Wild India’s Grim Reapers — Interview with Belinda Wright, WPSI
In an interview to CI, Belinda Wright, Executive Director, Wildlife Protection Society of India, talks to Prerna Singh Bindra about the growing illegal trade in wildlife.
Belinda Wright, tiger conservationist and wildlife campaigner, is the Founder and Executive Director of the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI). Born in Kolkata, she has spent her entire life working with wildlife in India. She was a internationally renowned wildlife photographer and Emmy Award winning documentary filmmaker before turning to full time conservation work in 1994. Since then, she has pioneered investigations into the illegal wildlife trade in the Indian Subcontinent, helped expose the trade in tiger parts, and has been instrumental in the arrest of hundreds of wildlife criminals. In 2005, she was a member of the team that revealed the magnitude of the big cat skin trade in Tibet. Belinda was awarded the O.B.E. in 2003 for services to the protection of wildlife in India. Among other awards, she received the Carl Zeiss Wildlife Conservation Award in 2005, and was elected an Ashoka Senior Fellow in 2009.
Belinda has been a member of a number of Central and State Government committees. In her capacity as the Executive Director of WPSI, she was a member of the National Board for Wildlife (chaired by the Prime Minister) until 2010. She is presently a member of the State Wildlife Advisory Boards of Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. She is also an Honorary Wildlife Warden of NCT (National Capital Territory) Delhi.
CI: Tell us about wildlife crime in India with particular reference to the trade in tiger derivatives.
BW: Wildlife trafficking is the third largest illegal trade in the world, after arms and narcotics, and is worth billions of dollars. India has a vast array of wildlife species that are highly valued in the illegal trade – from the spiny-tailed lizard of the desert, to the musk deer of the Himalayan foothills, to sea cucumbers from our coral reefs. And, of course, tigers. Unfortunately tigers are valued more than most other species because of their beauty, strength and power. Every part of the tiger – be it whiskers, eyeballs, penis or bones – has a use in traditional Chinese medicine, and therefore most of the demand for tiger parts comes from our neighbour, China. Of late, prices have skyrocketed, presumably because of the rarity of wild tigers, and also because of the money power of China’s rapidly growing economy. Sadly, India has become the biggest source for tiger parts.
CI: Is India equipped to counter this kind of pressure?
BW: Frankly, no. In the late 1990s, the illegal trade in tiger parts moved into the hands of highly organised criminal gangs. Although a few poaching incidents are still one-offs or driven by human-tiger conflict, most are the handiwork of large organised networks comprising poachers, traders and smugglers. These networks are controlled by city-based masterminds who are seldom linked directly to the illicit goods. The trade has now spread its tentacles throughout the country and its ruthless, sophisticated operators have become extremely good at evading the law.
Unfortunately, protection at the ground level is still abysmal. This is clear from the large number of tigers and their prey species that are being killed from within our ‘protected’ forests each year. State Forest Departments are simply not adequately equipped or trained to protect our natural treasures from poachers.
Most seizures of tiger parts happen by chance and unfortunately the reduced figures since 2002 do not indicate an improvement in enforcement, but rather improved caution by those in the trade. Information collected during recent seizures has shown that the level of sophistication in the illegal trade has increased dramatically. Recent large seizures have revealed new modus operandi in the skin and bone trade, plus an increasingly well funded, controlled and organised crime network. The use of mobile phones, large amounts of cash, expert tanning, and precise folding of the skins are now commonplace. In all the major seizures since December 1999, the skins have been signed on the back in Tibetan script.
Unfortunately, poor communication between the various enforcement authorities often hinders investigations. State police make many of the seizures, by chance and outside protected areas, and the wildlife authorities often spend more energy denying the facts than trying to put things right. In the State of Maharashtra, for example, cases are not handed over to the wildlife authorities and they usually receive no firsthand details of the seizures and play no part in the follow-up investigations.
CI: There has been a renewed focus on wildlife crime. The Wildlife Crime Control Bureau has been established.
BW: The first time that we proposed a National Wildlife Crime Cell was in July 1996. But it was over a decade later, in 2007, that the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB) was established. The Bureau is still finding its feet, setting up regional offices and so on. It has also inherited a cumbersome existing system, which is unfortunate. However, it does have immense potential to help curb wildlife crime, and it is great to see wildlife crime being tackled as a national problem, rather than as isolated cases.
Until just a few years ago – 2006 to be precise – the government’s response to wildlife crime was outright denial. It is of course impossible to solve a problem if you don’t even acknowledge it! A lot of positive action has been taken since then, but a lot still needs to be done at the ground level, where it matters most. Many park managers still claim that their reserves are free from poaching, and often reject specific information about poaching.
CI: We have good laws in India. So why have we failed to contain the trade?
BW: We have relatively good laws in India – the Wild Life (Protection) Act is a strong Act – but a law is only as good as its implementation. Apart from poor enforcement in the field, our judicial system is totally overstretched. There are thousands of cases pending in the courts, and tiger poaching cases just don’t get the attention they deserve. Cases drag on for years and there are very few convictions. In the last decade (2000-2009), WPSI’s Wildlife Crime Database has records of 882 people who have been accused in tiger related crimes, including poaching cases and the seizure of tiger parts. Of these, shockingly only 18 people have so far been convicted in a mere six court cases.
Another problem is that officers in the field often do not know how to effectively use the law, and there is also little incentive for them to book wildlife cases. Once a case has been booked, the concerned officer has to travel to court – even after he has been posted away, or in some instances retired – for years and years as the case drags on, with little or no departmental support. Then after all that effort, there is often no conviction. Under these circumstances how can there be any motivation to take cognizance of the cases? Because wildlife crime is not a priority, the judiciary is also often ignorant of the details of the Wild Life (Protection) Act. We know of three recent cases in which magistrates awarded less than the minimum punishment allowed for offences involving leopards.
CI: What’s the most important thing that needs to be done to fight organized crime?
BW: The single most important action needed here is intelligence-led enforcement. It is the only thing that will curb organized crime. We also need better border enforcement. There are instances where the border security forces have been aware of wildlife trade taking place near their border posts, but as it is not considered a priority issue, it has been ignored.
CI: What’s the typical profile of organized tiger poaching gangs?
BW: There are two major traditional hunting communities – the Baheliyas based in Madhya Pradesh and the Bawarias from Haryana – some of whom specialise in killing big cats. For much of the year they move around the country in small groups, camping near forests they know to be vulnerable. They are highly skilled, and very proud of their jungle craft and their ability to understand and kill tigers. They never leave tracks or evidence, which makes them hard to catch.
CI: What’s their exact modus operandi for killing tigers?
BW: Usually four to six metal spring traps are set around a site, preferably near a fresh tiger kill, a waterhole, or a frequently used animal track. The traps are concealed in the ground and camouflaged with earth and leaf litter. When a tiger steps on it, the jaws of the trap snap shut with great force. Since the trap is secured with an iron chain, the tiger cannot escape. Once a tiger is trapped, the hunters club it to death. They are fearless and do not hesitate to walk up to a tiger caught in a metal spring trap, and beat it to death with wooden laathis.
An unblemished skin fetches more money, so they take as much care as possible not to leave any marks or wounds. If the tiger makes a lot of noise, they push the end of a long wooden pole covered with lumps of mud into its mouth to keep it quiet. Most of the killing is done late at night, and the skinning and cleaning is done at sunrise. The evidence and their prize are then quickly removed.
CI: How are these poachers from Central India able to operate in other parts of the country?
BW: These poachers often work with local communities, who inform them about the protection level of a forest area, the movement of tigers and the location of kills. They dress like beggars, and thus easily escape attention.
CI: There is a perception that these poachers earn a pittance from killing tigers and should therefore be offered other forms of employment to wean them away from poaching. Your comment?
The profits from killing a tiger are huge and many poachers now own homes and land and have taken out insurance policies. If they are arrested, they usually have no problem producing large sums of money to post bail. And then, they simply vanish, never to stand trial.
The skill and knowledge of these poachers are passed from one generation to another. They are proud people – uneducated and dressed in rags perhaps, but in their eyes they are better than anyone else, because they can kill a tiger. This is a tough nut to crack. When we talk about giving these tiger poachers alternative livelihoods and employment, how do you replace this pride (and the big money they make) by giving them work such as breaking rocks to make roads, or construction labour, or other menial work?
CI: What about the trade in other species?
BW: India is a veritable storehouse of species that are valued in the illegal wildlife trade. Ivory from elephants, the pelts of leopards and otters, musk deer pods, bear bile, sea horses, corals, orchids, sand boas, slender and slow lorises, owls, mongooses, pangolins … the list goes on and on. Some of these are for the domestic market, such as owls for tantric rituals and mongooses for artists’ paintbrushes, but most of the demand for wildlife products comes from outside our international borders.
There are also countless medicinal plants in the trade. We have seen representatives of big medical companies turning up in the Northeast to source plant species we didn’t even know existed. Trade in medicinal plants is a billion dollar industry, and once again, India is the supermarket.
Leopards are also being poached and targeted ruthlessly across the country. There is a parallel market for all the same body parts as the tiger, and leopard bones, whiskers, etc., are often passed off as tiger parts. Otter skins follow the same trade route to China as the tiger and the leopard. Their skins are supple and water resistant and they are valued as trimmings for hats and coats.