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Tigers & Terrorism

Tigers & Terrorism

Photograph by Shailendra Yashwant.

The country’s internal security is at risk because timber and wildlife contraband, effortlessly obtained from unprotected forests, is being traded for drugs, guns and explosives. Conversely, poachers posing as naxalites, militants, insurrectionists and terrorists, exploit the vacuum created when forest guards and officers are forced at the point of a gun to abandon their posts.

The voice was controlled but upset: “I need an armed platoon at Kokilabari. How are we to protect Manas without an adequate force? We have recently detected a consignment of timber but without an armed force we cannot seize it.” S.P. Singh, Field Director of the Manas Tiger Reserve, sounded almost fatalistic about the hamstrung condition of his protection staff.

He went on to inform me that: “The ethno-political unrest involving the proud, essentially peaceful, but headstrong and identity-seeking Bodo community has unleashed so much violence around Manas over the past decade that wildlife management and anti-poaching activities have been thrown out of gear. Targeted violence involving more than 1,000 encounters with forest staff have taken place. We are struggling to protect Manas.”

I knew first hand just what he was talking about. I have visited Orang where Bengalis and Bodos are forced to live cheek by jowl in very cramped and primitive conditions. I was also in Manas at the height of the Bodo problem. I saw the palpable tension between communities. I saw bridges, culverts, guard outposts and buildings burned and destroyed.

In Manas, which is a forest of breathtaking beauty, virtually the entire population of 80 rhinos was killed in the short span of a few years. While the Bodos were automatically blamed for these deaths, the words of the late Upendranath Brahma, charismatic student leader of the Bodos, who met me in Bombay prior to the mass killings still ring in my ears: “Everyone is blaming the Bodos for the damage to Manas. I admit that a few misguided boys might have killed some rhinos and cut some trees. But they were only trying to express their anger against the government. The real culprits are the organised timber and wildlife poachers.” He was genuine about wanting to protect rhinos, but did not respond to my accusation about poachers having been given the chance to wreak their havoc only thanks to the Bodo agitation.

Violence in tigerland

Confiscated explosives. Credit:Bittu Sahgal.Srisailam-Nagarjunasagar Tiger Reserve, Andhra Pradesh: Naxalite activity has resulted in a fear psychosis that prevents forest guards from freely patrolling the forest. More than 30 tigers were killed in a period of two years ending 1998 in the contiguous Nallamalais forests.

. Manas, Assam: Bodo insurgency led to a range officer and 11 guards being killed in the core area. Seventy four weapons were looted. Opportunistic poaching gangs killed almost 100 rhinos. Those who protect Manas risk death. But they are not equipped to defend themselves.

. Simlipal Tiger Reserve, Orissa: Armed assaults on forest guards rose from nine in 96-97 to 13 in 97-98. A forester was killed on March 27, 1998, in the Jenabil village in the core area (see picture alongside). He came in the way of poaching gangs who use tribals as a front.

. Globally the wildlife trade is second only to narcotics. Wildlife crime is the second-largest illegal occupation in the world. Interpol sources say a revolving door exists between the international drugs, arms and wildlife trades. People dealing in arms also deal in drugs like heroin and products like tiger bone and shahtoosh. Of Interpol’s 177 member countries, India probably has the best forest and wildlife laws and the worst ‘on the ground’ protection mechanisms.

Forest guard killed in Simlipal. Credit:Simlipal Tiger Reserve.. Prior to the introduction of policies of economic liberalisation around 1991 the prime medium of exchange for international smugglers was gold. Heroin and wildlife contraband has now replaced gold, but neither enforcement agencies nor wildlife protection forces have been suitably trained to counter this new threat to wildlife.

Forest guards in India patrol their beats armed with sticks to wave at heavily armed gangs. If they use their weapons against attackers they could be charged with murder.

A spreading sea of violence

Manas might once have been an exceptional problem. No more. We are currently suffering a full-blown assault on our wildlife sanctuaries and parks in several states. According to reliable reports that have been obtained from forests as far removed from each other as Manas in Assam, Namdapha in Arunachal Pradesh, Dampa in Mizoram, Dachigam and Overa in Kashmir, Simlipal in Orissa, Gadchiroli in Maharashtra and Srisailam in Andhra Pradesh – timber, ivory, rhino horn, drugs and arms have become part of a maelstrom of destruction against which India has not yet evolved an adequate defence.

More than two years ago, on March 13, 1997, I had written to the IBWL asking that Indian intelligence agencies and the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) share the task of battling the wildlife trade.  But there was no political will to support the advice. More recently, the Chief of Army Staff, General Ved Prakash Malik, confirmed that the army was aware of the connection between the illegal trade in wildlife, arms and narcotics when he told me: “It is common knowledge that there is a revolving door between wildlife traders, dealers of drugs and peddlers of illegal arms.” Today circumstances have forced the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) to start a special Wildlife Trade Control Bureau (WTCB). But I see no signs that lackadaisical attitudes have changed. No mobile strike force is in place. No resources or power to undertake swift and effective undercover investigations is available. And while the police and forest departments have met with the Central Bureau of Investigation and members of the Revenue Intelligence and Customs, no action has yet emerged – other than the formation of yet another committee. There is, of course, no proper mechanism for information sharing between these various agencies, to prevent wildlife crimes. Ms. Maneka Gandhi, a Minister in the current government who seems to have lost faith in the MoEF says: “We need a nodal cell  in the Home Ministry to tackle trade and poaching, as enforcement of law is very weak.”

She is probably right. The myopia that allows our forests to go unprotected will prove to be very expensive and traumatic for India. Much to the delight of insurgents, crime syndicates and poachers, billions of dollars worth of timber, and endangered species such as tigers, rhinos and elephants, are being protected without adequate guns, wireless equipment, transport, trained manpower, or funds. Lax enforcement of relatively good legislation has attracted global syndicates to the subcontinent. New markets for Asian ivory have emerged since the ban on the sale of African ivory stocks was lifted by CITES. Indian enforcement agencies have long been fighting crime syndicates and terrorist groups. But the extent to which these syndicates are financed by money stolen from India’s forests has not been realised. Some estimates suggest this figure runs into hundreds of crores of rupees.

The Bodo agitation in Assam has led to the death of 100 rhinos. The horns were used to finance still more violence.Photograph by Bittu Sahgal.

Katha – a cancer at the heart of wildlife protection

“People talk only about tiger bones. But do they know how the katha mafia harms tigers?” asked P.K. Sen, who was the Field Director of the Palamau Tiger Reserve in the mid-90s. He spoke darkly about the manner in which criminal elements were infiltrating the katha and timber trades in Bihar. His words were prophetic. Today, according to Palamau police sources, Ultras of the Communist Party of India-Marxist Lenninist (CPI-ML), People’s War Group (PWG) and the Maoist Communist Centre (MCC) are being financed by katha mafias. After having exploited most outside sources illicit katha-khair traders have moved into Palamau, where they move freely about in broad daylight and where guards say they have even seen katha being processed.

The PWG, however, sees itself as an armed representative of the poor and denies this. They claim to be protective of both forests and wildlife, claiming that their cadres have strict instructions never to use weapons against wildlife.  Instead, they accuse guards and senior forest officers of conniving with the katha traders and their politician partners. Be that as it may, as with the Bodos in Manas, the impact of their violence has prompted the timber trade to pillage the forest.

The PWG, active in a wide swatch that includes the north Telangana district in Andhra Pradesh are believed to have eliminated several tigers between 1990-95 to demonstrate that “wildlife is not as important as people.” Poaching gangs took advantage of such ideological lessons. Militant groups are also present in Chanda and Gadchiroli in Maharashtra, central Bihar, Bastar in Madhya Pradesh and parts of Orissa. They use hit and run tactics from behind forest cover against all wings of government. Some Chief Ministers advocate felling the forests so that the guerrillas have no place to hide! They would be better advised to protect the forests to prevent trees from being sold to acquire arms and explosives.

Killer Katha

That politicians benefit from and support the katha mafias is obvious when you examine their track record. Katha is the main ingredient for paan (beetle leaf) and paan masala is a multi-million rupee industry. Katha is also used as a temperature regulating agent by industry.

The Supreme Court has issued orders not to allow new katha factories to come up. Yet katha manufacturers ‘somehow’ got the state governments of Maharashtra, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, J&K, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan to issue new licences, some with the absurd condition that the factories “should not use Acacia catechu wood”. Thus Haryana, a state that has virtually no forests of its own has over 15 katha manufacturing units that obtain 200 truckloads of katha from distant Gujarat each month! Other factories were set up even closer to the seat of political power, in New Delhi. Their stocks come from the troubled Rajaji National Park.

The killing fields

A virtual war has broken out in several Indian forests. In Madhya Pradesh 37 forest employees have been killed in the past six years. In Bastar 16 policemen were killed in an ambush on October 16, 1998 when a PWG based group from Andhra Pradesh blew up their vehicle on the Basaguda-Jagargunda road near Taren, causing Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s Bastar tour to be cancelled. It is even more unsafe for the staff of the Indravati Tiger Reserve to patrol their areas. Not surprisingly, more than half its tigers have been killed over the past five years. And the best timber left standing in Bastar is fast being conver ted to cash by politicians in league with a heavily armed timber mafia. In the infamous Malik Makbuja case the Supreme Court recorded that trees belonging to tribal communities were cut at the behest of Mr. Viren Netam, brother of the State Forest Minister, Mr. Shiv Netam.

In Palamau, Bihar, a land mine planted by Naxalites near the Chungroo village killed Sukhdeo Parahiya, a tracker and Aziz Quraishi, a driver. S. E. H. Kazmi, DFO, the actual target of the attack, had a providential escape. Forest officers from Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Orissa talk of similar connections between poachers and armed gangs who have made it unsafe to patrol forests. In this anarchic situation, no one has any idea at all just how many different groups of poachers, timber merchants and criminals are operating within our sanctuaries and national parks. The MoEF has belatedly agreed to provide special security forces for counter insurgency operations in six of 23 Project Tiger reserves, namely Manas, Palamu, Valmiki, Nagarjunasagar, Indravati and Bandipur. Now a seventh, Simlipal might be added.

The strategy is clear across India. Terrorise the forest staff and their families and then plunder the forest. The money thus earned by miscellaneous gangs flows swiftly through black market channels to different parts of the country, and even overseas, to purchase sophisticated weapons, transportation and communications equipment – the very assets denied to our forest protection staff.

Sorrow in Simlipal

Credit:Simlipal Tiger Reserve.In the first few months of this year six assaults have taken place. On April 5, 1999, Ashwini Kumar Mohanty, the Range Officer of the Bangriposi Range came upon a group of timber poachers at 2 a.m. in the morning. In the ensuing scuffle shots were fired and one of the timber poachers was injured. The Jharkhand Mukti Morcha is now demanding the arrest of the Range Officer. Threats to snatch weapons have been issued. Ivory poachers in peripheral villages such as Udala and Paktipada celebrate such developments.

Dhruba Basantia and Niranjan Behera, two guards injured in a clash with poachers in Simlipal in May ‘98. Credit:Simlipal Tiger Reserve.In May last year an informer in Bhubaneshwar said that three tuskers had been killed in Narsinghpur and Angul. Someone called Izabul was implicated in the death of 30 elephants! Believed to have political connections, he was not even interrogated. Corruption and a code of omerta (silence) enforced by threats of reprisal leaves vulnerable forest staff at the mercy of ivory, tiger bone and timber mafias.

Cutting off the hands that protect

Why should small and big-time state politicians who earn mega-money from unprotected forests allocate funds to protect such forests? Khair trees are not the only target of forest mafias.  The hardwoods of Assam are even more sought after. Forest staff cannot enter some of their own areas where both timber smugglers and militants have been felling and selling trees. Only very recently was an Assam Forest Protection Force (AFPF) mooted. In nearby North Bengal, timber merchants cut one crore rupees worth of teak and shimul trees from the heart of the Buxa Tiger Reserve.

Valmik Thapar, author and tiger expert has been investigating and fighting such trends for years.  According to him: “Our national treasury is being emptied.  The MoEF informed the Planning Commission that an estimated Rs. 50,000 crores is being stolen from India’s poorly protected forests. A piddling Rs. 100 crores is ploughed back to protect our sanctuaries and national parks.”

Downlisting the African elephant by CITES has led to the slaughter of the Asian elephant.
Photograph by Kunal Verma.

All manner of armed groups share this plundered wealth to complete the circle of destruction. In the Simlipal Tiger Reserve the number of armed assaults on forest guards rose from nine in 96-97 to 13 in 97-98. A forester was killed on March 27, 1998 in Jenabil village in the core area for the ‘crime’ of preventing tribals, who are unwitting pawns in a very large game, from hunting and trading in wildlife. Training camps for Naxalite groups from Andhra Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal have been discovered in the buffer area near Talbandh. A cloud hangs over this fragile forest and the morale of the forest staff is at a new low. The real fear is not from Naxalites, who express support for the protection of the tiger and elephant, but from the poachers who follow in the wake of armed insurgents.

Vested interests at work

Credit: Bittu Sahgal.Left wing extremism and the threat posed by Naxalite violence invariably take centre stage in the media and every once in a while politicians are almost obliged to show that they are serious about tackling such groups. Last year Home Minister, Mr. L. K. Advani, convened a meeting with the Chief Ministers of Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa and the Deputy Chief Minister of Maharashtra, who looks after the Home portfolio. Strategies and even guidelines for unified control of police forces were discussed, but not once did they discuss the need to protect the forests from being pillaged, even through this is obviously the most readily available source of revenue for armed insurgents, even ahead of bank robberies and kidnapping.

Death in the happy valley

I still recall the late night call that woke me eight years ago with a terse message: “My god we are going to lose them forever.” The caller, who must still remain anonymous, informed me that over 30 hangul, the red deer of Kashmir, had been brutally machine gunned in the once well-protected Dachigam Sanctuary. The hangul were almost tame at the time they were slaughtered in winter. By 1992, their number had plummeted from a high of 800 to 90.

For a while the enchanted glades of both Dachigam and Overa had become no-man’s land. The chatter of automatic weapons was commonplace and over 40 forest staff lost their lives, not to militants but to timber mafias who used the unrest as a screen behind which they pillaged Kashmir’s forests. In J&K, saw-mills and the wildlife trade flourished even through the bloodiest days of terrorism. Not surprisingly, so did the trade in narcotics, which finances the low intensity war waged by mercenaries from Pakistan, which is one of the world’s largest producers and exporters of heroin. The electrified fence along the India-Pakistan border along Punjab and parts of Rajasthan forced drug and arms carriers to shift operations to J&K. The wildlife trade followed suit through common contacts and carriers. Gujjar tribesmen are sometimes coerced into becoming unwilling accomplices to this deadly trade.

A young Srinagar journalist suggested to me that there was an  economic rationale that fuels the continued violence in Kashmir. Profitable routes, through Tibet to China on the one hand and Pakistan on the other, sees heroin, Kalashnikovs, shahtoosh (possibly the most expensive wool in the world) and skins being traded freely. Mercenaries who were paid off with drugs have started accepting bear gall bladders, and tiger bone as coinage.

G.K. Singh, in The Pioneer, New Delhi, November 8, 1995 had anticipated this: “When politics flows through the barrel of a gun – as has been happening in the Kashmir Valley – a significant portion of Indian wildlife could end up in Kathmandu for further transportation to East Asian markets.” His report was based on an earlier expose by Traffic International that three live clouded leopards had been recovered from Kashmiri militant groups in Kathmandu. Since these animals are not found in Nepal at all, but rather, in the Northeast of India, alarm bells began to ring.  Was the wildlife trade financing militant groups in India?

According to Julio Ribeiro, ex-Director General of Police, Punjab and now Chairman of the Maharashtra State Committee of the WWF-India: “It obviously benefits all players to keep lucrative trade routes open. Of course drug and arms dealers will profit from wildlife products if they can.” More than anyone else, he should know. An AK 56 can be bought for as little as Rs. 50,000 in the barely-underground arms bazaars of Pakistan and Afghanistan.  A decent sized hardwood could thus fetch enough money to buy three or four Kalashnikovs, or perhaps a shoulder-fired anti-tank missile.  Protecting the standing timber wealth of Kashmir is vital to the objective of cutting off funding for militancy. Belatedly a Forest Protection Force (FPF) has been set up for J&K, with training being imparted to personnel in Punjab. But is this too little too late?

Across India, forest guards are outgunned by armed timber mafias.Photograph by Bittu Sahgal.

Common sense suggests that heroin, easy to obtain and transport, could be used to pay for tiger bones, skins and other wildlife contraband. Anti-narcotics liaison officers from the United States, Great Britain, Canada and New Zealand, stationed in New Delhi, say that almost 90 per cent of the drugs seized by Indian agents are along the India-Pakistan border. When contacted, S.C. Rohtagi, Zonal Director of the NCB in Mumbai, suggested that a core coordination group involving wildlife and NCB officers should be set up and that cash rewards be offered for information.  “But these are policy decisions and instructions must come from the very top or the effort will amount to nothing” he added. As of now, the Narcotics Control Bureau has no reliable lines of communication open with wildlife officials.

Nagarjunasagar-Srisailam Tiger Reserve

Decline of tigers at the height of insurgency

                Number of Tigers

1989         94

1993         54

1995         35

1997         25-30

Holding a country to ransom

I heard the inside story of how fear and violence could be used like a bludgeon by poachers when talking to members of the Special Task Force (STF) in distant Tamil Nadu on a cold November night in 1993. Nicholas Claxton, an investigative journalist and I had been permitted by Sanjay Arora, the Superintendent of Police, Satyamangalam, to accompany his men on a night patrol through elephant country in the thick forests near Dimbum. Fit and exceedingly well motivated, they left us in no doubt about their views on the politics of the region that enabled thugs like Veerappan to thrive. A not-so-commonplace thief who operates in the Bandipur, Wynaad and Nagarhole forested belts of Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, Verappan has made a fortune out of the sandalwood smuggling trade. He has used this fortune to buy weapons and to conduct his other trade - ivory poaching. His ill-gotten cash also buys off judges, police and forest officials and tribal community leaders. He virtually owns the forests that border Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. In 1986, the man was actually caught in a Bangalore bar, but is alleged to have bought his way out of trouble.  M.V. Murthy, the Superintendent of Police who was responsible for holding Veerappan was promoted not charge-sheeted. Such acts of omission and commission have demoralised forest officers to the point where they are now unequal to the task of protecting the fabulous wealth in their charge.

In March this year, while trekking through the Leng Teng extension forests proposed to be added to the Murlen National Park in Mizoram, I came upon a group of four Myanmarese timber smugglers. They were armed and said they poached timber for sale to traders in India. The forest department has no transport, no weapons and no means whatsoever to prevent such open theft.

The Northeast is every bit as riddled with the politics of drugs, arms and wildlife poaching as is Kashmir. Route 39, which runs along part of the border with Myanmar, is difficult to patrol. Heroin seizures in this sector have produced record hauls as high as 680 kgs. that sell for US $ 10,000 per kilo in Manipur. No one has estimated the value and extent of the illegal wildlife trade in this region. Ivory, tiger bone and the pelts of endangered species are traded across the sieve-like Myanmar border. Informers say some of this contraband is transported in official Myanmar army trucks up to the border. In one case the drivers were alleged to have had passes signed by the intelligence chief General Khin Nyunt himself. Though none of this can be proven, the grapevine also suggests that separatist guerillas operating in the region, especially the two wings of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN), levy a 20 per cent tax on all contraband.

Tigers that have become accustomed to tourist vehicles are easily shot by poachers.Photograph by A.J.T. Johnsingh.

Whatever the ultimate scale of the problem turns out to be, at the very least the National Security Council should sit and discuss whether or not armed insurgency in India is growing with help from timber and poaching mafias and whether we should allow India to be held to ransom this way.

If tigers and terrorism indeed have an umbilical connection, then the sooner we repair the chink in our national armour, the better. The first step, perhaps, would be to enhance budgetary allocations to protect our forests. If we do not finance this critical priority, India could soon be confronted with an internal security nightmare of uncontrollable proportions. The loss of illegally felled trees, or a tiger and two leopards every day (and possibly two rhinos and elephants per week) to poachers could take on a significance far beyond the objectives of wildlife conservation.  

by Bittu Sahgal, Sanctuary Asia, Vol XIX No. 3, June 1999.

 
 
 

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