Deadly game: Wildlife trade puts species at risk

Forest officals use a crane to remove a injured wild elephant to the Centre for Wildlife Rehabilitation and Conservation (CWRC) who according to forest officials was shot at and injured by suspected poachers, near a paddy field at Sapanala in Nagaon distr

Blood was still oozing from the wounds of the greater one-horned rhino that was killed barely a couple of hours earlier and its horn gouged out.  This was another case of poaching inside the Kaziranga National Park in Assam that houses the world’s largest number of greater one-horned rhinos also known as Indian rhinos.

The multiple bullet wounds, however, made the forest guards suspicious about a new angle to the problem of rhino poaching. A police investigation and forensic analysis that followed confirmed the forest personnel’s suspicion. A sophisticated AK-47 was used by suspected militants to kill the male rhino and take off its horns for smuggling. This trend first came to light in 2014.

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The trail of information that Assam police stumbled on into the case revealed that cadres of some militant groups in Assam and the neighbouring Nagaland and Manipur were increasingly getting involved in the international gang of wildlife criminals, targeting rhinos, Asian elephants, royal Bengal tigers, pangolin, tokay gecko and many other animals for markets in Southeast Asian countries.

With more than 30 protected areas housing numerous endemic species, vast stretches of porous international borders, and a ‘huge demand’ for wildlife parts mainly in the traditional medicine markets in several Southeast Asian countries, Northeast India has become a hunting ground and favourite transit route for cross-
border wildlife trade.

Although the problem is not new, recent arrests of several cadres of militant groups in wildlife crime point at a new trend which is a cause for concern for intelligence agencies, activists and environmentalists. According to some agencies, poor intelligence network and staff shortage in the forest department and other government agencies tackling wildlife crime have helped the criminals thrive. According to police, cadres of some militant groups, which are either active or in ceasefire are getting into widlife parts trade due to delay in peace talks with the governments.

Endemic species

Bibhab Kumar Talukdar of Aaranyak, a biodiversity conservation group in Assam, said, “Northeast is regarded as a global biodiversity hotspot. Among the numerous endemic species of Northeast India are pygmy hog, golden langur, hoolock gibbon, white-winged wood duck, stump-tailed macaque and pig-tailed macaque. Body parts of some of the wildlife found in the Northeast like rhino, elephant, tiger, musk deer, bear, leopard and pangolin are in demand in illegal international markets in Asia. Rhinos are killed for their horn, elephants for ivory, tigers and leopards for skin and bones, bears are killed for their bile and pangolin for their scales.” 

“Some other species like frogs and turtles are also illegally being traded as live animals in the international markets of Asia. China, Vietnam, Thailand and Laos are key countries where illegal wildlife trade is being reported while Myanmar is the transit route for wildlife trafficking,” said Talukdar, who is also the chair of Asian Rhino Protection Group.

Investigation by the special task force (STF) of Assam police, which was set up to check wildlife crime, revealed that arm suppliers based in neighbouring Myanmar are part of the network which is engaging cadres of various militant groups in Assam, Manipur and Nagaland to kill rhinos, cut their horns and smuggle to Myanmar through the Moreh border in Manipur.

“The same people are into both arms and wildlife parts smuggling business as they know the safest routes and the network. Some of the militants who were arrested in rhino poaching cases revealed that they were supplied arms to kill the rhinos. They can also use the same weapon to kill people or collect extortion,” Bolin Deori, an additional superintendent of police, who was part of STF a few years ago, told DH

Normally .303 rifle is used to kill rhinos as the bullets are bigger and one or two shots are sufficient. But AK series rifles have now often been used where multiple rounds were shot to kill a rhino inside Kaziranga or Orang National Park. 

Till 2012-13, Churachandpur district in Manipur and the hills of Karbi Anglong in Assam used to be the focal point as poachers and smugglers from these two districts were found involved in killing rhinos, royal Bengal tigers, Asian elephants, pangolin and tokay geckos and smuggling them to Myanmar through Moreh border. Arrests of several poachers and their linkmen had dismantled the network.

Routes and price

“As people belonging to the same community live in Churachandpur and Karbi Anglong, it was easy for the poachers to kill animals and smuggle. Dimapur in Nagaland has turned into an illegal wildlife trading point in the past few years. As rhino horns fetch lakhs of rupees, some members of Nagaland-based militant groups have also been found involved in killing and smuggling of such wildlife parts recently,” Deori said.

Toyikhu Zhimomi, a resident of Nagaland, was arrested at Hatigaon in Guwahati on July 12. He was allegedly involved in at least 10 rhino poachings in Kaziranga since 2014. “He is the kingpin in supplying arms and shooters to kill rhinos in Kaziranga. He is also one of the main traders in rhino horn and operates from Dimapur in Nagaland to Churachandpur in Manipur,” said a statement issued by the office of Assam forest minister Parimal Suklabaidya.

A rhino horn weighs between 500 gram to 2.5 kg. Although Myanmar border is the main route, Nepal border in North Bengal and parts of Assam are also used to smuggle wildlife parts from the Northeast such as elephant ivory, tiger skins and bones and exotic birds like owls to reach markets in China and Vietnam.

Markets and usage 

Talukdar said rhino horns, tiger and leopard bones are mainly used in Chinese traditional medicines. These items have demand in Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and Korea too. “The modus operandi of wildlife smugglers is on par with narcotics and arms smugglers,” he told DH.

Sources in wildlife crime control bureau said skins of pangolin and reptiles like tokay gecko are also used in making traditional medicines. Some of these items are believed to contain ingredients to treat impotency or they act as an aphrodisiac. Tests conducted by scientists in several universities in both China and India, however, rejected this and termed them as false beliefs.

Toothless agencies  

Experts say, the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB), one of the major central agencies tasked to handle wildlife crime, lacks sufficient manpower and facilities to take on the strong network of wildlife smugglers in the Northeast. The sub-regional office of WCCB based in Guwahati, tasked to control wildlife crime in seven states of the Northeast, has only one inspector, one technical officer, one multi-tasking staff and two constables. The border unit of WCCB at Moreh has only one inspector. Some other agencies like Directorate of Revenue Intelligence and Customs have registered wildlife crime cases only when revenue and customs matters were involved. 

“Smugglers are actively using the Indo-Myanmar border for many years. What is needed is strengthening of intelligence on wildlife trafficking and creating more awareness among security agencies engaged with border protection in our country. On some occasions, it was found that wildlife products like rhino horns are being traded in exchange of illegal arms. So our security and intelligence agencies need to look at wildlife crime from a national security point of view as well,” Talukdar said.

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