the term of imprisonment shall not be less than three years but may extend to seven years with a minimum fine of Rs. 25,000.
Also a new section (51 - A) has been inserted in the Act, making certain conditions applicable while granting bail: 'When any person accused of the commission of any offence relating to Schedule I or Part II of Schedule II or offences relating to hunting inside the boundaries of National Park or Wildlife Sanctuary or altering the boundaries of such parks and sanctuaries, is arrested under the provisions of the Act, then not withstanding anything contained in the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973, no such person who had been previously convicted of an offence under this Act shall be released on bail unless -
(a) The Public Prosecutor has been given an opportunity of opposing the release on bail; and
(b) Where the Public Prosecutor opposes the application, the Court is satisfied that there are reasonable grounds for believing that he is not guilty of such offences and that he is not likely to commit any offence while on bail".