By Vasudha Mehta [Mail : firstname.lastname@example.org]
We learn much in life through our respective experiences, trials and errors and this article traces my experience while working with animal rescue groups on wildlife crime based investigative operations. We do understand that what I did was just one tiny drop in the ocean but atleast it was a single drop…and through this article we at ‘Jaagruti’ hope that many more of you who hope to crack the mystery behind nabbing wildlife criminals or the lack of it- will get a peep into the whole process and somewhere down the line be inspired to act to nab those who toy with our country’s much cherished natural heritage, thereby helping in minimising wildlife crime, which has the potential to wipe out India’s magnificent animals if left unchecked!
Nabbing wildlife criminals
All species of animals and products derived there from that find mention under the Indian Wildlife Protection Act 1972 are considered to be protected under the legal system and the punishments for killing/possessing the same varies as per the degree of the crime committed and the schedule to which the animal belongs. And by law, all wild animals and products listed and protected under this act are considered a property of the Government of India and the responsibility to enforce this law rests entirely on the state wildlife departments (wildlife inspectors/forest officers). However, Section 50 of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, also empowers “a Police official of the rank of a Sub-Inspector or above has the powers to search, seize and arrest”.
It is important to note that while undertaking a raid to nab wildlife criminals, one requires the help of the Police and/or the Forest/Wildlife department for the power to search a spot seize the animals and arrest the accused lies with these government officials; representatives of the NGO circuit, individual activists or the common man don’t have legal powers to do so, but there exist a number of ways in which individuals/NGOs and the government machinery can assist each other to nab wildlife criminals by utilizing their respective skills/resources and legal powers respectively.
Kinds of Wildlife criminals (and Investigations):
There are three levels of wildlife criminals operating in the city. The lowest rung is that of the roadside vendors which include bird-sellers, dog-sellers, pet-shops, snake charmers, madaris etc. Nabbing the people involved in the lower rung helps in reaching the mid-level gang that includes the wholesale-dealers, who retail the animals to these local pheri-wallahs. Catching these wholesale dealers leads us to the source, which includes the traders who are involved in capturing these animals from their wild habitat and the knowledge of the areas from where the animals are being captured and an idea about their trade routes.
Broadly, wildlife crime investigations in our country can be categorized into the following-
- Those conducted by NGOs/activists/individuals in the cities which involve seizure of wildlife products like mongoose hair brushes, owl claws etc. or raid and rescue operations involving live wild animals exploited in cities by street entertainers like madaris and saperas-monkeys, bears and snakes or those animals held by pet shops, meat sellers, street vendors/part-time traders or the dubious tantriks. Such animals include birds like Pigeons, Parakeets, Munias, kites, peacocks and owls; reptiles like snakes, turtles and monitor lizards and; animals like mongoose and civet cats.
- Raid/seizure of wildlife contrabands involving highly protected Schedule 1 animals like skins and claws of tigers, lions and leopards, rhino horns, Elephant ivory, Otter skin, Bear biles, Crocodile skins. Such investigations are more time consuming as well as life-threatening in nature since the investigators end up dealing with organised gangs of wildlife criminals that work across national and international boundaries. Such investigations involve a united effort on part of many agencies, the Wildlife Departments, Police, Crime Investigation agencies and the investigative/decoy support and intelligence provided by Wildlife NGOs.
How is an investigation and operation carried out?
- The tip-off: Generally, various wildlife NGOs have an enforcement unit comprising of a Research team and a Field Raiding Team, consisting of a network of informers, decoys and field workers. Tip offs are generally received through the aware and sensitized individuals within the society or generated by the informers hired by the NGO’s Research Team. This system of informers employed by the NGOs is generally paid as per the authenticity and accuracy of the information provided by them.
- Conducting a Reccee: To authenticate the information provided to the research team, normally decoys are used to validate the leads so obtained, however sometimes under time constraints for an on the move wildlife contraband or criminal, the luxury of conducting a recee can be least afforded!
- The raid: The raiding team generally comprises of NGO resource persons accompanied by officials from the Police, Wildlife Department and or Wildlife Crime Control Bureau who are well acquainted with the laws.In addition to the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, even the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act 1960 can be enforced upon under many cases.Knowledge of the laws, specific sections and penalties outlined within the act helps in registering a strong case and is crucial for putting the convict behind bars.
- Once the raid conducted, the police prepare a seizure memo. The job of the raiding squad is to get the accused arrested, seize the animals and the police then presents the accused and the seized animals/products before the Metropolitan Magistrate in the local district Courts.
- The accused is generally sent to 14 days of Judicial Custody (JC) by the Metropolitan Magistrate and the investigation of the case is subsequently handed over to the Wildlife Department.
- More often than not, once the Wildlife Department is not represented by a lawyer after the JC period is over, the accused is released on bail. Hence, all the effort of nabbing a criminal goes to waste. Therefore, all that we require from the Wildlife Department is to convict the accused with the help of an efficient public prosecutor.
The (apathy of) State Wildlife Departments, the Police and the legal lacunae:
These departments often do not work to their full potential and the reasons for these are manifold for they neither have the infrastructure, nor the staff or the spirit to do this kind of investigative work.
In Delhi, for example, there are 5 Wildlife Inspectors that joined this department about two decades back and in all these years, they haven’t even been promoted once! When they joined they were Wildlife Inspectors and they remain so even now. In all these years, there are no new recruitments that have taken place either. As a result, there is no one to work under them or work with and naturally so, over all these years these inspectors also tend to lose out on the youthful energy they carried when they first joined these departments, hence it is natural to assume that the officials lack spirit and enterprise and suffer from demonization and frustration.
Coupled with it, is rampant corruption, lack of political will and the complete lack of infrastructure. These wildlife inspectors move on motorbikes and don’t even have a car and a driver at their disposal thus making it difficult for them to move the rescued animals or even take the accused for a Medical examination before presenting him in front of the district court magistrate as per the provisions of the law.
Also, The Wildlife Department and the Police are not armed with a team of animal handlers so they are generally apprehensive of carrying out wildlife crime seizures. Despite knowing that showing snakes to people on roadsides or selling birds is illegal, the authorities fail to nab street entertainers using animals as the whole thought of handling snakes, monkeys, bears and mongooses (after conducting the seizure) scares them off!
The Wildlife Departments don’t have the space to house rescued animals till their release orders are issued by the court. Zoos are most unwilling as they are already starved of space and cash. Also, the Wildlife Departments don’t have lock ups to house the arrested accused before being presented to the court and thus they have to turn to the Police for lock-up assistance which adds to the headache of the police stations as they get thrusted with the responsibility of ensuring that the accused doesn’t suffer health wise or die in their police custody
As Rajeev Jain, an animal activist associated with the Delhi chapter of NGO People for Animals shares below; there are many hurdles that prop up at different stages of a wildlife crime combating operation, mostly because the police and judges are not sensitized to animal welfare or aware of the laws and seriousness of the crime. “The judges in the district courts normally take pity on the bird sellers or a snake charmer we catch hold of in a city because they consider them to be poor people and thus give them the most meager punishment and accept their bail plea very easily. Lives of animals are not considered precious enough”, lamented Rajeev.
Also the Police authorities and wildlife officers are found wanting especially when it comes to handling, identifying and rehabilitating the live animals seized and it is here that the NGOs pitch in with their expertise. For example: NGOs pitch in with their knowledge of handling, health, habitat and feeding habits of the animals rescued along with providing temporary shade and shelter to the rescued animals. Often, many rescued animals die in the police station before being presented to the courts as the police officials are not provided with any budget to administer first aid or purchase the adequate feed/feeding bowls to help the stressed animals.
But all is not lost, gradually with growing awareness levels, the authorities are being increasingly and regularly forced to cooperate and extend support to individual activists and NGOs to nab wildlife criminals and it is up to individuals like you to acquaint yourself with the laws and the modus-operandi mentioned above so that you can assist as well as request the cooperation of enforcement authorities to take wildlife crime seriously. Only when more people take these issues up, will the authorities be on tender hooks and the government will be compelled to carry out the infrastructural and procedural improvements required to make the wildlife departments more effective and efficient.
Lastly, what is NOT Right?
Nilesh Bhanage of PAWS shares below his valuable insight on where exactly lies the problem with those people/NGO activists who consider themselves to be over and above the law and become overnight wildlife activists who go on to break every rule in the book in sheer exuberance, enthusiasm or most commonly for the sake of greed of money and media attention!
Most of the wildlife crime investigations in India happens out of heart & not with minds/ideas, careful planning or tricks and therein lies the only problem. Any animal lover starts posing as wildlife activist and starts doing raids is clearly wrong. They will not do work in a stepwise manner and risk getting into trouble and that is one of the reasons wildlife crime conviction rates in India are so low.When anyone conducts raids, they must provide photos, video CDs, veterinary treatment certificates, proofs, panchnama of seized material from criminals and even use supporting laws (i.e. using kids for wildlife trade is also punishable under child labor laws, using wildlife items for medicines comes under Food & Drug administration Act etc), so there are multiple factors that are involved.For Example: One girl posing animal activist goes to someone’s house & just pick-up their pet parakeet & squirrel which was hand-raised by someone. Then this girl goes & releases these animals and birds, confiscated by her back into wild, then in our eyes that girl herself is criminal under Indian Wildlife protection Act 1972 because she has flaunted the following following norms:
- Making illegal/unauthorised entry into someone’s private house
- Taking photos of gallery / bedroom
- Rescuing wildlife without prior intimation/information being conveyed to forest/wildlife department and also without their permission.
- Seizure of animals is also illegal as it can be done only by Police or Wildlife Department officials or honorary officers appointed by these two departments for this task.
- Abandoning wildlife anywhere (which was never exposed to wild area as it was kept as pets) to die in name of rehab
- Not doing any paper work for such seizure.
- Stealing someones property like cages.
Remember, if we want to help animals or our wildlife, it is important that we follow the rules, for our safety and also for the health of the animal.