By K.M. Rakesh
A group of gun-wielding young men's runaway romp through a reserve forest and social media photos of their wildlife haul have left Karnataka's forest authorities shaken.
Uploaded on the Facebook page of one Darshan Pandey on January 10, the 30-odd pictures show at least eight men in what officials have identified as the Nilgiri Biosphere in Coorg bordering north Kerala, about 250km from Bangalore.
The most photographed among the men, all in their 20s and 30s, is seen holding up a jungle hare, apparently hunted from the forest. Another picture shows a second man displaying a skewer with barbecued crabs. The authorities woke up after the pictures went viral last evening.
"We are working on identifying these men who have violated several laws, going by the pictures," Vinay Luthra, principal chief conservator of forests (wildlife), told The Telegraph today. "Our officials in Coorg are searching for them."
Luthra couldn't explain how the group had slipped in through the checkpoints unnoticed, but a wildlife activist said the 5,000sqkm biosphere had several unmanned entry points and trespassing was common.
It's unclear if the Facebook account is a genuine one. Luthra said the forest authorities had contacted state cyber police and the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau, a newly formed federal agency mandated to tackle wildlife crime.
Sadiq Ali, a senior volunteer with the bureau and well-known wildlife rescuer, said from Coorg that the forest frolickers seemed to have flouted several sections of the Wildlife Protection Act.
One, unlike wildlife parks, reserve forests are not meant for tourism. One can enter only with permission, whether one is a forest official or activist carrying out a census, a researcher, or a tribal looking to forage in the core area.
Two, bringing any kind of weapon is a crime. Ali said that one of the two firearms seen in the pictures was a 12-bore single-barrel gun, and the other probably an air gun. If the single-barrel gun turns out to be unlicensed, that would mean an Arms Act violation too.
Three, Ali said: "They seem to have hunted at least one wild hare. They're also seen barbecuing crabs, caught obviously from the forest ponds. The law states that nothing can be taken from any reserve forest."
Fourth, two dogs are seen playing with the men in at least two images. Domestic animals are barred from reserve forests lest they infect the wildlife.
"Even cattle movement requires permission," said Ali. "I've heard that this Darshan Pandey is from Bangalore and has made similar trips earlier."
Ali said such violations weren't uncommon in the biosphere, which covers parts of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala.
"The forest department has to answer how these men went about hunting, trekking and even cooking inside the forest without anyone noticing," he said.
Cooking is banned in reserved forests lest it spark a forest fire.
A senior forest official based in the area, who wouldn't be quoted, said several teams had fanned out to catch the hunters but "it might take time since it's difficult to comb the forests". It isn't clear, though, whether the hunter-revellers are still in the forest.
Bangalore-based wildlife activist Padma Ashok termed the intrusion a "bad example".
"Unless (this tendency is) nipped in the bud, more youngsters might get into such activities," she said. "I hope the authorities take stern, deterrent action. Today they killed a rabbit, tomorrow it could be a tiger or leopard."
Tarun Cariappa, secretary of the NGO Coorg Wildlife Society, which promotes conservation, rued that there were "so many unmanned points from where anyone can enter these reserve forests".
He said: "The pictures show the men in a shola forest (tropical rolling grasslands), but it's difficult to say exactly where since this region has many such locations."