'WE SOLD A LEOPARD SKIN LAST MONTH FOR RS 17,000'
Mihir Srivastava and Aditya Kapoor follow the poacher trail to a Bawaria camp
In the last two years, around 80 tiger and 356 leopard skins have been seized in different parts of the country. Customs officials multiply cases of known offences by 10 to get the real scope of the number of animals poached. By this formula, the figures are frightening — in 2006 alone, around 360 tigers and 1,600 leopards were killed. According to the last available estimates, made in 2001, there were 8,203 leopards in India. At this rate, experts fear that the leopard will be extinct before the tiger in the subcontinent.
Hunting tribes like the Bawarias still travel the length and breadth of the country, set up camps close to the national parks and sanctuaries, poach the big cats, and supply their skin and body parts to organised gangs.They do all this in the heart of the jungle. A senior forest official explained: "During this time they stay inside the forest. They manage to do all this with impunity because there is no effective patrolling in the forests."
The poachers make about Rs 25,000 on a leopard skin, hardly comparable to the Rs 3,00,000 to 3,50,000 a tiger skin fetches in Delhi. "This stark difference in the price is not only because of the size in the skin, but because of the fact that there is ready supply of the leopard skin," says a senior official in the Union environment ministry.
Finding camps of the Bawaria community close to a national park is nearly not as difficult as sighting tigers or leopards in the wild. Just outside the Rajaji National Park in Haridwar, near the city bus stand, the Bawarias were camped in 15 odd tents. They said they had come from Maharashtra to Haridwar to sell anklets and stones.
We approached them posing as prospective buyers, saying that we were looking for chadar — the trade name for tiger or leopard skin. At first, they were tentative. "We sell stone and anklets, only," said Lamlam. "We do not deal in body parts of wild animals." A little more persuasion on our part got them talking. Lamlam escorted us to the patriarch, the short and stout Manmoj. He asked us to come the next morning. He neither confirmed nor denied having any chadar.
When we arrived the next morning, Manmoj was fast asleep. His daughter woke him up. "Buyers have come," she said. He got up and asked her to fetch a bundle from the back of the tent. He took out a small round aluminium box which was full of animal parts – an owl's beak, mongoose and civet cat skulls and talons of a big bird of prey, among other things.
Then he got a small bag and took out a pair of tiger claws, which still had a small patch of tiger skin attached to it. Manmoj showed us how elegant they would look on the neck. They had obviously killed the tiger recently and were offering its claws for Rs 1,000 each. But where was the skin?
"We want good stuff, and won't settle for anything less than the chadar," we insisted. "We sold the leopard skin last month for Rs 17,000. At the moment we have no skin," the daughter piped up. The father asked her to shut up. "Give us your contact number and we will supply you the skin within a month," he said. But we remained adamant. "We want the skin now." Manmoj confabulated with Lamlam, who asked him to show us the skin. But Manmoj refused. "You look to me like decoy cops," he told us. "Give me your address, we will get back to you with the supply within a month." We held our ground. "What if you give our number to the cops? If you do not trust us, how can we trust you?" we said.
We were in a quandary — deal and risk the slaughter of a leopard. We also suspected that Manmoj had a tiger skin. We decided to report the matter to the forest department so that they could conduct a raid and confiscate the skins. Rajendra Kumar Agarwal of WPSI helped arrange the raid.
Within an hour we were accompanying a raid party to the Bawaria camp. On seeing the forest department vehicles, three Bawaria men fled the scene with bundles in their hand. When Manmoj's tent was raided, the skin of a freshly slaughtered sambhar was found. The tiger claws he had tried selling us just an hour ago were missing. Possibly, the three men had escaped with it. Three others, including Manmoj, were arrested. Next day, in the middle of the night, the Bawarias quietly packed up and left Haridwar.