Sunday, February 03, 2008

Prosecuting Poachers Impossible - Wardens

Prosecuting Poachers Impossible - Wardens
 
Malini Shankar
 
SARISKA, Rajasthan, Feb 2 (IPS) - Inquiries into the decimation of 22 tigers by poachers in this famed tiger reserve, during 2002-2005, have revealed a serious problem -- the near impossibility of booking poachers in India.
 
"First of all catching the poacher on the spot is difficult. Based on investigations done by the staff, and intelligence agencies, we caught several poachers and investigations have led to other poaching instances,'' P.S. Somashekhar, field director of the Sariska Tiger Reserve, told IPS.
 
"But, it is another challenge to convince the courts that the recorded statements by the arrested poachers during investigations are also evidence,'' Somashekhar explained. ''Section 30 of the Indian Evidence Act provides for confessions to be read out against co-accused in a joint trial; to interpret this in wildlife cases calls for proving the connivance of a gang of poachers who are caught and interrogated for the same offence with the material evidence.''
 
Officials also have to contend with the influence of powerful figures. In 2004, a former field director of the Sariska Tiger Reserve, Deepak Bhatnagar officially sought a recount of tigers in the tiger reserve. His letter was never acknowledged and he was later transferred to a remote irrigation project in a desert town of Rajasthan.
 
Only 13 of the 22 tigers killed in Sariska were documented as part of the 77 cases of wildlife crimes that were booked for the period 2002-2007. "We have 24 cases related to panther poaching. Of that, 20 cases have been lodged in the court and cases are underway. Before registration we need to recover material evidence, and case has to be prepared, only after that can we register the case in court," says Somashekhar.
 
"Out of the 13 tiger cases registered, five tiger and two leopard killings have been handed over to Central Bureau of Investigations (CBI). The poacher Kaliya Bawaria was convicted in June 2007," the field director added.
 
According to the Project Tiger website, 358 of 533 poaching cases were booked in the period 1994-1999. In the period 2002 - 2005 Sariska officials booked 77 wildlife crime cases but it is anyone's guess as to exactly how many wild animals were actually slaughtered by poachers.
 
Forest officials claim there were 24 tigers in the Sariska Tiger Reserve in 1997. There were also an estimated 49 leopards, 97 jungle cats, 81 hyenas, 340 jackals, 5,600 sambhars, 2,900 spotted deer, 4,780 nilgais, 24 chowsingha, 2,900 wild boars, 12 civet cats and 18 palm civets, according to a report on the Project Tiger website for that year. But today these figures are being questioned.
 
In Sariska, officials ignored reports of injuries caused to tigers by poachers. These included a case where the upper jaw of one feline was ripped off by a crude bomb, although the incident did raise serious questions regarding the commitment of officials charged with wildlife protection.
 
It was also discovered that poachers had taken advantage of the man-animal conflict that resulted in villagers living inside Sariska antagonising forest officials.
 
"For foolproof implementation of the wildlife protection act, a few remedial measures are necessary: One is proper surveillance network; secondly people residing in the core and periphery must cooperate with field staff. Collection of evidence is tedious because material decomposes rapidly,'' a Sariska official said.
 
In 1995 a case of poaching against the well-known film actor, Sanjay Dutt, fell through because no material could be recovered from the Dandeli Wildlife Sanctuary on India's west coast. As often happens in such cases forest officials come under intense political pressure and are compelled to oblige powerful people.
 
If the high profile poaching cases involving another celebrity, the film actor Salman Khan, resulted in prosecution and conviction, they were largely due to the initiative of local villagers belonging to Rajasthan's Bishnoi community. Black buck, shot by Khan in one of the cases, is considered sacred by the Bishnois. Khan ended up with sentences totalling six years in jail -- against which he has appealed.
 
It is far easier to catch traders in animal parts than poachers. In December, police in northern Uttar Pradesh state seized three tiger skins and three skeletons and apprehended Shabeer Hasan Qureshi, regarded as the kingpin behind a major trafficking network.
 
"That was a major breakthrough in the fight against wildlife crime in India,'' Belinda Wright, executive director of the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI), which helped with Qureshi's arrest, told IPS. Wright said, however, that the emphasis should still be on preventing poaching.
 
In Sariska, apart from the 22 tigers that were slaughtered by poachers, there are 52 other cases of wildlife crime that are pending trial. These pertain to the poaching of peacocks, mongoose, jackals, bears, birds, frogs, snakes, hyenas, leopards, civet cats and owls.
 
 
 



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