Tamil Nadu, Kerala & Karnataka: Ivory Poachers, Smugglers Regroup
In 2019, 16 tusks were recovered by the Karnataka police and cases filed in various police stations in the state.
These range from Banaswadi to Jalahalli and RMC Yard police stations.
In 2017 and 2018, 11 tusks were recovered in Karnataka. Every single one of the smugglers was from Tamil Nadu.
What is worse, a summary glance at the nativity of the smugglers shows that the problem of poaching is not restricted to one or two districts. Those arrested in possession with these tusks are from Tamil Nadu – from the districts of Krishnagiri, Dharmapuri, Salem, Dindigul, Vellore and Coimbatore.
Other wildlife too is being smuggled to Karnataka. In January 2018, a tiger skin was recovered by RMC Yard police station. In August 2018, 130 sea fans were recovered by the RMC Yard police station. In these cases too, the arrested accused hailed from Tamil Nadu.
The Tamil Nadu Forest Department maintains that there is no poaching in Tamil Nadu but this information from neighbouring Karnataka belies this claim.
And the problem is only increasing during lockdown. In March this year, two tusks were recovered by Bengaluru police. This month, after years of zero seizure, the Hosur division of the Tamil Nadu department managed to catch smugglers carrying two tusks of 24-inch girth each.
“In the past few years, elephant tusks being sent from the forests of Kerala and Tamil Nadu into Karnataka has increased,” said Venkatesa Murthy, retired police officer, CID Wildlife Crime Control. “A number of elephant tusks have been recovered at Bengaluru and Dakshina Kannada. We had recovered many more tusks from Tamil Nadu based on the information given by the arrested accused,” he said.
Once the arrest is recorded, the next step is to find the scene of crime and collect evidence for prosecution. But since the arrests were made in Karnataka, their officials do not have the jurisdiction to investigate in the forests of Tamil Nadu. As a result, most of these cases go unsolved – no one knows where and when the elephants were poached for their tusks.
While a 11-member team was set up on July 12 by the Tamil Nadu Forest Department to probe into elephant habitats, track number of elephants and suggest ways to stop human-elephant conflict in the state, this is merely a reaction to news reports of a sudden spurt in elephant deaths in the recent past.
In the Coimbatore forest division alone, 15 elephants have died this year, of which 14 are natural deaths, according to the Forest department. And this is the trigger for the formation of the probe committee. But there is no team that has specifically taken up this serious issue of poaching of elephants.
Poachers From Districts Other Than Theni
Last March, Thirumalasettihalli police officials in Karnataka, arrested Naveen Ahmed hailing from Gudiyatham in Vellore district, Tamil Nadu, according to a CID Wildlife official.
Upon questioning it was found that one Mutthappa from Pennagaram in Dharmapuri district, had handed over elephant tusks to them for sale across the Karnataka border.
Muthappa had been poaching elephants for the past 15 years, he said. When Karnataka officials attempted to arrest Muthappa by taking Naveen to Dharmapuri, Muthappa had gone into hiding.
The Lede had already reported on the elephant poachers from Varusanadu area of Theni district.
In recent years though, poachers from other districts too had jumped into the game, say Forest department officials.
In 2015, Kerala Forest Department’s Operation Shikar had cracked down on elephant poaching and illegal sales of tusks. 72 poachers and smugglers were arrested in this operation. 500 kg of tusks were recovered from an illegal exporter of ivory figurines and he was jailed.
The Lede spoke in detail with an official who was part of Operation Shikar.
“For over a decade, organised poaching had been taking place in the forests of Kerala using people who knew intricately the forests and movements of elephants,” he said. “Most of the poachers are tribals. The most notorious group was led by Aiyakkara Vasu. They would poach elephants and bury the tusks. At an opportune time, they would dig out the tusks and sell it at the rate of Rs 15,000 for one kilogram,” he explained.
Intermediaries or brokers such as Ajit Bright and Preston would buy the tusks and hand them over to traditional ivory carvers in Thiruvananthapuram to be turned into figurines and statues.
While tusks in their original form are worth only some tens of thousands of rupees, when converted into figurines, their value multiplies into lakhs.
A key carver of smuggled tusks is Eagle Rajan. He got the prefix of Eagle due to his exquisite carvings of eagles from sandalwood. Rajan has been an active player in carving smuggled tusks for a decade and a half.
People like Eagle Rajan are crucial to the network. They are the ones that connect the poachers and the intermediaries to the final buyers or exporters.
These carvings head to Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata and are sold there as well as exported abroad.
Umesh Agarwal was one of the kingpins of the illegal ivory export trade. These carvings are picked up for anywhere between Rs 30 lakh to Rs 40 lakh,” said the wildlife official.
This is the network that was busted in 2015 by the Kerala Forest Department.
Umesh Agarwal who was instrumental in creating demand for the ivory trade, was slapped with 20 cases. With this, elephant poaching in Kerala came to a standstill.
Ivory Smugglers And Poachers Regroup
Wildlife experts though say that even if action of this sort is taken, poachers will simply move to another territory.
Since the carvers of Thiruvananthapuram are under watch by the state Forest Department, this activity has moved to Mysore and Kolkata, say wildlife officers. This is why tusks from Tamil Nadu and Kerala are crossing the Karnataka border.
Jouse Loies, chief of Wildlife Crime Control Division of the Wildlife Trust of India told The Lede that if poaching has to be stopped completely, every state must crack down the way Kerala did.
“The crackdown should be coordinated across the country on a large scale and conducted simultaneously to break the inter-state network,” said Loies. “If this is not done, each part of the network will move elsewhere, regroup and after a brief interval, organised poaching will begin again. Apart from this, every tiny bit of information about poaching needs to be put into a centralised information system. It is also important to bring poachers who use guns under surveillance,” he added.
There are only a few poachers who are experts at shooting elephants dead. Loies says that these poachers, even if out on bail, need to be under tight surveillance to ensure that they do not go back into the forests again.
“The ivory becomes valuable only in the hands of the carvers. These people too need to be monitored. With this, the value of the tusks will fall drastically and demand would reduce,” said Loies.
The Forest Department though, faces a number of issues in terms of legislation at hand. M Santhanaraman was the Special Public Prosecutor for the Tamil Nadu Forest Department between 2016 and 2019.
Speaking to The Lede, he said, “The minimum sentence available for hunting is three years and the maximum is seven years jail sentence under the Wildlife Protection Act. The Forest Department is actually helpless because this is the only provision available to them. If they want to take further action, they will have to use other agencies like the police. For instance, if the hunters use firearms, they can use Arms Act provisions.
But for second time offenders, the Wildlife Protection Act provides more stringent conditions. If the persons commits an offence for the second time, automatically he is not eligible for bail and if he is found guilty, he must necessarily get maximum sentence.
We don’t have a database of culprits – we don’t know whether they are first time or second time offenders. We need to have a database of culprits across the states. Or else we have to amend the law,” he says.
The recent tusk recoveries show a clear pattern of regrouping of the poacher-carver-smuggler network despite Operation Shikar.
While the earlier major poachers from Theni are not particularly active as of now, new poachers have sprung up in other districts that line the Western Ghats.
The carver network has moved from Thiruvananthapuram to Mysore. In fact, one of the intermediaries in Kerala who was briefly arrested in 2019 – Babu Jose – has family in Mysore.
Exhibitions are then held in plush hotels in large metros like Delhi and Mumbai. The original ivory figurines are never on display at these shows. When a customer displays interest in purchasing an original ivory carving, the smugglers would then sell the same separately, away from public glare.
The Tamil Nadu Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife) was not available for comment on the issue of renewed poaching of elephants despite several attempts by The Lede.
But a Divisional Forest Office who spoke to The Lede on condition of anonymity said, “We have issues with the Karnataka Forest Department. Elephants move between the forests of Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka and whenever poaching happens, Karnataka Forest Department files cases only on people from Tamil Nadu. This has been going on for a long time. If tusks are caught there from people in Tamil Nadu, the elephant carcass should be here right? But it is not there,” he said.
“We are regularly monitoring the forests with anti-poaching watchers who are local to the area themselves,” he continued. “If there are vultures in an area for a period of four or five days, it usually means a large mammal like the elephant has died. So we go to the spot and conduct our probe,” he said.
Will TN Forest Department Act?
“The Wildlife Protection Act was born out of (former Prime Minister) Indira Gandhi’s passion to protect wildlife, especially tigers,” said M Santhanaraman, former special public prosecutor for the Tamil Nadu Forest Department.
“If you see all the other legislations are prior to Independence. And all the pre-Independence legislation allows exploitation of forests and wildlife. The British wanted to monopolise resources and not to protect them. Forest Conservation Act 1980 was to discourage usage of forest land for any other purpose. Back then the punishment mentioned in these Acts was seen as a sufficient deterrent. Today it is no longer so. The legislation need amendment,” he said.
“All the National Parks, Sanctuaries and Tiger Reserves in the country are declared under Wildlife Protection Act of 1972. But for this enactment, the endangered species such as tigers and elephants would have been extinct in India. The need of the hour is to amend the Wildlife Protection Act so as to include more stringent punishments including heavy fine. To enact more legislations to protect the habitats of wildlife, especially to deal with the developments in private lands in forest fringes, which fragment the habitats of wildlife by cutting off the corridors,” he added.
Another official who has in-depth knowledge about the workings within the Tamil Nadu Forest Department said that a lot more needed to be done to ramp up anti-poaching activities in the state.
“Grassroots level intelligence is required. This is lacking in Forest Department,” said the official who did not wish to be named. “They want to conceal everything to project that no poaching is going on in their area. That is the sad truth about the Tamil Nadu Forest Department.
Another problem is that when a forest guard or an anti-poaching watcher finds evidence of poaching, superiors end up punishing them after asking them why they did not prevent it. They should not punish them. They should encourage them instead of punishing them,” he said.
Apart from this, deep rooted politics within the Tamil Nadu Forest Department is also said to be a cause for concern. Competent officers are transferred out of key positions, hampering anti-poaching measures to a great extent. Favouritism and mediocrity seem to be preferred over integrity and vision.
The Lede sent a detailed set of questions to the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests but until the time of publication, no response was forthcoming.
This report will be updated if and when the Forest Department chooses to respond.