Save The Tigers, Shoot The Humans
By Aubrey BelfordAugust 21, 2012
A string of gruesome tiger killings in India is prompting one state to fight poachers with guns, cash and spies. But does saving the tiger mean compromising human rights?
The scene of any killing gives an insight into the mind, motive and background of the perpetrator. Some scenes suggest acts of cold, calculating and practiced hands. Other scenes are a mess; the fear and panic of the killer, as much those of the victim, are often inscribed in bloody chaos.
A dismembered body found in the forests of Borda, at the dead centre of India, on May 18 suggested the latter kind of crime. Just a few hundred metres from a rural highway, and to the side of a small access road, the tiger was strewn in pieces. At the base of one tree were six carved pieces of the big cat's body, with the skin still on. A few paces away were more pieces, while the tail lay in a bush. The animal's paws and head had been hastily cut off and taken away.
"The body was brought here in a gunny bag. We could see a trail of small pieces of flesh and blood where they dragged it," says D.D. Khanke, a guard from the forest department of Maharashtra state, as he points around the site where the body was found.
Everything about the killing suggests the frenzied aftermath of a horrible accident. For forest guards, the working hypothesis is that local villagers unintentionally caught the tiger in a trap intended for deer. Checking the trap, and discovering their mistake, the killers worked to salvage and sell what they could before dumping the rest of the corpse and fleeing.
Dressed in slacks and a collared shirt, Khanke looks less like a ranger than a homicide detective. The latter might be a better job description. The dead tiger found in May was one of at least 18 found killed by poachers in India so far this year — a figure that is likely a large underestimate. With only about 1,700 tigers left in the wild in India, and only about 3,200 in the world, poaching poses an enormous threat to the animal.
The body in Borda illustrates only one facet of the problem; this death represents a clash between the needs of tigers and those of the poor villagers who depend on the forests for their livelihoods. Five locals were arrested over the tiger's death, but they were released for lack of evidence against them.
Another aspect of the poaching problem is far more menacing: professional killers who butcher tigers to fulfill booming foreign, mostly Chinese, demand. When these poachers strike, little is left behind and, often, no one even notices a tiger has disappeared. These poachers are rarely seen, let alone caught.
As India struggles with tiger poaching, Maharashtra, one of the worst affected states, has dramatically stepped up its efforts to protect its tigers. In May, the state Forest Minister, Patangrao Kadam, generated international headlines by announcing a "shoot on sight" order against suspected poachers, as well as legal protection from human rights cases for forest guards who killed intruders. The announcement received a mixture of public praise, and strident criticism from rights activists and advocates for India's impoverished tribal people, who argue the rule could lead to impunity for state-sanctioned killings. (Maharashtra is, after all, the state in which police executed hundreds of Mumbai gangsters in the 1990s and early 2000s, in faked armed encounters that received a nod and wink from officialdom.) In the face of this criticism, the government quickly moderated its tone.
But beneath the hype over the shoot-on-sight order, Maharashtra's fight is a fascinating insight into the evolving battle against the transnational crime of poaching. Where forests were once guarded by a thin force of men with sticks, an infusion of new recruits is armed with new powers, plenty of guns, and a paid network of informants in villages where the forest is a source of livelihood.
Underlying it all is the implicit question: does conserving tigers justify curbing the rights of humans?
In the forests of eastern Maharashtra's Vidarbha region, the professional poaching of tigers forms the pointy end of a complex transnational network, explains Nitin Desai, a leading local conservationist with the Wildlife Protection Society of India.
The poachers are backed by middlemen in India's north, who receive orders from traders who sit at various points along an illicit overland trade route that runs across the border to Nepal, Tibet and then on to eastern China. In the drier months, the middlemen deal out contracts to organised poachers from the Baheliya tribe, a nomadic people who live further north, in the state of Madhya Pradesh. The Baheliyas then fan out across the state's forests, camping in towns and paying local villagers for information on animal movements.
"Organised poachers, when they operate, they never leave a trace behind. They're so efficient," Desai says. The Baheliyas' preferred method is to track tigers to paths and waterholes, and catch them in concealed steel traps. Once they find a trapped animal, the poachers can kill it and take the valuable parts away in as little as half an hour. "It's a very gory business," says Desai. "There's blood everywhere. They don't take only the skin, they also take all the bones. They skin the animal, they hack the carcass in four, five pieces, they remove all parts of muscle and flesh clinging to the bones, remove the bones and then leave the place, leaving behind just a heap of flesh."
The fact that forest authorities do not have an exact idea how many tigers there are in the forests, combined with the tendency of Baheliyas to sometimes take the time to bury the remains of killed tigers, means no one really knows how many tigers are poached each year. At the same time, authorities are increasingly misreporting poaching deaths as being from natural causes, in order to avoid criticism, Desai says.
In Maharashtra, it was a string of killings, particularly around the vast Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve, home to an estimated 100 tigers, that prompted the government to take action.
Praveen Pardeshi, the principal secretary of Maharashtra's forest department, works from Mumbai's Mantralaya building, a labyrinthine complex that houses the state government offices. The building itself is a testament to India's sluggish government: supplicants wait for hours for audiences with officials in darkened halls filled with shuffling peons and stacks of yellowing files. In contrast, Pardeshi seems to be in a constant state of productivity, flicking between three separate BlackBerry phones during our interview.
For years, the Baheliyas have been miles ahead of the authorities. The new measures are intended to catch up, Pardeshi says. The department has announced it is hiring more than 500 new guards, including 70 around Tadoba, giving them police training and providing them with pistols, rifles and new jeeps. The department has also set aside five million rupees (about AUD85,485) for paid informants and publicly announced rewards of up to 100,000 rupees for information on poachers.
And then there's the new power to shoot. Pardeshi is adamant that this is not, in fact, a "shoot on sight" order, as outlined by the minister Kadam (speaking confidentially, other department officials and conservationists have few flattering things to say about the minister's competence or understanding of his brief). Currently, explains Pardeshi, when forest officers fire their guns at a suspected poacher, it almost always leads to a human-rights case being brought against them, which can result in jail time. The latest such case was a non-fatal clash at the start of the year between local villagers illegally hunting for food, and forest officers in Pench in eastern Maharashtra. There have also been a small number of suicides of suspected poachers in forest department custody in recent years. Under the new rules, a magisterial inquiry will be held into each shooting and officers can only be prosecuted if the magistrate finds evidence of excessive use of force. The aim, Pardeshi explains, is to let forest officers know they can use their guns if needed, and to let poachers know this, too.
Pardeshi freely admits this means a trade-off between tiger conservation and human rights — but says it's not a big concern. "Only tigers have been killed so far, not one single poacher has been killed in India, at least in Maharashtra. So that's this sort of multiplier value of a human life versus a tiger. There's no comparison," he says. "No person will ever be shot. It's just to ensure that there's a little bit more stronger enforcement."
Not everyone is so convinced scaling up the war on poaching will be bloodless.
Travel deeper into the remote parts of the Vidarbha region and you find a part of India that appears largely untouched by the country's recent years of massive economic growth. Concrete homes and advertisements for mobile phones give way to villages of mud and thatch huts, bullock carts and the occasional bicycle. Two million people in this region belong to India's tribal people, who are among the nation's poorest and who suffer some of its worst discrimination. In these areas, many people, both tribal and non-tribal, make their living from the forests and from farming combined.
Zaibunnisa Shaikh, a local tribal-rights activist, argues forest authorities already have a track record of being inflexible when it comes to the needs of people living on the edge of reserves, where any kind of foraging is technically illegal. She acknowledges local villagers will often help Baheliya poachers with information, but that they only do so out of poverty. As the government cracks down on poachers, the chance of a horrible mix-up rises. "There's a big possibility it will be misused because of misunderstandings. A lot of people here in Vidarbha depend on the forests for their livelihoods; they go to the forest for firewood, for timber, for liquor. If a guard mistakes a guy collecting firewood for a poacher and shoots … That could happen," Shaikh says.
"Whatever Pravin Pardeshi or Patangrao Kadam say, the shoot-on-sight order is down to the officer in the field who is ordering their subordinates," she says.
It soon becomes pretty clear that out in the field everyone has their own interpretation of what they're meant to do with their new powers.
P Kalyankumar, the man in charge of the forest department in Chandrapur, where the Tadoba reserve lies, sees his role fairly broadly: as deterring both organised Baheliyas and local villagers.
With armed guards and new legal protection around shootings, "there will be a good psychological effect on the local poachers also, the local poachers who are going to poach wild pigs, spotted deer, they will also come to know that 'My forest guard will not spare me'," Kumar says. "'He may shoot at me below the knee. Or sometimes, while doing so, the bullet may cross the chest also.' So that psychological fear is very important.
"Misuse of firearms will be very, very negligible. I think probably it will be nil. But firearms are required to bring fear and psychosis among the people, among the villagers, even among a simple person who is going to the jungle to collect firewood."
In a clearing near the village of Gondmohadi, in the buffer area of the Tadoba reserve, forest officers discovered another crime scene. On April 26, they came across one four-year-old male tiger trapped and dead from dehydration near a watering hole. Another tiger, a seven-year-old male, was found trapped and in a weakened state nearby, but was rescued and survived. A third tiger managed to avoid another trap, and stood growling at forest officers when they first came across the scene.
Unlike the case in Borda, these trapped tigers have divided opinion. For outside experts like Desai, the use of steel traps point to a rare case of a Baheliya poaching attempt gone wrong. The poachers had likely paid off local villagers, who belong to a separate tribe, the Gond, for information, but were then spooked by the third, roaming, tiger, he suggests. Local forest department officials, by contrast, blame locals for an accidental killing.
Standing at the watering hole with a pistol at his hip, the local forest guard commander, Rahul K. Sorte, says villagers from Gondmohadi routinely illegally poach deer and boars from the forest. The fact that locals then sell the meat in the village — making many people complicit in the trade — means finding informants in the village is difficult. "They're not trustworthy," he says. Sorte's guards questioned 30 locals in relation to the trapped tigers, but have so far found no leads on the case. He says he's strongly in favour of arming more of his officers and spreading the word that they can shoot people who break the rules.
"They should fear us," he says. "If they commit any wildlife crime, then they should be afraid."
In the village itself, locals say they're bewildered by the accusations against them. The village headman, Patrulehanuji Barsagade, freely admits that locals illegally forage in the forest and trap animals for food, but says they have always been cooperative in informing on outside tiger poachers. "Even though we've helped the department so much, they still suspect us," he says.
I ask him if he's heard of the new powers to shoot suspected poachers, and the statements by local guards that they want to create a climate of fear in the villages. He hasn't. Among the dozens of local men who gathered to talk to The Global Mail one night in the centre of the village, it appears no one has heard the word yet.
As we drive away, I ask Roheet Karoo, a local conservationist who has accompanied me on two days of visits around tiger country, what he thinks of the situation.
Karoo is a 25-year-old with an all-consuming passion for tiger conservation. He and his friends spent five years observing a local population of tigers in an unprotected stretch of forest near his hometown in Umred. In December 2011, he submitted a report to the forest department saying there were 12 adult tigers in the area, and requested a new wildlife reserve be set up. On 7 June, the area was turned into a 190-square-kilometre sanctuary, the state's first example of community pressure leading to the establishment of a protected area. The reserve is run on a shoestring budget, staffed mostly by volunteers from Karoo's 10-member Wild Life Conservation and Development Centre, and his own small salary is paid out of the pockets of a few sympathetic senior department officials.
Not surprisingly, Karoo is a big supporter of Maharashtra's war on poachers. The idea of shooting tiger killers doesn't upset him in the least.
But leaving Gondmohadi, Karoo is dismayed by what we've just heard from both local officials and villagers. It's clear no one on the ground is communicating with one another: authorities don't understand the local situation, and locals have no idea of the coming influx of armed men and women with powers to shoot. That adds up to a very risky combination.
Like Desai, Karoo believes the case of the trapped tigers is a clear example of organised Baheliya poaching, and that the Forest Department is falsely accusing the villagers. But he also thinks locals aren't totally innocent. "I'm 100 per cent sure the poachers had local help," he says.
Bringing guns to the fight is fine, Karoo says, but the new guards are going to have to start working smarter, and do it soon. "It's not wrong," he says, "but they should change their mentality, improve their mentality."