A month ago, six members of a notorious Punjab-Rajasthan tiger poaching gang killed a subadult female tiger and a leopard in Avalanche, Tamil Nadu. On 19 February 2023, the police arrested four of its members – Mangal (28), Sunita (35), and Bimala (51) from Punjab, and Ramchandar (50) from Rajasthan.
Days later, on 22 February, the remaining two accused – Ratna (40) and Krishnan (59) – from Punjab were arrested. A 10-foot-long tiger skin, one tiger skeleton, and one leopard skeleton were recovered from the poachers.
The hunting-gang had made similar attempts in 2012 and the members were convicted and jailed for three years in connection with a poaching case at Kollegal, Karnataka.
Speaking to The Quint, Kiruba Shankar, District Forest Officer, Sathyamangalam Division and Deputy Director of the Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve, said that robust protection measures were in place to protect tigers.
Yet the poachers seem to have breached the security cover. How?
A Thought Out 'Master Plan' To Poach in Nilgiris
The Quint has delved into the case to unearth an illegal network of demand and supply for the big cats' skin, skeleton, teeth, and nails. But first, here's a look at the plan that was allegedly hatched and executed.
The six-member gang had travelled from Delhi to Ooty to carry out their operation, Srinivas Reddy, principal chief conservator of forests told The Quint.
Living in a village, Arasur in Sathyamangalam, the gang members passed themselves off as blanket sellers and labourers seeking work in carrot and potato fields. The poachers stayed in Arasur for almost three months, allegedly plotting to execute their plan.
Arasur is located far from Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve from where they allegedly poached the wild animals.
The gang members had traditional knowledge in tracking tigers' pugmarks and the scent of territorial confrontations between the big cats, Reddy said. They used hunting tools like knives, snares, and jaw traps to kill and skin the tigers and leopards and later concealed those devices in the forest, he alleged.
The plan worked out despite the forest department deploying anti-poaching watchers at strategic locations. Poaching was carried out despite regular patrolling, boundary patrolling, and monitoring of m-stripes being done, forest officials rued.
But Why Go To Such Risky Lengths To Poach?
The money is good in the poaching business, The Quint has learnt.
Though tigers have the highest protection in India, they are equally targeted by poachers for their body parts. Given that India has nearly 65 percent of the world's wild tigers, poachers find it relatively easy to find and locate the tigers in the country, conservationists said.
Tiger poaching, done especially for the skin, nails, and teeth, is currently considered a lucrative business.
Although there is insufficient scientific evidence to prove that products made from tiger body parts cure ailments – ranging from joint pain to epilepsy, baldness and toothaches – tiger bones, nails, teeth, and whiskers are used as ingredients in Chinese traditional medicines, increasing the demand for the wild cats.
Traffic, a global wildlife trade watchdog, released a report titled 'Skin and Bones: Tiger trafficking analysis from January 2000 to June 2022,' which indicates a steep rise in tiger poaching in India. According to the report, 893 tigers were illegally confiscated and seized in India. The report also highlighted that, out of the global total, 38 percent of tiger skins and 42 percent of claws and teeth were seized in India.
While the police have arrested the poachers, wildlife activists and animal lovers say that the incident could have been averted had the security been tighter.
Merging Boundaries of Human-Animal Conflict
Ashraf NVK, chief veterinarian of Wildlife Trust of India said that reserve forest areas have public roads and these allow poachers disguised as locals to enter.
"Tiger reserves are mostly merged with territorial divisions in Tamil Nadu. With the increase in tiger population, there is a spillover population of tigers in the reserve's outskirts. This increases the chances for poachers to gain access to such areas."Vijay Krishnaraj, State Convenor for United Conservation Movement
Krishnaraj said that the post of field director was demoted from APCCF (Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forests) to the rank of CF (Conservator of Forests). In addition, the Project Tiger office was shifted to Chennai from Coimbatore, which has three tiger reserves. He highlighted that these changes have made way for administrative inefficiencies and are not beneficial to the management of tiger protection in the state.
Krishnaraj also added that eco-tourism, in the Nilgiris and other areas where tiger reserves are located, is posing a threat to tiger protection as poachers get access to information through social media.