Revoking power of police officers can spur wildlife crimes

In what has been described as a setback to wildlife protection in the state, the Karnataka High Court has quashed a case of seizure of a wild animal skin by a sub inspector of police. This has led to the Director General and Inspector General of Police issuing a circular to all Commissioners and Superintendents of Police reproducing the court direction which has held that the SIs are not authorised to investigate wildlife offences by invoking provisions of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. 

This, many observe, may result in a knotty situation that could have dire consequences for endangered wildlife species. Several national and international agencies have recognised the grave threat posed by illegal transnational trade in wildlife. Interpol estimates this illegal trade to be around $20 billion and second only to narcotics. Organised wildlife crime syndicates are operating in India with links to international cartels.

These traffickers penetrate deep into our wildlife reserves by using expert local hunters to target a range of highly endangered species including mammals, reptiles, birds, amphibians etc. Despite an improvement in protection mechanisms of the Forest Department in some reserves, the situation elsewhere is worrisome.

The best protection response is obviously prevention, which is primarily the responsibility of forest officers. However, not all cases can be prevented and illicit wildlife produce is smuggled through urban areas where the police have a stronger network to monitor and detect wildlife crime. 

Recognising the challenges involved, the Central government enacted the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 with concurrent jurisdiction to forest and police officers. The specific question of whether police officers are empowered under the Wildlife Act has been unambiguously answered by the Supreme Court in Motilal vs Central Bureau of Investigation in 2002, in a similar case of illegal transport of wild animal skins.

The Supreme Court has held that the Wildlife Act empowers a police officer not below the rank of a sub inspector to inspect, conduct search or seize articles as provided under Section 50 (1) clauses (a), (b) and (c). The relevant extract reads – “This would certainly mean that the police officers are not excluded from investigating the offences under the Act. Sub-section (1) starts with a non-obstante clause that ‘notwithstanding anything contained in any other law for the time being in force’ which would include the Code of Criminal Procedure and the Officers mentioned therein are also entitled to inspect, search or seize the articles mentioned in clauses (a), (b) and (c).

“This would mean that apart from the police officers not below the rank of Sub-Inspector, other officers as mentioned above are given special powers for the purpose of prevention and detection of the offence under the Act... As provided under sub-section (1) of Section 50, ‘police officers’ are not excluded for the purpose of investigation including inspection, search and seizure of the offending articles.”

Provisions in Wildlife Act
The court has also held that: “The scheme of Section 50 of the Wildlife Act makes it abundantly clear that the police officer is also empowered to investigate the offences and search and seize the offending articles... Section 51 provides for penalties which would indicate that certain offences are cognizable offences meaning thereby police officer can arrest without warrant”.

In the judgment, the Supreme Court has also referred to the other relevant provision in Section 55 which deals with filing of complaints. It has recognised the power of the Central government under clause (a) to authorise officers of the CBI to file complaints.

In Karnataka, the state government which is similarly empowered under clause (b), issued a notification in 1973 authorising all officers of and above the rank of sub inspector to file complaints as contemplated under the Wildlife Act. 

Furthermore, another bench of the Supreme Court in State of Madhya Pradesh vs Madhukar Rao in its judgment in 2008, while deciding a related issue under the Wildlife Act, concurred with the decision in the Motilal case. The bench held: “It is indeed true that Section 50 of the Act has several provisions especially aimed at prevention and detection of offences under the Act.

For example, it confers powers of entry, search, arrest and detention on Wildlife and Forest Officers besides police officers who are normally entrusted with the responsibility of investigation and detection of offences. It concluded: “In this view of the matter, there is no substance in the contention raised by the learned counsel for the appellant that Section 50 of the Wildlife Act is a complete code and, therefore, CBI would have no jurisdiction to investigate the offences under the said Act”.

Many experts argue that the state government should have placed together these provisions of the Wildlife Act, the interpretation of the Supreme Court in two important wildlife crime matters and the notification issued by the state government as far back as 1973 empowering police officers to file complaints.

The DG and IG could also have done well to order a thorough verification of all legal aspects before issuing such a circular that weakens law enforcement on a major organised crime. In the larger interests of securing justice for endangered wildlife, it is fervently hoped that appropriate action is urgently taken to remedy the situation.

(The writer is a trustee of Wildlife First and has served on the National Board for Wildlife and the Wildlife Act Amendment Sub-Committee)

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