By Vijay Pinjarkar
NAGPUR: In a sensational twist to the ongoing tiger poaching case, a report from Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB), Hyderabad, has revealed that the samples sent by forest officials from Masondi in Melghat were of four different tigers.
Till now the poachers had revealed and the officials believed only one tiger had been killed at the place. The new revelation dramatically increases the number of tigers killed and points to a poaching operation that is far bigger and better organized than earlier believed. This is apart from one tiger poached in Dhakna (Melghat) in March.
TOI on September 13, 2013, had reported quoting notorious tiger skin trader Sarju Bagdi that different gangs of poachers had trafficked more than 20 tiger skins. These tigers were killed between October 2012 and May 2013. The CCMB report now vindicates TOI stand though officials were always reluctant to admit it.
It now appears that a sincere probe could take the number well beyond 25. Arrested poachers Mamru and Chika have said Sarju alone trafficked 11 tiger skins between April and June last year but only five have been brought on record and offences have been registered in four cases. Offences have still not been registered in Katol, Khumari and Sevagram poaching cases.
The sealed CCMB report was opened on Friday by judicial magistrate first class (JMFC) AY Borkar in presence of investigating officer (IO) ACF BH Virsen, special counsel for forest department Kartik Shukul, and defence lawyers PS Sontakke and Yogesh Satpute.
The report sent on January 2, 2014, copy of which is with TOI, states that DNA samples of bloodstained soil, decomposed flesh pieces, intestinal parts collected from compartment No 51 (crime spot) and metal trap with blood stain and hair samples, collected half a km away from the crime spot, have tested positive and belong to four different tigers.
This report substantiates the arguments made by Shukul regarding recoveries and seizures in this case. It has been argued by defence counsels that there was no recovery in the present case. Now their arguments stand shattered.
The samples were meticulously collected by ACF Virsen and his team when arrested poachers Mamru and Chika were taken to the spot on June 10, 2012. Although the report strengthens the prosecution case, it also exposes protection lapse in the area. "What were these forest officials in-charge doing," ask conservationists.
Principal secretary (forests) Praveen Pardeshi said samples from little leftovers of tiger meat, parts, were collected and sent. The fact that it was four and not one tiger could not be verified from parts collected.
"There was absolute transparency in sending as random sample as possible to capture all evidence; there was no attempt to hide. The case stands further vindicated. Efforts made to trace culprits, collect samples and arrest and detain without bail is a first in country," said Pardeshi. "I agree it is general lapse of protection," he added.
Official tally of tigers poached last year stands at 12. It includes only one from Masondi and not the remaining three revealed by CCMB. It also doesn't include poacher Ranjit Bawaria's confession that he trafficked two tiger skins from Katol and more from Sevagram. Apart from this, poachers also killed two leopards and two sloth bears at the same spot in Masondi. Yet, no one has been held accountable.
PCCF (wildlife) Sarjan Bhagat said, "Now that the report has come, we will look into the lapses by individual officials and decide the course of action." Melghat officials claimed they did a good job by nabbing over 20 poachers on basis of call details records (CDRs) of March 4, 2013, when Dhakna (Melghat) tiger was killed.
Wildlife experts ask, "If officials were working on CDRs of March, how could four tigers be killed after that? They could have saved these. CCMB report is clear it was not one."
In spite of the report though, officials continue to resist putting higher figures on record. Trafficking of six tiger skins from Bhandarbodi (Ramtek) has also not been put on record even though the accused have admitted doing it. Assuming the poachers have been active for several years, it is anybody's guess how many tigers have been picked up from Vidarbha forests.
Poaching case gets bigger
On June 7, 2013, arrested poachers Mamru and Chika said Sarju had procured 11 tiger skins - five from Amdi and six from Bhandarbodi in April and May. Status of skins revealed by CCMB report not on record.
Tiger poaching cases recorded include two in Ghatang (Melghat), two in Umred, one each in Pench, Akot, Ranala and Mansar. Skins trafficked from Khumari, Sevagram and Katol not recorded. Six skins trafficked from Bhandarbodi also not put on record.
Arrested trader Sarju revealed more than 20 tiger skins were trafficked by different traders last year. Only four have been arrested, remaining are at large.
Two leopards and two bears caught in traps meant for tigers were also killed.
What earlier were thought of as stray cases of poaching is now turning out to be a massacre of tigers. The forensic report that says not one but four tigers were killed by poachers in Melghat area points to the scale of their operations. It begs the question just how long this scandal was going on. Also, how long the forest officials will remain in denial. Like attempts to push up the count on paper in earlier decades, foresters are now attempting to push down the count in poaching cases. When this newspaper first reported up to 20 tigers may have been taken from the region, the revelation was greeted with ridicule. It turns out the actual number may be even higher. No wonder, despite having huge forests all around, the tiger numbers are not rising. Indeed, the sanctuaries seem to be providing a steady supply to criminals. It is doubtful if officials have pulled up their socks even now. If not, they probably never will.