Monday, March 19, 2007

Seizure of leopard skins kicks off a controversy in India

Forest department's decoy teams indirectly harming wildlife by creating an artifical market, say animal lovers

Dilip Bisoi

Bhubaneswar - The threat to wildlife in Orissa is growing as large-scale industrialisation and mining activities push them out of their habitat. With their hideouts lost, these animals are now straying into human habitat in search of food and water and are falling easy prey to poachers. In fact, international gangs dealing in wildlife body parts have become quite active in the state.

In recent weeks, a series of seizure of precious wildlife body parts by forest and police officials brought to light the vulnerability of these wild animals. Last month, a joint team of forest personnel and crime branch police busted an organised racket linked to wildlife poaching in Orissa and arrested three persons. Tusks weighing 14.3 kg and a six-feet-long leopard skin were seized. The crime branch had been directed by the government to investigate into the spate of elephant deaths in some sanctuaries, including Satkosia between September to November 2006, as 11 tusker killings were reported in November alone. According to crime branch inspector general, BK Sharma, the three persons were caught when the divisional forest officer of Satkosia wildlife division, Susanta Nanda, posed as a prospective buyer and approached them. Following this prize catch, the forest officials seized a leopard skin. Similarly, ivory was seized from three persons in Nilgiri forest division. Last year, the forest officials of Baliguda division seized a huge quantity of tusk and tiger skins.

On March 14, forest officials in Mayurbhanj district arrested three persons involved in poaching wild elephants and smuggling of ivory. According to Debabrat Swain, director, Similipal Tiger Reserve, the ivory could be of the tusker killed recently in Kuldiha wildlife sanctuary. While a leopard skin fetches Rs 30,000 in Nepal, elephant tusks are sold between Rs 1,000 to Rs 5,000 per kg in India, while they fetch Rs 25,000 a kg in Nepal.

Interestingly, it so happened that many a times forest officials have seized fake hides and tusks. Enterprising wildlife dealers have now honed the art of faking goat-skin as leopard hide and leg bone of the elephant as tusk.

However, the methods being used by forest officials to catch poachers and traders has kicked off a controversy with several forest officials and wildlife lovers alleging that this is causing serious harm to wildlife. With forest officials decoying as prospective buyers of wildlife body parts, an artificial market is being created for poachers and traders, they say. This is indirectly encouraging poachers to go for killing animals.

"The forest officials may succeed in busting the racket but by then the animals are dead. As most seizures are of body parts of animals killed very recently, it may have so happened that the poaching took place after taking advances from decoy forest officials", said a former chief wildlife warden. Forest officials should endeavour to save wild animals rather than seize their body parts, he suggested. content_id=158242

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