India profiling criminals to combat transboundary wildlife offences

  • The Wildlife Crime Control Bureau has profiled 1882 criminals involved in wildlife-associated offences in the real-time database Wildlife Crime Database Management System.
  • The bureau has been able to bust an illegal network of turtle smugglers as part of a specific operation to save live turtles and tortoises.
  • Going ahead the bureau will boost its networking with neighbouring countries Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Myanmar that serve as transit route for illegal wildlife products from India.

India’s Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB), which received the 2018 Asia Environmental Enforcement Awards by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) for combating transboundary environmental crime, has profiled 1882 criminals involved in wildlife associated offences in a real-time database.

The Wildlife Crime Database Management System with the criminals’ profiles and modus operandi will help in analysing the trends in crime and devising effective measures to prevent and detect wildlife crime by field agencies across India, said Tilotama Varma, additional director, WCCB.

“As a result of operationalisation of this system, state heads of wildlife wings (chief wildlife wardens) of 34 states of India are able to upload the wildlife crime data through 866 division forest officers and 50 tiger reserves,” Varma told Mongabay-India.

The Asia Environmental Enforcement Awards publicly recognise and celebrate excellence in enforcement by government officials and institutions/teams combating transboundary environmental crime in Asia.

WCCB, under the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, has been conferred this award under the innovation category.

Pangolins are used for illegal transboundary wildlife trade. Photo by Sandeep Kumar.

Highlighting the database innovation, Varma said with the help of this system, field agencies are able to identify the hotspots and active criminals of wildlife crime in the border areas and plan a strategy to monitor these areas and criminals resulting in reduction of crime.

“The system has also been extended to state heads of police force (directors general of Police) throughout India. The database is accessible to all the chief wildlife wardens and directors general of Police to view, analyse and plan corrective action,” Varma said, adding the challenge is to keep it updated in real-time.

“Often our officers work in situations where there is no internet connectivity and that can throw up a challenge to feed data into the system. Despite the ground-level problems, we have been able to update the system,” Varma explained.

Wildlife trade across boundaries

Describing the gravity of transboundary crime, Varma alluded to the illegal network of turtle smugglers as “one of the best examples” of transboundary wildlife crime. Almost all the varieties of turtles are subjected to smuggling.

“Live turtles are mainly catered and traded in UP, Rajasthan, Bihar, Delhi, West Bengal, Orissa and Maharashtra. Gangetic softshell turtles and the common softshell turtles [are being] smuggled out to Bangladesh through West Bengal both by land borders and air,” the additional director said.

The Indian star tortoise, one of the most trafficked tortoise species in the world, catered mainly from Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal are smuggled to southeast Asian countries such as Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore primarily by air from Chennai, Mumbai and Kolkata.

The extent of this illegal trade prompted WCCB to launch ‘Operation Save Kurma’ (Kurma is Sanskrit for turtle) to focus specifically on the major states involved in the poaching, transportation and illegal trade of live turtles and tortoises.

The entire operation (December 15, 2016 to January 30, 2017) resulted in seizure of over 15912 live turtles.

“This is considered to be one of the largest seizures of live turtles in any continued operation within the south Asian countries with more than 55 suspects arrested in the operation,” Varma said.

The efforts to detect and seize turtles/tortoises continued after the operation period and 62 cases were detected in various parts by police/forest authorities resulting in the seizures of 10999 live turtles/tortoises and 422 kgs of calipees (the yellow glutinous edible part of the turtle found next to the lower shell).

Varma informed that India is sharing information of turtle smuggling with southeast Asian countries through INTERPOL on real time basis.

“The exchange of information resulted in disruption of international wildlife criminal syndicate operating between India and Malaysia leading to the arrest of 35 people in Malaysia and India involved in the illegal trade of turtles in 2016 and 2017,” Varma said.

Pangolin scales. Photo from the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau.

Regional cooperation platform

At the UNEP’s Annual Environmental Enforcement Awards for 2018, nine winners from Asia were awarded for work to prevent transboundary environmental crime. Winners are from China, India, Korea, Malaysia, Nepal, Thailand and Viet Nam.

In the category of collaboration, the honour went to Joil bin Bombon, former Department of Wildlife and National Parks Peninsular Malaysia and R.S. Sharath, former Wildlife Crime Control Bureau, India.

The close cooperation between Joil and Sharath – and all other officers working with them – resulted in the arrest of four major turtle traffickers in 2017 and 2018 and an unprecedented disruption of the illegal trade in turtles between India and Malaysia.

Going ahead, the bureau is focusing on capacity building of frontline forest staff and strengthening data collection for the database, in addition to enhancing networks with neighbours Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Myanmar that serve as transit routes for illegal wildlife products from India.

One of the ways that the country is working towards strengthening regional co-operation, said Varma, is through India’s participation in the South Asia Wildlife Enforcement Network (SAWEN), an inter-governmental wildlife law enforcement support body of South Asian countries Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

The body promotes regional cooperation to combat wildlife crime in south Asia.

Varma, who is the SAWEN focal person for India, said there is a constant dialogue that is on between member countries through the organisation that is working towards harmonising and standardisation of laws and policies of member countries concerning conservation of wild fauna and flora.

SAWEN operates from the Secretariat based in Kathmandu, Nepal.

According to Man Bahadur Khadka, chief enforcement coordinator of SAWEN, harmonisation of laws sets the foundation for justice to the culprits and also wildlife and will be a means for the common cause of combating wildlife crime.

“For instance, imprisonment or penalty for poaching or illegal trade of wildlife derivatives of one species in one country varies to another country by which the poacher wants to escape from the country of higher imprisonment/penalty to the lower one,” the Nepal-based Khadka told Mongabay-India.

“Such provision might be brought into similar level after the harmonisation of laws. Transboundary cooperation including extradition of criminals among the member countries would be in place though they might not have bilateral or multilateral agreements/MoUs/treaties. The SAWEN Secretariat is working in this regard, however, it is also true that this will take time,” Khadka said.

Banner image: Seizure of Indian star tortoise. Photo by WCCB.

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