‘Shortage of forest forces unjustifiable fact’
Deploying more foresters in forested and Protected Areas rather than non-forested areas, along with fixing an 8-hour shift for them would not only ensure there is no staff crunch but also bring about a sea change in protecting wildlife, points out H V Girisha, IFS, Regional Deputy Director, Wildlife Crime Control Bureau
Q: What is the impact of wildlife trafficking on people around the world in general and India in particular?
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species in Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is the legal mechanism adopted by more than 186 countries to regulate the global trade in endangered species of flora and fauna. CITES guidelines and norms are internationally accepted as they are backed up by the knowledge of scientific authorities and conscious decisions of member countries in Conferences of Parties held intermittently. The trade ensures legalities through mechanisms of permit and certificates apart form quarantine measures. Therefore, regulated trade in CITES listed species are under control and impacts can be marked. The challenge is in assessing the impact of the illegal wildlife trafficking that has uncertain and devastating impacts like COVID-19. The severity of health hazards associated with wildlife trade is much more than imagination. We have known examples of the zoonotic diseases like SARS, KFD, Nipha, HIV, Ebola etc. The economic impacts of such unwarranted hazards reflects in slowdown of the production process, increasing inflation, increased health costs, increased enforcement costs etc that hampers the political stability of any country. General social gathering, practice of social customs, rituals, festivals also suffer that is reflected up on the general well being of people and welfare of the nation. Unregulated introduction of exotics without scientific studies has huge ecological impacts. One cannot rule out such species becoming Invasive Alien Species in the introduced habitat. This will result in serious ecological imbalance
Q: What is the significance of India as a trafficking hub? What are the causes?
India has always been a source country in wildlife trafficking as the market for the wildlife contrabands existed outside India whether it is for medicine or for fashion. But, it is being observed that India is slowly becoming a traffic hub for pet trade of exotic and indigenous wildlife. Apart from catering to the illegal demand for Indian wildlife species from outside the country, a huge demand for exotic pets is observed in India. This may be due to the influence of the social media and changing attitude of the youth. Ignorance of the possible ill-effects of the exotic and indigenous wildlife pets cannot be ignored. Working parents result in children looking for pets and so do Hollywood and Bollywood influencers, unwarranted advertisements and mushrooming pet shops.
Q: What challenges do you face in putting a check on these practices? How far do the national and international laws help, or don't help?
Although much is spoken about role and importance of ecological balance, the environment and the wildlife habitat is often seen the most abused. There are several challenges in the field of combating illegal wildlife trafficking as the illegal wildlife trade is demand driven and is very dynamic too. The transit route, species preference, concealment methods, the carrier, the middlemen, the modus-operandi are ever changing. In addition to these professional challenges, the institutional weaknesses such as over-aged staff at cutting edge, acute shortage of frontline staff, lack of know-how about the dynamism of wildlife crime, lack of surveillance facilities and secret services funds to forest and wildlife department have made the task of checking the practices of wildlife trafficking much more challenging. In one of the IA No 941/2021 (application for amendment of IA No 94317/2020) and IA Nos 94310, 94313 and 94317/2020, the Supreme Court has observed: “We are of the view that the situation is serious and we find it difficult to comprehend how these forest officers and staff would be in a position to protect the environment and the forests which are normally vast tracks of uninhabited land band of which poachers take undue advantage for carrying out their nefarious activities.” The challenges increase manifolds when the wildlife crime is resultant of human-wildlife-conflict. Although we have a strong legislative framework to tackle wildlife trafficking, we lack matching logistics. However, with the increased capacity building training programmes by the WCCB, and sensitization programmes for paramilitary forces and border guarding agencies including the Customs, increasing control in the wildlife trafficking is being observed. Sensitization of the Judiciary has been adding to the increased efficiency of prosecution in wildlife crime cases. But, CITES provisions are limited to enforce at the Customs exit points as we have no separate legislation provisions to tackle wildlife trafficking in exotics.
Q: You have a very vast experience as a forest official as well as in the wildlife crime control bureau. How are you putting that experience to good use?
Indian Forest Service is one of the most challenging services as on date as the service is bestowed with the constitutional mandate for not only protecting the natural resources but also ensuring the judicious use of them. The forests and wildlife are the most vulnerable Common Property Resources (CPRs) as they have more intangibles to offer which have very long term and gradual impact on human life. But unfortunately these are subjected to huge pressure due to diversion for the developmental projects and have open access to anyone. With the inherent institutional weaknesses such as lack of logistics, infrastructure and manpower, the forest officers learn the art and skill of delivering duties under rough (and tough) weather. The professional challenges make them much more strong mentally and psychologically to accept and tackle challenges. The experience of serving in Pilibhit Tiger Reserve, Shivalik Tiger Reserve, Hastinapur Wildlife Sanctuary and Okha Bird Sanctuary, with all the limitations, has added in me immense professional capabilities. The challenges faced in handling tricky situations of mining in Hamirpur and Saharanpur has taught me many lessons for life. Strong brotherly bondage among colleagues and contacts with professionals and scientific agencies have been paving ways and opportunities to coordinate well for combating wildlife trafficking all across the nation.
Q: What are your personal views on the condition and level of conservation of wildlife in India? Do the diminishing forest cover and construction in ecological sensitive zones add to the wildlife crimes?
India has always been very sensitive towards conservation of wildlife. History has been a witness to the measures adopted by rulers like Ashoka for the cause of conserving nature and wildlife. Traditional practices such as Sacred Grooves, Community Forests, Dev ban etc., and communities like Bishnoi have been shining examples. The success story of tiger conservation by increasing their numbers to nearly 3000, creation of national parks and wildlife sanctuaries are the true reflection of concern for the policies of conservation in India. Enactment of Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 exclusively for the protection of wildlife is an exemplary step towards commitment for wildlife conservation. At the same time, I believe lack of matching logistics, infrastructure and manpower are a matter of great concern to ensure scientific management, strict protection and law enforcement.
Q: Why do you think we fail at the first level of duty- guarding the forest territories (including sanctuaries)? Shortage of staff is often offered as an excuse, but do you think a better guard can be done with the involvement of the tribal population as well as by appointing honest rangers?
No. I don’t think that we have failed at guarding the forest territories including protected areas. Although the fear of law has helped the department to guard the forest territories, the issue of unclear boundaries is lauded time and again from many places. Wrong practices of land consolidation department and dependency of forest department over revenue department has contributed more for existence of this issue. Apart from this, we have failed to address the issue for want of political leadership also. At the same time, an open challenge to all the concerned to work out the ergonomics of guarding the forest territories and cross-checking the requirements with the actual deployment of the required forces would give better insight into this issue. Shortage of staff is unjustifiable fact as the available and capable staff has not been put on duty in required places. More staff is required to be deployed in forested areas and Protected Areas in comparison to the non-forested areas. This argument is more pertinent in the context of weak policy support to strengthen the frontline forest forces in terms of increasing number and capacities. Although it is universally accepted that forest department has to work in coordination with forest dwelling communities to ensure better guarding of forests, requirement of honest officials cannot be ruled out. Ironically, shortage of staff is not an excuse but an unaccepted truth. Perhaps, the whole society, bureaucracy and policy makers have conveniently overlooked the fact that the duty of the frontline forest forces is not bound to eight hours a day. The day eight-hour duty policy is implemented, the staff strength of the FFF would be increased threefold.
Q: The most significant professional contributions by you in the field of forest and wildlife conservation?
While serving as Deputy Conservator of Forest, the most challenging areas to perform are encroachment eviction, controlling illicit felling, poaching, and mining as these are organized crimes. I have been fortunate to accept few challenges of this nature. My involvement in controlling illegal mining in Hamirpur and in elephant reserve in Shiwaliks; controlling poaching in Hastinapur wildlife sanctuary and in Shiwalik elephant reserve; eviction of encroachment in Muzaffarnagar area, Hastinapur WLS, and in Shamili; busting of poaching gangs in Bijnor, and curbing illegal turtle trade in various parts of Uttar Pradesh are some contributions that gave me good professional experience too. As a Conservator and head of Wildlife Crime Control Unit of UP, I got opportunity to solve two elephant poaching cases in Bijnor district and to control illegal trafficking of turtles for pet and meat. The case of elephant butchered into pieces after being shot in January 2018 was closed down for want of evidence in June 2018. This case was the first assignment of this unit which was reopened in August 2018 and successfully solved resulting in recovery of buried and hidden body parts of butchered elephant and arrest of 17 persons. Similarly another case of a tusker being mysteriously electrocuted was also busted, resulting in the arrest of two offenders. Some 8,000 live turtles, which were illegally being trafficked from UP for consumption in West Bengal, were rescued in 2018 in various parts of Uttar Pradesh. A very well planned and executed raid in Bijnor in 2018 resulting in seizure of around 56,000 brushes and 165 kg of raw hair of mongoose was well appreciated by all media, senior officials and UPSC aspirants. The episode of mutation of 3500 ha of land belonging to Hastinapur wildlife sanctuary and taking possession of around 2000 Ha along with lakhs of tonnes of sugarcane and hundreds of quintals of wheat grown illegally on these land was a milestone achievement and a great example of team work of contemporary SP and DC of Muzaffarnagar and myself. This operation resulted in regaining hundreds of Ha of swamp deer habitat apart from revenue to state government by auctioning the illegally grown crop. The encroachment eviction on six reserve forest lands in villages of Shamili by the refugees of the Muzaffarnagar communal disturbances was very tactful as the land grabbing strategy was supported by the invisible faces who patronize the refugee camps too. Further, the sensitivity of human rights, social disturbances, permanent and semi-permanent constructions and media hypes added additional challenges to the already poor staff strength and infrastructure. The precedence set by the honourable Supreme Court and CEC were guiding forces in legal eviction and possession of these RF lands. I still remember safeguarding the boulders inside the RF kept me keep and my staff on our toes, especially during night hours. The Betwa and Yamuna, encompassing the district headquarters of Hamirpur also offer huge scope for sand mining. Thousands of trucks passed through the Betwa Bridge in the beginning of my career as DCF. It was a real challenge as river bed mining vanishes soon after water flows over it. Unclear boundaries of forest blocks make them more vulnerable .
Q: Also throw some light on the most trafficked species and the methods adopted by criminals. How many of them have been penalised or sent behind bars till date?
Today pangolin is the most trafficked animal as indicated by the number of global seizures. The animal is trafficked for its meat, skin and scales. The young ones are reportedly used to make soup in certain parts of the globe. The animal is tortured to death and boiled in water for extraction of scales and removal of skin. There have been numerous seizures and many culprits arrested in India.
Q. Recent trend in wildlife crime observed?
It is observed that wildlife cyber crime is surging. In most cases, youth have been found involved in misusing social media platforms and online trade portals for illegal trade of wildlife contraband and wildlife pets. Operation Wildnet series has been launched by the WCCB to tackle the issues regarding wildlife cyber crime. The WCCB has been appreciated by the Interpol, SAWEN and CITES secretariat for this innovative approach and we have bagged Asia Enforcement Award 2021.
Q. Any recent thrilling experience after joining the WCCB?
The WCCB is a multi-disciplinary intelligence body that offers huge scope to get involved in combating organized wildlife crime. Being trans-national in nature, wildlife crime demands the WCB officials to consistently coordinate with state forest and police forces, apart from paramilitary forces and border guarding agencies, including the customs, apart from the agencies working outside India. After joining as Regional Deputy Director of the Northern Region at New Delhi, I got a chance to spearhead the first ever pan-India operation of the WCCB-- the ‘Operation Clean Art’ in 2019 leading to arrest of 49 people and recovery of around 55000 brushes and 113 kg of raw hair of mongoose in simultaneous raids in UP, Himachal Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and Rajasthan. The first ever intelligence-led simultaneous operation of WCCB on January 30 this year in Manwal of Jammu and Anantnag of Kashmir led to recovery of 13 leopard hides, 38 bear gall bladders, 4 musk pods and leopard bones for which at least 13 leopards, 38 bears and 4 musk deer must have been poached. This was special for me as this was the first operation of WCCB in the sensitive valley and one among the significant seizures in India. Each day there is a new challenge with job profile varying from collecting intelligence, collating with the data base, sharing intelligence with all relevant agencies, coordinating enforcement, assisting wildlife case investigations, organizing capacity building training programmes for frontline enforcement officials, sensitizing the state forest and police forces, apart from paramilitary forces and border guarding agencies and customs working at exit points, coordinating with international intelligence and enforcement agencies and organizing sensitization programmes.