Wild India’s Grim Reapers — Interview with Belinda Wright, WPSI

Prerna Singh Bindra
"There is virtually no intelligence-based enforcement"
Ramki Sreenivasan
Belinda Wright founded WPSI In 1994, with the aim of helping to avert India's wildlife crises by providing support and information to combat poaching and the escalating illegal wildlife trade.

CI:  What about local demand and consumption?

BW:  The other big reason – besides trade – that wild animals are killed is for their meat. Most of the communities and tribal people living around protected areas are meat eaters, and with the rise in prices of domestic meat, the demand for wild meat has skyrocketed. This is a stark reality that is now decimating our wildlife and destroying the food source of our wild predators. In many areas tigers and leopards now have no choice but to venture out of the forests into human habitation in search of food. This in turn leads to more and more human-animal conflict. Unfortunately there is also a market for wild meat far away from the forests, for luxury consumption by city dwellers. Venison and wild boar meat is available in cities like Nagpur, Jabalpur, Kolkata or Dehradun.

CI:  What trends have you noticed in wildlife crime over the years?

BW: Historically there has always been a demand for bear bile, ivory, musk pods, and pelts, but the trade was largely opportunistic and disorganised. The trade in tiger-bones to China began furtively in India in the mid to late 1980s, but the severity of the problem wasn’t really known until investigations carried out in 1993-94 in northern India led to the seizures of 36 tiger skins and 667 kg of tiger bones.

If enforcement had been focussed on the problem then, I believe it would have been possible to stem the illegal trade. But the problem wasn’t taken seriously, and within a few years wildlife trade passed into the hands of organised criminals. The defining case, in my opinion, was a seizure in Ghaziabad in December 1999, when three tiger skins, 50 leopard skins and five otter skins were seized at a sales tax check post. For the first time we saw skins that were finely tanned, precisely folded and signed on the back. This was the first evidence of organised wildlife crime in India. A truck driver and his assistant were arrested but, as usual, the case remains unsolved.

Today wildlife crime has become a virtually unstoppable monster. Better communications and transport, and mobile phones in particular, have changed the scale and reach of the crime. Poachers can now communicate directly from within the forests with dealers and buyers, and they know precisely the prices they can demand. They can also quickly find out, for example, where enforcement is weak and which protected areas to avoid. Interestingly, they are also aware of management issues. Take the case of Panna Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh that lost all its tigers; our investigations revealed that the poachers were aware that the management was weak and that the forest staff was unmotivated.

WPSI maintains a sophisticated Wildlife Crime Database. Presently our database contains details of 19,424 wildlife cases and 15,364 wildlife criminals. An analysis of this information continues to throw up interesting trends and facts. One example of this is that most wildlife crimes involve repeat offenders, or are carried out by relatives of past offenders.

CI:  Tell us about the smuggling routes.

BW: There are a number of wildlife trade routes, some of which have been used by nomadic traders for centuries to move salt and spices and other goods across remote border points. One of the favoured routes is from Manali to Ladakh and from there into China. Then there is our long porous border with Nepal, which smugglers have little problem crossing. In fact, poachers from India often move into Nepal when things get too ‘hot’ here. Nepal will always be an important transit point because many of the kingpins in the wildlife trade live there. But all the goods end up in China.

There are also some specific trade routes into eastern Nepal, and presently a very active route from Imphal into Myanmar and then back into China. If there is a good enforcement officer at a particular border crossing, criminals will stop using that route for as long as he or she is there. The largest demand, for almost any wildlife product – be it tiger skin or bone, bear bile, or ivory – is from China. There is a demand to some extent from other countries such as Korea, but it is minimal compared to the demand from China.

CI:  What about the farming of tigers in China? Does that ease the pressure on wild tigers?

BW: No! Although China outlawed the trade in tiger parts in 1993 there are thousands of tigers being ‘farmed’ in captivity in that country.  This is a disaster for wild tigers. It is very expensive to raise a tiger in captivity. They are not chickens that will grow to adulthood in a few weeks. It takes almost three years for a tiger to be of value in the traditional Chinese medicinal trade, and for these three years a tiger must be fed and looked after, which amounts to thousands of dollars. It’s easier – and much cheaper – to kill a wild tiger in India and smuggle the parts into China.

Over and above the issue of tiger farms, the overwhelming public demand is for wild tiger parts, because these are considered to be a lot more ‘potent’. So irrespective of tigers being farmed in China, the demand for wild tiger parts will not decline. By allowing these farms in China to exist, by continuing to breed tigers, they are fuelling the demand for tiger parts, and sending a clear message to consumers in China that one day the trade will be legalised. And the day that China lifts the ban on the trade in tiger parts, that will be the end. For all tigers.

CI:  Do we have the political will, not just to counter wildlife crime, but for conservation?

BW: India has had a long ethos of wildlife conservation, but sadly this has not rubbed off on our political system. There is a fair amount of support for conservation issues in the corridors of power in Delhi, but tiger’s don’t live in Delhi, and support in the states is sadly lacking.

When it comes down to votes and political moneymaking, the tiger doesn’t stand a chance. Wherever there is human-tiger conflict, the tiger is the ‘enemy’. Tigers are also considered an impediment to development projects. Indeed, in some cases state governments do not even want to acknowledge the presence of wild tigers in their forests.

Recently there have been some positive changes. The combination of the loss of all of Sariska’s tigers in 2004, the August 2005 expose of the tiger skin trade in Tibet by WPSI and EIA, the August 2006 CAG report on the management of tiger reserves, the February 2008 results of the government-sponsored tiger census, and the loss of all the tigers in Panna by January 2009, have all come as a shocking wake-up call. Wildlife conservation, and the tiger in particular, is slowly – far too slowly – getting some political focus.

CI:  What role does man-animal conflict play in furthering wildlife trade?

BW: I believe conflict is going to become as important an issue as poaching, if not more so. In areas where man-animal conflict is high, local people support poaching as they want to get rid of the ‘problem’ animals. Particularly in the case of leopards, local people are now actively support their extermination, which in turn often furthers the illegal trade in leopards.

We have recorded cases where local people have killed a tiger by accident (for example with electrocution traps that were set for deer), and then tried to sell the skin and bones, to make a quick buck. This is potentially very dangerous as communities may start viewing the trade in animal parts as a viable moneymaking option.

CI:  It’s a grim scenario you paint, but what is your gut feeling? Will the tiger survive?

BW: Yes it will, at least in some places. I think we do a lot of harm by always being negative. We should celebrate how wonderful it is that we still have 39 tiger reserves. We still have wild tigers and a wonderful array of biodiversity, but for God’s sake, let’s work hard to keep it that way.

I’ve spent all my life in the jungles. If you had asked me the same question when I was a teenager, I would have said that the tiger didn’t stand a chance. But then Mrs Gandhi, with her interest in wildlife, came and turned things around. Five years ago, if you had asked me about the growing environmental threat from large-scale mining and the corporate lobby, I would have predicted doom and gloom. But we now have a Minister, Mr. Jairam Ramesh, who has stood up to a lot of pressure. – not all, but a lot. More importantly he is trying to institutionalize a system to put the brakes on inappropriate development that will harm the environment. Both these instances go to show how important political support and understanding is to secure a future for India’s wildlife.

What WPSI and others are doing is to slow down the process of extinction for the tiger and other wildlife, to give them more breathing space … we need to buy that time, and to be positive.

If we can curb tiger poaching and the killing of its prey species, if we can stop the encroachment of tiger habitat and if we can stem tiger-human conflict, then yes, the tiger can be saved. Even in the worst-case scenario, I believe we will still have some pockets of wild tigers, in five or six landscapes, for years and years to come… but that’s not what I’m fighting for, I’m fighting for the larger picture.

CI:  Tell us a bit about WPSI.

BW: I founded the Wildlife Protection Society of India in 1994. From its inception the aim was to bring new focus and energy to the task of tackling India’s growing wildlife crisis. We do this by providing support, information, and training to government authorities to combat poaching and the escalating illegal wildlife trade, particularly in wild tigers and other big cats, and by maintaining a comprehensive wildlife crime database. WPSI also supports conservation field projects and awareness programmes throughout India and works with the growing problem of human-animal conflict involving tigers, leopards and elephants. The Society constantly liaises with policy makers and conservation agencies and is in the forefront of India’s wildlife protection efforts.

CI:  On community work

BW: Wildlife conservation efforts cannot be successful without the support of local communities. WPSI’s Community Outreach Program in the Sundarbans, for instance, has developed a range of livelihood activities since 2002 to help reduce   peoples’ dependence on forests. The WPSI team regularly undertakes mangrove plantation drives, runs a self-help micro credit scheme for women, promotes rainwater harvesting, and supports and lobbies for better infrastructure such as the construction of brick paths and boat jetties in this impoverished region with no roads or electricity. We also undertake awareness campaigns and provide medical aid, solar lights and other assistance. WPSI has similar modest but effective community programmes in other protected areas. We strive to listen and learn from local communities, and always to employ local people in these areas.

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About the author

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Prerna Singh Bindra is a conservationist and writer. She was member, National Board for Wildlife and its core Standing Committee (2010-2013). She is on the State Board for Wildlife, Uttarakhand. She is Founder-Director of Bagh trust. She edits TigerLink and is associated with Wildlife Conservation Society-India.


Older Comments 1

  1. Canon

    Very strict anti poaching measures are urgently needed to save our Rhinos, Tigers and Leopards from poachers.
    As per latest NTCA reports the Tiger losses in the last 9 months ( January 2012 – September 2012) were 69 out which 41 were poached. The number of Leopards will be much higher though no official figures are available.
    Area surveillance by Drones , a quick reaction Anti Poaching Force with Shoot At Sight powers , and a mandatory 20 years imprisonment of all poaching offenders are the need of the day.
    J R Mohan.

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  1. Canon says:

    Very strict anti poaching measures are urgently needed to save our Rhinos, Tigers and Leopards from poachers.
    As per latest NTCA reports the Tiger losses in the last 9 months ( January 2012 – September 2012) were 69 out which 41 were poached. The number of Leopards will be much higher though no official figures are available.
    Area surveillance by Drones , a quick reaction Anti Poaching Force with Shoot At Sight powers , and a mandatory 20 years imprisonment of all poaching offenders are the need of the day.
    J R Mohan.