Tiger poaching network, that spread from west to east India, busted

Image shows a tiger in a forest
  • A major tiger poaching syndicate that extended from Gadchiroli in Maharashtra to Guwahati in Assam was busted recently.
  • Five individuals on their way to Shillong were found in possession of tiger skin, bones and claws in Guwahati, which were traced back to Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve in Maharashtra.
  • Further investigation led to 13 more individuals being caught in Gadchiroli-Chandrapur area in Maharashtra, who had killed four tigers in the state.

In a major breakthrough, a poaching syndicate that extended from Gadchiroli, Maharashtra to Guwahati, Assam was recently busted. This was achieved by a joint effort by the forest departments of Maharashtra and Assam, along with the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB).

According to the latest census, India’s tiger population is currently 3,682, forming 75% of the global population. However, there are a number of threats looming over this apex predator in India, a major one being organised poaching rackets operating throughout the country.

The operation began on the outskirts of Guwahati when five individuals were arrested by the Azara police for possessing a tiger skin and claws. Soon after, WCCB issued a red alert to all tiger reserves and tiger bearing areas to intensify patrolling. Further investigation led officials to Chandrapur district in Maharashtra where a tiger was suspected to have been killed in Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve (TATR).

On June 28, four people were arrested in Dharapur, Azara, following a police raid that found a tiger skin and other body parts including bones and claws. The case was handed over to the forest department.

Image shows four tigers drinking at a pond in India
A 2016 image of a tigress and cubs in the Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve, Maharashtra. Photo by Ajinkya Vishwekar/Wikimedia Commons.

Rohini Saikia, Divisional Forest Officer (DFO), Kamrup East, Assam, who took over the case, told Mongabay-India that the arrested were not the suppliers, but were transporting the consignment. “We first checked the tiger skin and found it to be real because on many occasions, smugglers also try to dupe their rivals by delivering them fake skin. The people were part of an organised hunting gang from Haryana. They said that they got the skin from Bihar and were asked to bring it here for a fee. Here, they were supposed to deliver the skin to a trader in Shillong (Meghalaya). However, they said that they were not aware of where the skin was supposed to reach from Shillong. We suspect that the trader would have delivered it to someone else and from there it would have moved out of India via the Myanmar border,” said Saikia.

Saikia said that the people arrested had been involved in this syndicate for quite some time. “In fact, they confessed to selling another tiger skin this year.”

The four accused, who were then taken into judicial custody, had a child with them. “One of the accused was the grandmother of the child. We had to contact the Child Welfare Commission and also tried to contact the parents. We finally managed to reach the mother. She was based in a village in Haryana. We asked her to come here and take her child,” he said.

This is when they found their fifth suspect. The mother of the child came accompanied with a man. “We questioned the man as we suspected something amiss about him. We took him into custody after we established that he was also part of the same network, whose members we had detained earlier,” said Saikia.

Later, in July, the case was handed over to WCCB as the tiger skin was alleged to be from Maharashtra. “From Call Data Records and other evidence, we found out that the skin was from TATR in Maharashtra,” Saikia said.

Read more: Why is India a major hub for wildlife trafficking?

Poaching links in Maharashtra

As the investigation revealed that the tiger skin recovered in Assam was from Gadchiroli-Chandrapur area in Maharashtra, the state Forest Department was also involved. A three-member team was sent to Assam to interrogate those arrested in Guwahati and take over their custody.

Speaking to Mongabay-India, S. Venguopal, Law Officer of TATR, who was part of the team said, “Based on the intelligence we gathered from the five people arrested in Assam, 13 more members were nabbed in Gadchiroli. They also told us that the new suspects had killed four tigers in the Gadchiroli-Chandrapur area. Some leg traps and other sharp weapons which they used were also found from them. We took the custody of these five people arrested in Assam and on August 12, we brought them back to Maharashtra. This is the first time we managed to catch such a big group of tiger poachers in the Gadchiroli-Chandrapur area.”

Venugopal informed that all the accused caught so far in the case were produced before the Judicial Magistrate in Gadchiroli on August 14.

“We also managed to arrest the leader, Sonu Singh Bawaria, which is a big success on our part. Sonu’s father Ranjit Singh Bawaria was a legendary tiger poacher who was arrested in Melghat area of Maharashtra back in 2013. He was convicted and later died in prison. His group became inactive after his death and after all these years, they have resurfaced again through his son,” said Venugopal.

He also informed that Sonu’s father was a close aide of Sansar Chand, who was once the kingpin of the tiger poaching syndicate in North India. He is said to be primarily responsible for the disappearance of tigers from Sariska Tiger Reserve. He was finally arrested from Delhi in 2005.

Image shows the entrance of a tiger reserve in India
The Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve. Photo by Yojang/Wikmedia Commons.

WCCB nabs former forest guard

WCCB uncovered information that led them to Mishram Jakhad, an 81-year-old former forest guard. Jakhad, who had also worked with Wildlife Protection Society of India was arrested from Dwarka.

An anonymous WCCB official said, “Jakhad was apparently controlling the illegal trade of tiger body parts. He also used to earn by blackmailing poachers and smugglers. When we arrested Jakhad, Rs. 14.81 lakhs in cash was seized from him.”

Interestingly, while Jakhad was controlling the trade, he also used to work closely with the enforcement agencies, supplying them with information. “The game of intelligence is like that. Many times, the enforcement agencies receive information from people whose motives might be suspicious. Sometimes enforcement agencies might also get double crossed,” the official said.

The official added that an investigation is currently going on regarding the involvement of more players in this trade.

Read more: India’s tiger reserves have helped fight climate change


Banner image: A tigress on the hunt in Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve in 2016. Photo by Siddhesh Sawant/Wikimedia Commons.

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