Go wild for life: Conservationists or poachers!
“We need actionable intelligence to ensure that the threat is neutralized even before it hits a single target, the field Intel is analyzed in real time at the control room and actionable intelligence is give on time for action."
Lt. Col. Fay, was explaining about the latest project to counter wildlife crime in a central African country. Her words were typically military and the way of working was equivalent to that of the army, secret and accurate.
This soft spoken lady, carrying a pleasant smile, is an officer with Special Operations Force of the US military who took part in a number of covert operations dealing with terrorists across the world. Today, she is heading another mission to stop wildlife crime in Africa by running a project named as “TenBoma”, fighting the dreaded ivory poaching syndicate along with various government forces in Africa.
This is the new age fight against organized wildlife crime and how conservationists are fighting it. The game has changed and the fight is becoming more intensive!
Now, when we celebrate the World Environment Day with a theme “ Go Wild for Life”, we are not only talking about just planting trees or recycling plastic, but also about the very survival of the planet Earth and saving wildlife by being Wild for Life. The age old perception about a wildlife criminal is no more the same; it is not only the poor man who shoots to eat. The enemy could be a man who never killed an animal in the wild, but someone who controls the entire syndicate of crime, sitting in the comforts of a plush home in an air-conditioned room. He may be controlling a network of people over a mobile phone, instant messages, whatApp group and transferring money using net banking. The man who goes out to shoot an elephant or a tiger is just the low ranking player in the chain, who faces the maximum risk and gets the least profit.
One need not to go to Africa to see kingpins of Ivory trade. Last year when the Kerala Forest Department went after the elephant poachers, who killed elephants and trafficked tusks, finally ended up in a four story posh house in an upmarket locality of Delhi. One of them was Mr. Umesh Agrawal who lived in disguise of a carefully crafted image of handicraft dealer. He was in fact the kingpin of the ivory trade in India, creating demand for ivory by pumping money to various middlemen, who further instructed the poachers to kill elephants in the forests across the country. He enslaved artists to turn raw ivory into pricey ivory articles – each costing few lakhs in the market. Forest officials recovered more than 450 KG of ivory and ivory articles from his hideout and the estimated value was in crores (Indian rupees). This valuation was of the leftover items. The exact amount including that of the sold items is still unknown.
The rate at which the wildlife trade is happening in the world is alarming and it is already one of the top five illegal activities in the world. The illegal wildlife trade across the world is estimated between 50-150 Billion Dollar including illegal timber, fishing & trade in wild animal and their products.
Many times people ask “So why don’t you keep the tigers and elephants in the zoo and breed them to ensure that there is enough of them?” Well, wildlife conservation is not just about saving species, it is actually about saving the planet for the next generation. A tiger is not just a handsome looking animal in the wild, it is an umbrella species who manages or helps in balancing an entire ecosystem. Forests are not just a cluster of trees; one can’t replace forest cover by planting some trees and calling it a forest. We need to conserve the last of our natural forests to help us to breathe in the future, and the forests need its tigers and dung beetles together to operate the complex eco system.
There is demand for wildlife products across the world and unfortunately India is one of the top source and destination of illegally traded wildlife goods – both live and dead. The traditional Chinese medicine industry has demand for wild tiger bones, the wealthy art collectors are looking for beautiful sculpture made out of ivory, or a well-dressed customer in an expensive restaurant is asking for a soup in which pangolin scales is the main ingredient. The demand does not end there, you go online and may stumble upon website selling the rare “Indian Star Tortoise “online in some countries where people consider them as pets, or in the pockets of a Japanese teenager where a venomous tarantula (some of them found only in Western Ghats) is kept safe in a small container as an exotic pet. The crime is everywhere and it is across the world. When you try to back-track them, you will see low level poachers or collectors, carriers, middle men, financiers and syndicate bosses and at each level a large sum of money exchanges hands.
Money in this business is another major headache for enforcement officials for various reasons. One is that the money is exchanged through illegal methods, often counterfeit currency enters through these underground channels and no one shows the money accumulated through the illegal sale of wildlife to tax authorities and pays taxes. Overall, this hundred billion dollar business is a vital part of the black money accumulated across the world.
The problem does not end here. For example, a kilogram of rhino horn in the underground markets at the international borders of India can get you more than ten lakhs. Interestingly, often these transactions are not done for money but for other illegal goods such as firearms, drugs etc, which is further sold by the traffickers in the Indian market for higher profits thus creating multiples counts of damage to the economy, security and future of the people.
“I purchased a (name withheld) for about 250 rupees, and sold it to my buyer at 3000 rupees a piece, and each order was more than a hundred in quantity. I used to get money against the delivery of goods, and a minimum 25% of the total amount as advance along with the order. Man…that’s lots of good money and it is a F*&)ing profitable business bro…” These were the words of a young trader (call him the new age freekan), who was dealing in illegal Indian wildlife using chat rooms and whatsApp groups within India. It is the low risk and high profitability of this business which is luring many youngsters into this apparent cool profession these days.
India has one of the strictest laws about wildlife trafficking or poaching in the world. Unless you get caught, you don’t understand how hard the law can act. Entering into a protected area like Periyar Tiger Reserve with a lighted cigarette can be considered as an attempt to cause fire inside a protected area under Section 31 of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 which is actually a non-bailable offence and the accused needs to undergo a court procedure which could land him in prison and also a fine. Killing a tiger, leopard, elephant or a python can get one a maximum punishment of seven years behind the bar; our laws are good, but the way they are implemented may be the weak link which often allows suspects to escape the punishment.
The trade is demand driven and the only way to end it is to eradicate the demand for wildlife and wildlife articles in all forms and levels. Where there is no demand, there will be no market and the trade will die on its own.
Finally, lets not forget those forest guards and rangers who work in our forests day and night, saving the wildlife from poachers. Their life is far from the glamour you may see in discovery and National Geographic channels, wearing shorts and boots, running after snakes and crocodiles. Last year across India, a number of them laid their lives defending wildlife from poachers – at times they were killed by poachers, at times by the very animals they try to protect. These unsung guardians of wild spend weeks and months in the middle of the forest, surviving on basic ration and a walkie talkie as the only connection with the rest of the world. These unsung Guardians of the wild are the true heroes of conservation.
With a salute to those unsung heroes… lets Go wild for life !
And if not, we have zero tolerance to poaching and trade in all forms.
Jose Louies is head of Enforcement assistance and Law, Wildlife Trust of India (WTI)
Know more about WTI and their work on http://www.wti.org.in/
Get more information on wildlife crime and conservation efforts in India on http://wccb.gov.in/