India

Tehelka Poaching Exposé

UPDATE:

Poacher Kailash, alias Gullu arrested. Huge achievement for NCWB. He turns out to be Gulab Chand Rakhial, a tiger poacher with past criminal history. A tiger poaching complaint was registered against wildlife crimes launched by NCWB based on leads and intelligence generated by Tehelka’s investigation. Read the chilling exposé below.

We broke into a poacher network and found one tiger is killed every two weeks…

Wake-up call for Project Tiger?

The Indo-Nepal border. Dangerous men. Small hideouts. And rampant trade.

MANMOHAN GUPTA and VK SHASHIKUMAR spent two risky months in the field to capture poachers on camera.

Will the government take action now?


A TIGHTLY knit cross-country poaching network straddling China, Nepal and India is depleting India’s forests of its magnificent wildlife, especially its tigers. A tiger is killed every two weeks in India. A leopard is killed and skinned every day. Several foxes and otters are ruthlessly hunted down every day for their fur. To deconstruct this story, the TEHELKA team went on a dangerous mission, posing as the Delhi agents of a tiger skin buyer.

Our first rendezvous with poachers was at Dharchula, a small border town in Uttarakhand, where a pedestrian bridge across the Kali river takes one to Darchula (note the different spelling) in Nepal, not far from the tri-junction of Tibet, Nepal and India. Cross-border marriages and kinship flourish here, the notion of citizenship is fuzzy and there is a comfortable camaraderie. On 22 November, we met with poachers Kailash, alias Gullu, and Dinesh. This recorded conversation (translated from Hindi) is illustrative of the lack of tension about negotiating the international border:

KAILASH: I have the stocked tiger skins in Nepal. If you want it I have to bring it to India.

TEHELKA: You don’t have it right now?

KAILASH: I have the stuff. But it’s in the safe custody of my people in Nepal. I can arrange to bring it back to India. Don’t worry, there is no tension or difficulty.

TEHELKA: Is there a problem in keeping it (tiger skin) here (Dharchula)?

KAILASH: You must understand. If the stuff is kept here there could be problems. In any case, the tiger skins have already been dispatched to Nepal. They are on their way to Tibet and that is why we stock them in Nepal. We sent the tiger skins a week ago.

If it was reassuring to know that surveillance on the Indian side is some sort of deterrent to stocking the contraband on our territory, it was distressing to know that an annual border trade fair organized by the Uttarakhand government at nondescript Jauljibi, an hour’s drive from Dharchula, facilitates illicit trade too. Held from 14-28 November, it is a time for traders from Tibet, Nepal and India to buy and sell goods, strike bargains and enter into annual deals. It’s also the biggest social event in this part of Kumaon.

Chinese wildlife traffickers accompanied by their Nepalese agents quietly slip into India via Nepal during the mela to strike deals with Indian poachers for the supply of tiger skins, bones and other animal parts. Taking advantage of the open borders, several Chinese wildlife traders also cross the border posing as Nepalese.

Locals in remote border towns like Jauljibi and Dharchula have become adept stockists of wildlife body parts. Here stocks are accumulated for a year till the mela when the transactions happen at a feverish pace. Around this time, TEHELKA’s undercover reporters met the poachers who claimed to have successfully transacted tiger skins and bones with Chinese buyers during the mela. Here’s the evidence caught on TEHELKA’s hidden cameras:

DINESH: Let me be honest, we had a good stock of tiger skins for the mela.

KAILASH: Yes. We told you about the rush during the mela. It’s a big affair. The mela provides us a huge cover to conduct our business.

TEHELKA: Why don’t we go there now?

KAILASH: We can go now.

DINESH: Why don’t you first take (buy) the piece (tiger skin)? Once this is done, both of us can go over to the mela. But bhai, we can’t take your driver with us. Once we are free of the tension, we can roam around. This mela is really a trade fair for us (poachers).

TEHELKA: So where do the buyers come from?

DINESH: From Tibet, Nepal and India. This is where annual requirements are frozen. What kind of stuff, what’s to be done, how much, all this is settled.

KAILASH: This is where it’s done. The mela is a good excuse. The government is running it but it is ideal for contraband.

Although there is a demand for tiger body parts in Southeast Asian countries, the maximum revenue comes through Chinese buyers. Most of the illegal shipment of wildlife products, carried by human couriers, is sent through Dharchula into Nepal, dodging the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) and Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB) patrols. A TEHELKA exclusive (Sansar’s Successors, 16 October) had revealed the involvement of some ITBP men in crossborder trafficking of tiger skins and bones.

Uttarakhand is the new hub of illegal trade in animal skins — tiger, leopard, otter and fox. The big demand from Chinese buyers has scotched India’s attempts to conserve its wildlife. TEHELKA’s probe conducted over two months has garnered startling field intelligence, which is bound to raise serious questions about the efficacy of India’s tiger conservation efforts.

Though poachers refrain from naming specific tiger reserves and wildlife sanctuaries from where animals are poached, a laborious join-the-dots exercise by our undercover team, hidden cam in tow, reveals that there are serious breaches of security in the tiger habitats of Jim Corbett National Park (Uttarakhand) and Dudhwa National Park (Uttar Pradesh). Our team first befriended Dinesh, a key link in poaching networks operating in Uttarakhand and UP. He is out on bail in a case registered against him in Nainital. He moves around freely in these two states. His job is to maintain personal links with poaching gangs, agents and intermediaries. Here’s how Dinesh explained his role in the food chain during an interaction in Darchula:

TEHELKA: Where do you get your stuff (tiger skins) from? Uttarakhand?

DINESH: It comes from Ram Nagar in UP.

TEHELKA: But Ram Nagar is in Uttarakhand, not UP…

DINESH: Yes, but it’s closer to the plains… near Haldwani.

TEHELKA: Ok. So the stuff (skins) are brought from the plains and kept here?

DINESH: Yes.

TEHELKA: In Nepal?

DINESH: Yes, in Nepal.

TEHELKA: So I’m sure you don’t have any trouble or difficulty here.

DINESH: Nothing happens here. It’s perfectly safe for us. We control this place in daytime and at night.

TEHELKA: So, who conducts the business? The one who owns the stuff?

DINESH: No, it doesn’t work that way. The one who owns the skin has actually purchased it from someone else. A tiger is killed by someone, its skin and bones are bought by another and then immediately sold to someone else till it reaches here. All the stuff that reaches here is meant to go “up” (to Tibet). If they are still around then it means those guys (Chinese) haven’t yet come to pick it up.

Most of the illegal wildlife shipment, carried by human couriers, is sent through Dharchula into Nepal, dodging Indian patrols

The key elements of this trade are anonymity, need-to-know basis of business transactions and the ability to keep the stock moving till a deal is struck with a buyer.

TEHELKA: How does it (tiger skin) come here (Nepal)?

DINESH: All of that is managed.

TEHELKA: Come on, tell me…

DINESH: Ok.

TEHELKA: Is there no checking on the bridge (over Kali river)?

DINESH: Look, the stuff (tiger skins) is obviously not sent across the bridge. It is sent across at other places along the river.

TEHELKA: Don’t you have any trouble?

DINESH: No, there is no trouble. We have carried this activity for so many years. We send the stuff (tiger skins) across late at night, 10-11 pm. We stand on one side with our torches to signal the receiving party. When the pick-up party signals their presence, we send the stuff across the river. It’s all fixed beforehand.

TEHELKA: But the guys who check (ITBP) are never aware of your activities?

DINESH: Generally, there is no way those guys get to know of what we are up to. It’s another matter if informers pass specific intelligence to them. Suppose I have a 1 kg packet, who will know what is in it?

Dinesh gets his confidence from his mentor Kailash, alias Gullu, a Nepalese citizen but equally at home in India. Every day, Kailash crosses the bridge, hires a bike for Rs. 100 and works as a PWD contractor in Dharchula, where everybody seems to know him. He has a reputation in these parts as a jovial, well-meaning, well-connected and wealthy man. His acolytes admire him for his reputation as the ultimate Casanova who gets any chhamiya (derogatory slang for ‘girl’) he wants.

These community and cultural linkages that make South Asia such a melting pot form an invisible tunnel that connects criminal poaching gangs across borders, and right into Delhi, where Majnu Ka Tila is the well-known hub. “Nobody will open up in Majnu Ka Tila. But with my reference they (tiger skin traders) talk. I will give you a password. All of you have to do is quote the password to the person that I arrange for you to meet,” Kailash boasts.

As our undercover team gains the trust of Kailash and Dinesh, they spill their secrets. They reveal they have access to 11 sets of tiger skins and bones that they could arrange to sell to us, three of which were stocked in Dharchula, awaiting pick-up by Chinese buyers. But if they received payment on the spot or through their preferred hawala route, they could sell this to Indian buyers as well. They talked about three sets stocked in Dhampur-Najeebabad area near Corbett and five sets stocked at Majnu Ka Tila. Their confidence won, it was a matter of time before they agreed to display the tiger skin they wanted to sell.

At 11 am on 24 November, Dinesh set out with the TEHELKA reporter on a short drive along the Kali river where a henchman wearing a black leather jacket joined us. He refused to divulge his name. Dinesh stopped the car and the group started down the steep slope, stumbling, slipping and sliding down until they reached a hut.

The unnamed person entered the hut first, pulled out a suitcase from a dark corner and took out a tightly folded 109-inch tiger skin. He then dragged out a sack wrapped in a black polythene cover, untied the knot on the sack and took out tiger bones still covered with slivers of flesh.

TEHELKA: This is so foul smelling. How old is this?

TRADER 1: This is not old, look at the flesh.

TRADER 2: Come on, take a look.

TEHELKA: Must be a month old?

TRADER 1: This is a full set (all the bones of the tiger are in the sack).

TEHELKA: Is this rotting?

TRADER 2: It’s fresh.

TRADER 1: The flesh is still on the bones.

TEHELKA: How much does one set weigh?

TRADER 2: It must be around 14-15 kg.

TEHELKA: 15 kg!

TRADER 2: This is a fresh kill… a month old.

After the display is packed away, the poachers complete the sales pitch by pointing out that this is a perfect set because the claws are intact and the skull has all the canine teeth. After dropping the henchman, Dinesh and our reporter head back to the Gangri Hotel in Dharchula to meet Kailash.

KAILASH: I can show better (tiger) skin and bones.

TEHELKA: Here?

KAILASH: No, in Delhi.

TEHELKA: That will be convenient.

KAILASH: I will show five pieces bigger than the one you have seen, longer than the length of this room. Your heart will be thumping when you see them. But first you must pick the stuff you just saw. We’ve to earn first to enable us to arrange the stuff.

DINESH: And in Delhi it’s perfectly safe. There is no problem at all?

KAILASH: Yes. If you want we can get the stuff (tiger skins and bones) delivered to your house in Delhi.

TEHELKA: All five skins?

KAILASH: Yes, five big ones.

TEHELKA: What about the small ones? (in the trade the word chhotewale refers to leopard skin).

KAILASH: You’ll get everything you want. You can get everything sitting in Delhi, just pay us our commission. Now about the earlier deal, let us talk about the money and where to deliver it.

The undercover team was confronted with a potentially life-threatening situation at this point. They were isolated in Dharchula, a territory controlled by the poaching network. This is a place where cell phones don’t work and it is a miracle to find a working landline. If we backed out at this juncture, our cover would have been blown. So we launched into a torturous negotiation to find a way out of the logjam.

Poachers offered to sell a tiger skin for Rs. 5.5 lakh and bones for Rs. 1.5 lakh. Officials say the actual ‘trade’ pricing is around Rs. 3 lakh per tiger set

KAILASH: You have to trust us. The tiger skin and bones you saw are actually meant for a Chinese buyer. It belongs to someone else who has returned from the mela. But I’ve kept it on hold for you.

TEHELKA: We will pick up this piece. Do you also have rhino horns?

KAILASH: Yes, you will get that as well.

TEHELKA: And you can also give us the smaller ones (leopard skins)?

KAILASH: You’ll get everything you want from Saharanpur (UP), Haridwar (Uttarakhand) and Delhi.

TEHELKA: Look, you will face no problems when you deal with us. We have the money. Just be a little considerate on the rates.

KAILASH: Dinesh said you are willing to pay Rs. 7 (lakh) and I said that’s fine. I have been through a lot. Earlier I used to be a carrier in Delhi. I used to operate from Majnu Ka Tila and Sadar Bazaar. I know all the hideouts and stockists in Delhi. If not 7 then at least 6.3. You can get it deposited in my bank account.

TEHELKA: How can we put so much money into your account? Also you can’t withdraw more than Rs. 15,000 a day from the ATM.

KAILASH: That is not a problem. I am a contractor and I transact Rs. 10 lakh to Rs. 20 lakh on a daily basis.

TEHELKA: Ok. Let me talk to my boss.

Kailash has a certain swagger about him. “I don’t take risks anymore,” he tells us. “I have given all the contacts (in Delhi and elsewhere) to Dinesh. Once you pick up the stuff you saw today, you don’t need to keep in touch with me at all. Dinesh will arrange anything you want to buy.”

We nudged the poachers into revealing their modus operandi and their territory.

TEHELKA: Where do you source the skins from? Lakhimpur? Corbett?

KAILASH: You get nothing in the mountains except charas. Everything (animal parts) is available in Delhi. All of this stuff comes into Delhi and moves out of Delhi.

TEHELKA: From Delhi?

KAILASH: Delhi is the main transit point.

DINESH: All this stuff is booked on flights.

During this chat, Kailash receives a phone call from one of his wildlife trafficking contacts in Delhi. On our side, we hear… “Tell me, how many big ones (tiger skins) do you have? Around five. Let’s see. How many paniwale (otter skins) do you have? Around 1,500.” Desperate to strike a deal, Kailash suggests payment in Delhi.

Many intimidating techniques are used to assess the buyer and his intentions. If the potential buyer fails to pass this test, they simply slink away

KAILASH: I have several trader (bania) friends in Delhi. If you give the money in Delhi, I will get it here in Dharchula through my bania friends…that Agarwal.

TEHELKA: Where in Delhi?

KAILASH: See, there’s a big trader here who receives goods from Delhi. He goes to Delhi to make payments. If your boss gives him money in Delhi, I will get it here.

This gave the undercover team a cue to escape: we convinced the poachers we would have to go back to arrange the money. Subsequently, we contacted the relevant law enforcement agencies and passed on all actionable intelligence to them.

“All it takes is just one phone call and everything can be arranged,” Kailash had boasted. He gets regular updates from the Bawariya and Gujjar poaching gangs operating in the forests of north India. He keeps in touch with various layers of middlemen and intermediaries in the poaching network. Dinesh maintains regular human contact with the three big poaching gangs of north India led by Bhima Bawariya, Balku and Gopi. The law enforcement agencies have heard of them but do not have names and faces.

The undercover team managed to photograph and visually document the gang led by Balku for the first time ever. We have shared this material with law enforcement agencies, especially the National Wildlife Crime Bureau, in the public interest.

Our team was introduced to Balku and gang by Dinesh a few months before we ventured into Dharchula. The meeting was at an isolated stretch of a road in Kotdwar, Uttarakhand. The poachers follow a rigorous standard operating procedure when they meet a new ‘party’ (buyer). The ‘party’ is made to wait. Gang members on motorbikes keep watch from a distance.

All kinds of intimidating techniques are used to assess the buyer and his intentions. If the potential buyer fails to pass this test, they simply slink away, change their numbers and ensure that the details of the suspicious buyer are passed down the poaching network. Fortunately, our team never lost their nerve and were acknowledged by Balku’s gang as a genuine ‘party’.

All poachers follow two thumb rules. They never reveal in advance where they would display the animal body parts. Second, if the buyer decides to purchase an animal body part, the delivery is undertaken only after an advance is paid. Subsequently, an anonymous carrier functioning on a need-to-know basis delivers the package to the address specified by the buyer and collects the remaining sum.

The business of wildlife crime is one of stealth and facelessness. From Kotdwar, our team was led by Balku and his gang to Kaladhungi, a romantic hamlet where Jim Corbett once lived. Today, his home is a museum displaying souvenirs, relics and mementos from his famous exploits. What could be more ironic than poachers operating in the forests of the legendary tiger lover? As the poachers escorted our team, gang members spread out to keep a watch on all approaches leading to the dump where a tiger skin and bones were hidden.

AFTER A 30-minute trek, Balku signalled everyone to stop. As he straightened his back, stretched his limbs and waited, a gang member walked ahead to retrieve the goods. A few moments later, gang members stepped out from the dense foliage carrying four sacks. Balku held two corners of one sack and dumped a tightly folded tiger skin right in front of TEHELKA’s hidden camera. The other three sacks had 36 kg of bones. Balku explained that his gang had poisoned three tigers. Two died deep inside the forest. By the time the poachers tracked those tigers, their bodies and skin had decomposed. So only the bones could be retrieved.

Balku revealed that several towns around the Corbett Tiger Reserve had emerged as safe zones to hide tiger skins and bones and body parts of other animals, like leopard and fox skins. East of Corbett: Ramnagar, Kaladhungi and Haldwani. West: Najeebabad. North and Northwest: Kotdwar and the areas between Corbett Tiger Reserve and Rajaji National Park.

Our team investigated and uncovered these new transit routes that eventually converge at Didihat and from there to Jauljibi and Dharchula. In Kaladhungi and Dharchula, poachers offered to sell a tiger skin for Rs. 5.5 lakh and bones for Rs. 1.5 lakh (at the rate of Rs. 10,000 per kg). Officials tracking wildlife crime say that the actual ‘trade’ pricing is around Rs. 3 lakh per set (skin and bones). Whatever the price, it’s clear that tigers continue to be vulnerable in the very habitats created for them.

The reality is that despite the obsession to “save the tiger”, India’s national animal is facing extinction because of poaching. Sixteen sets of tiger body parts were offered to us, all killed in the past eight months. Thus two tigers are killed every month, one every two weeks. Glamorous campaigns on television and hype surrounding fund- raisers for conservation cannot protect India’s wildlife if there is no actionable intelligence on poacher networks and their operations. This was the reason for our two-month investigation.

Leopard poachers are easier to find. In Shamlatal, a trader who refused to identify himself, willingly displayed leopard skins on the back seat of a car. Later, a duo willingly escorted our team to the spot where they had hidden two leopard skins. After a rather steep descent into a valley, the poachers pulled out two plastic bags hidden under a large boulder.

TEHELKA: There’s a foul smell.

POACHER: These (skins) have been in storage for several days. To prevent the foul smell one must sprinkle phenyl on it regularly.

TEHELKA: How long is this skin?

POACHER: Nine feet.

TEHELKA: How old is this?

POACHER: This must be around Holi (meaning, the leopard would have been killed and the skin extracted in March). Do you like it?

TEHELKA: It’s ok.

The poachers spread the leopard skin over the rocks. Then they take out the second leopard skin and display it as well.

TEHELKA: But how will I transport them?

POACHER: You put your luggage over this. We’ll hire a car. I’ll get my friends and travel with you so that it appears as if we are in a vehicle ferrying passengers. This is common here. Don’t worry, we will figure a way out.

Poaching mostly happens during the monsoon when the tiger reserves are closed for visitors. Poaching gangs enter the forests with food stocks, other survival essentials and poison. They lay poisoned baits, track the poisoned tigers, wait for them to die, extract the skin and bones, apply preservatives and salt to prevent rotting. There is a generous sprinkling of naphthalene to suppress the smell. They are bundled into sacks, packed into suitcases and anonymously loaded onto jeeps, which are the most visible mode of public transport in Uttarakhand and go virtually unchecked. No wonder, apart from the significant arrest and imprisonment of Sansar Chand (Sansar Chand is India’s deadliest poacher. Here is how he has escaped legal traps for 40 years, TEHELKA, 7 August), the law enforcement agencies haven’t been able to stop rampant poaching.

Another species facing an existential threat is the otter. The Asian short-clawed otter is a Schedule I (totally protected species), two other species found in India — Eurasian and smooth-coated — are under Schedule II (endangered species). Along the Sharda river near Tanakpur and Banbasa (Uttarakhand) and Puranpur (UP), hunting otter is a means of livelihood. An otter skin measuring 3 feet and above fetches Rs. 7,000. We met a gang leader who is also a schoolteacher. ‘Master’ took our team to three houses in Puranpur, which had at least five stocks of otter skin.

TEHELKA: How many pieces do you have?

POACHER: I don’t have any with me.

TEHELKA: What I mean is, how many do you know of?

POACHER: There are five pieces here and many more in other places.

At this point, TEHELKA’s undercover reporter whips out his cell phone and shoots a few pictures. He explains that he would like to show it to buyers and had already taken permission from the intermediaries who had brought him to Puranpur. But ‘Master’ is angry and offended.

What could be more ironic than poachers operating in the forest that was once inhabited by the legendary tiger lover, Jim Corbett

MASTER: Suppose there is checking on the way and these pictures are seen, then what will you say? These aren’t pet animals and we are not allowed to keep them.

India’s 39 tiger sanctuaries are the last refuge of Asia’s most iconic species. Perhaps, the aggressive Kaziranga model is the solution. Armed with guns, the forest guards of the Kaziranga are authorised to shoot poachers at sight. India’s embarrassing failure provoked an influx of Rs. 201 crore funding for tiger conservation in 2009-10. But pumping in money will hardly serve the purpose. Poaching has dramatically increased in the past three years.

The tiger is the centrepiece of the country’s conservation efforts, as noted in India’s official Tiger Anthem, composed by Abhishek Ray: Tiger se jungle, jungle se baarish, baarish se nadiya, nadiyo se hai haryali, tiger hai toh hum bhi hain, tum bhi ho, saare Bharat mein hai khushali (From tiger to jungle, from jungle to rain, from rain to river, from river to greenery, on the tiger depends our existence, and the greenery of India). The tiger’s decline portends a wider ecological disaster.

With inputs from Shweta Sharma in New Delhi

The Videos:

Kailash: Part 1

Kailash: Part 2

Kailash: Part 3

Balku (Poacher) at Kotdwar, Uttarakhand

Poacher Balku shows off Tiger skin in Kotdwar

How the Money Transactions work

Poacher shows off two full leopard skins

Dinesh (poacher) saying how the skins are sent across the border

Traders show off Tiger Skins in Dharchula, Uttarakhand

“Master” shows off skins of 4 Otters

Poacher near Puranpur shows off one Otter skin