The Bones of Con­tention

Ov­er­en­thu­si­as­tic and lax in turn, the me­dia and NGOS oen end up fuelling the wildlife trade

Tehelka - - SIKKIM -

lenge. Leop­ards are more con­ve­nient tar­gets and fetch a high price as tiger sub­sti­tute. Then there are the smaller catches rang­ing from owls to ex­otic but­ter­flies.

At least thrice in the past two years, it turned out that peo­ple with no his­tory of in­volve­ment in wildlife crime had de­cided to give it a try af­ter read­ing or watch­ing in the me­dia how lu­cra­tive the trade was. A cou­ple of them were grad­u­ates. One taught box­ing; an­other was a driver. None of them had to en­ter any for­est to poi­son or trap the leop­ards they killed.

Un­der­stand­ably, the an­tipoach­ing NGOs have their hands full. But few have the in­tel­li­gence net­work or skills of in­ves­ti­ga­tion re­quired to bust poach­ing rack­ets. In­stead, they send staff to forested ar­eas as de­coy cus­tomers, ready to pay a good price. This is harm­less strate-

Seizures al­most al­ways throw up only skins. Very few lead to the re­cov­ery of bones

gy as long as they look for an ex­ist­ing stock of wildlife goods. But it crosses the line when they of­fer money to any­one will­ing to make a kill.

It is in­deed a mat­ter of fine judge­ment for an NGO when the po­ten­tial trader seeks time to sup­ply a con­sign­ment. It is usual for poach­ers to take a few days for mov­ing stock from re­mote lo­ca­tions of safe­keep­ing. But that time may as well be utilised in mak­ing fresh kills.

While it is a de­bat­able moral ques­tion if an­other big cat is too big a price for nab­bing a pro­lific poacher, it is cer­tainly in­ex­cus­able when ran­dom fish­ing with mone­tary baits tempts poor vil­lagers with no his­tory of poach­ing to the crime.

Wary that their lax pro­tec­tion regimes would get ex­posed, for­est of­fi­cials in the past have ac­cused even the most ex­pe­ri­enced NGO hands of “in­cit­ing vil­lagers to poach”. At the same time, the shoddy han­dling of seizures poses se­ri­ous ques­tions.

The bones of a big cat are worth up to 10 times its pelt. Seizure data claims that at least 466 leop­ards and 66 tigers have been poached since 2010. That would amount to 532 pelts and, at the very least, 4,000 kg of bones. Yet, seizures al­most al­ways throw up only skins. More in­ex­pli­ca­bly, very few skin seizures, if any, sub­se­quently lead to re­cov­ery of bones.

Since poach­ers al­most al­ways get bail, they go back or get their as­so­ci­ates to re­cover and crush the buried bones into pow­der for the in­ter­na­tional mar­ket. While the strike rate of NGOs im­proves, the trade con­tin­ues to flour­ish.

• Big slip Out of 532 big cats poached across India since 2010, bones were seized only in 36 cases

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