Maasti, the three-legged, 16-year-old tiger, who once roared freely like a king in the forests of Nagarhole Tiger Reserve, in Mastigudi area of Kabini forests, now leads a quiet life in the Bannerghatta Bear Rescue Centre of Bannerghatta Biological Park (BBP).
He was rescued by a team of researchers in 2002, after his right front paw was trapped in a jaw trap. He was immediately shifted to Mysore zoo for treatment. His leg was amputated and in the year 2005 he was shifted to BBP. In 2007, the Bornfree Foundation took responsibility for his care in the BBP rescue centre. Now, weighing 117 kgs, he stays in a 200x100 feet crawl area, keeping away from human beings.
Investigations into the Maasti incident revealed that the trap to capture wild cats was laid by a Hakki Pikki tribal named Durru, under the guidance of notorious poacher Prabhakar Keshav Gaja Kosh. Durru was arrested by the Karnataka CID Forest Cell in 2011 and Prabhakar, along with 10 others, was nabbed in 2009 with the pelts of 23 leopards, 43 small claw-less and smooth coated otters', and a tiger. Further investigations also revealed that Durru and Prabhakar were not the only people involved. Another notorious poacher and smuggler Sansar Chand was also complicit, involved not only in laying the traps for catching wild animals but also in supplying pelts to illegal markets.
Sansar Chand faces a total of over 21 wildlife poaching cases pending against him in various parts of India and is presently in Tihar Jail. However, it is a known fact that he and many other poachers run their operations through a network even as they themselves sit in custody. Conservationists therefore stress the need for stronger conviction.
But on 22 July 2013, Sansar Chand was acquitted in one of the many cases brought against him in Alwar court in connection with Rajasthan's Sariska Tiger reserve case, where he was responsible for killing all the tigers. He has also been acquitted in 13 other cases due to lack of evidence. Fear of his international connections being revived is now a major worry.
A new law for wildlife protection?
Experts say that these cases clearly show that the need for a specialised wildlife judiciary that can ensure that the guilty are convicted. The Indian Wildlife Protection Act (WPA) puts the onus of proving oneself not guilty on the accused. But many a time, as KSN Chikkerur, former Additional Director General of Police of the Directorate of Civil Rights and Enforcement points out, the public prosecutor is not aware of Section 57 of the WPA, which lays down that the burden of proof of innocence rests on the accused. Before retiring from this department, Chikkerur served in the CID Forest Cell and the Railways. According to him, in order to appreciate the nature of evidence presented, one has to be an expert in wildlife. Wildlife cases cannot be treated as any other criminal case.
Chikkerur adds that only the forest department officials are empowered to handle investigation of cases under the WPA, and there is a lack of coordination between the police and forest department sleuths. "It is time that wildlife poaching cases are made non-bailable and it is ensured that the guilty are not spared even under the Prevention of Atrocities Act," he says.
Praveen Bhargav, Managing Trustee of Wildlife First, points out that forest department officials have an investigative advantage compared to the police in that the statement made before a forest officer is equivalent to a statement or confession made before a judge. This advantage is not well-utilised by forest department officials and the prosecutors. Bhargav also feels that the law in itself is adequate; the issue arises because of lack of evidence or thorough investigation.
In order to conduct proper investigation, an officer should have good practical experience which comes from working in the wild for many years. This cannot be taught at a foundation course. Bhargav also presses for the need for specialised wildlife prosecutors to ensure that the procedural aspect is well addressed - that all evidence is properly handled and placed before the court for conviction. "It is not about the law or inadequate force. It is about handling the job skilfully under available infrastructure to place a strong case before the court so that the accused does not get bail. It is very important how the case is built up."
Bhargav feels a strong need for a one-point agency coordinated by the police and forest department at state levels. This force should be backed by the state forensic wing and a panel of experts, including scientists and prosecutors, to make the case stronger.
The need for prosecution
Senior special prosecutor in Uttar Pradesh, A K Tripathi, says that there are no public prosecutors because of the lack of security available to them. Tripathi, who is also a CBI officer and a special counsel in the Wildlife Trust of India, has made many trips to other Indian states to collect evidence against poachers himself. He is the only wildlife prosecutor in Uttar Pradesh.
Says Tripathi, "Ensuring the safety of the investigators working on such cases is very important but lacking in most cases. What is even more dangerous is that all details are with the prosecutor and thus, his life becomes vulnerable. This is the reason why there aren't many wildlife prosecutors." He also points out that high profile cases such as the 2006 black buck shooting case involving Salman Khan and several other Bollywood celebrities make prosecutors feel threatened or pressurised and hence, even more watchful of their safety.
Maasti, the wounded tiger at the Bannerghatta Bear Rescue Centre. Pic: Bosky Khanna
Avinash Basker, Legal Programme Head at the Wildlife Protection Society of India agrees that wildlife laws in India are stringent but still feels that systematic loopholes like blockage of cases, frequent transfer of public prosecutors and officials hinder the proper enforcement of justice. So it is not the law per se that needs change; rather, it is the enforcement of the current law that needs to be focussed upon.
"On prosecution of wildlife offences, one desirable change is empowering police officers under Section 55 of the WPA, 1972 to file charge sheets for such offences (police reports under Section 173 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973). This could help speed up the trial of cases, because the existing complaint procedure often results in delays due to the requirement of adducing evidence before a charge is framed in a case," adds Basker.
Basker also says that there are many instances where the accused are not convicted due to improper investigation and documentation. Investigating agencies make a seizure, and manage to get the lower level carriers of the illegal goods convicted, while the masterminds running the operation go scot free because not enough evidence is collected against them. Just a few days back, a Delhi court decided a case pertaining to a seizure made in 1992 (21 years ago!). The persons found in possession of the items were convicted, while the master-mind (a notorious wildlife criminal) had been discharged five years ago because the investigators had not collected any evidence to show that it was he who had rented the premises where the illegal goods were found.
He adds that even in simple cases, accused persons are often acquitted due to non-involvement of independent witnesses where possible, differing versions of events from prosecution witnesses, and other mistakes. One of the problems is lack of collection of material evidence (such as ballistics, fingerprints etc.) and over reliance on witness testimony.
Rajesh Gopal, Member Secretary of National Tiger Conservation Authority, says that it is important to press charges against the appropriate section against the accused to ensure that the case is strong enough. The intelligence wing should always be on their toes to give quick updates.
Gopal too avers that seizures have been taking place, demand for wildlife and poaching has always been there, and one of the ways to curtail it would be through better prosecution. However he is more hopeful and adds, "We do see better prosecution happening - things are gradually improving. We want to ensure that no case is left open and no accused is let go."
The role of science
According to experts and officials, science can play a very crucial role in building a case, though it through indirect back-end support. It makes the case stronger, backs it with sufficient data and helps link evidence from the various states across which the wildlife criminals may be operating. Dr VB Mathur, Dean of Wildlife Institute of India says that this would play a vital role in ensuring conviction.
Uma Ramakrishna, a scientist at the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), says that forensic science should constantly keep developing in order to enable cracking of poaching cases.
In poaching cases, there is a long chain which involves the mastermind, the real poacher and the middlemen. Finding evidence against the middlemen is very difficult. Compiling evidence against the middlemen is possible only when there is criminal investigation and old biological evidence available against him (like fingerprints) that can be matched. For that, proper coordination among all investigation agencies is important.
Uma also adds that the NCBS often get cases where the accused is caught with meat, but the investigating officials (police or forest sleuths) do not know if it is of a wild animal. "We (scientists) need to establish what is poached and also check cases of poisoning." However, Uma clarifies that most poisoning cases turn out to be unrelated to poaching.
Dr. S P Goel, Director of the Indira Gandhi National Forest Academy, who has handled over 250 wildlife poaching cases since 1996 says that it takes a lot of time to solve a case. Apart from fast track courts and dedicated teams, there is a need for a dedicated cell that deals with the environmental aspects alone. This should be within the umbrella of the wildlife unit under MoEF. There should be a national pathology unit, a wildlife toxicology unit and a wildlife forensic authority at the central level. This was proposed three years ago, by the Wildlife Institute of India and the Wildlife Crime Bureau. Once set up these authorities will help speed up the process of building cases against the accused and will create a databank under one umbrella for future references.
Training and manpower
One of the biggest problems in tackling poaching is posed by vacancies in staff at the ground level, an issue faced in almost every protected area. Another major bottleneck is lack of "trained" forest staff adept in investigation and preparation of documents for court cases. As Basker says, "Filling of staff vacancies and proper training of forest staff is an absolute must if wildlife laws are to be enforced with any meaning. This has to occur at the state level. Better coordination between the Centre and the states will help with overall management and maintenance of our eco-systems."
Goel adds that there is also a need for having more workshops and interactions with officials in border areas like members of the Border Security Force (BSF). While BSF officials are trained in security and biodiversity and police officials are also given basic training on wildlife issues, more specific training pertinent to wildlife crimes, WPA and sensitisation is needed.
Wildlife poaching is second only to narcotics in the international illegal trade. Given the secretive and underground nature of illegal trade, it is difficult to
gauge how rampant it is. India is an important source country for illegal wildlife products for markets abroad and while the most concrete information comes from
seizures made by law enforcement agencies, this usually only represents a tiny fraction of the actual volume of trade that occurs. Under the circumstances, the
menace of wildlife crime can be effectively combated only through informed, scientific handling of cases and strict implementation of laws.