| A newborn rhino with its mother at the Kaziranga park
London, May 5: Poachers are hunting down animals in Kaziranga National Park in Assam not for personal profit, as happened in the past, but to raise substantial funds for Islamic militant groups linked to al Qaida, according to a disturbing report published today.
Two Guardian reporters, Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark, penetrated the thick forests in Assam and spoke to some of the alleged poachers who said they were taking orders from militants and mosque leaders based across the border in Bangladesh.
The report, headlined “Poaching for Bin Laden”, said that “in the jungles of India, local animal trappers have a new breed of client: Islamic militants using the trade in rare wildlife to raise funds for their cause”.
Kaziranga has started attracting many more tourists since the national park, founded by Lord Curzon at the behest of his wife, celebrated its centenary in 2005.
As The Telegraph reported at the time, Lord Ravensdale, then 82 and grandson of Lord Curzon, India’s Viceroy from 1898 to 1905, attended the function with his wife, Verity.The Guardian pointed out that “Kaziranga — 429 sq km of forest, sandbanks and grassland — was recognised by Unesco in 1985 as a world heritage site. Tourists come in their thousands to glimpse some of the 480 species of bird, 34 kinds of mammal and 42 varieties of fish, many rare, endangered or near extinct, that inhabit this remote jungle.”
But the Guardian also warned: “In recent times, however, the wildlife has attracted a new kind of visitor. According to India’s security services, police, intelligence analysts, local traders and forestry officials, Islamic militants affiliated to al Qaida are sponsoring poaching in the reserve for profit. These groups have established bases in the formerly moderate enclave of Bangladesh and have agents operating all along the country’s porous 2,500-mile border with India.”
It also said: “They have gone into business with local animal trappers and organised crime syndicates around Kaziranga in a quest for horns, ivory, pelts and other animal products with which to raise ‘under the wire’ funds that they can move around the world invisibly. A shipment worth £2.8m was recently intercepted by UK customs.”
The two intrepid reporters followed a complex and dangerous trail, which took them to the alleged poachers and the various agents and middlemen involved. They concluded that “radical Islamists from Bangladesh have done what conservationists had long predicted and moved in on the endangered species racket”.
The gangs hired to trap and kill in Kaziranga are said by forestry staff to camp on the vast sand bars created by the flow of the Brahmaputra river. Initially, when crossing the river, the reporters were threatened by “people who look more like Saharan Touaregs than Assamese” and who screamed and waved hunting rifles.
One man, with “an unidentifiable animal claw” in his pocket, told the reporters: “We are for hire.”
The man explained how the trade was coordinated by agents across Assam — “Golaghat, Tezpur, Kamrup, Nagaon, these are the main places for agents.”They answered to a boss based in Dimapur in neighbouring Nagaland — “but everything tends to collect and move through Siliguri”.
Asked who were the masters, one replied: “Bangladeshis dominate the network now.”
The trail led to nearby Tezpur, where the wildlife trade agent turned out to be a rich local jeweller, but he was tight-lipped and referred the reporters to his boss in another town. This boss, who ran a local hotel, referred the reporters to an even bigger boss in Siliguri.
And the latter, when the reporters finally confronted him, admitted he was a haulier: “I move a lot of everything: elephant ivory, cat skins, musk deer, bear gall bladders, rhino horn, live leopard cubs that are sent to Nepal, Burma and then into Thailand. The prices we pay are so low, the profit margins are healthy.”
The wildlife trade in Siliguri took off in 1983, he said, when old trafficking networks in Calcutta were effectively shut down by the police.
The business was now masterminded from Bangladesh, confirmed the man: “Religious men hold the purse strings now.”It all began two years ago.
The haulier disclosed: “A friend in common at a local mosque (in West Bengal) passed me a message saying representatives working for two militia groups in Bangladesh wanted a meet in a madarsa in Siliguri.”
Three of those who claimed to have been at the meeting two years ago said they knew exactly whom the agents worked for in Bangladesh: al Mujahideen, an obscure jihadist umbrella organisation governing a panoply of militant groups that had sprung up in Bangladesh in recent years.
Two in particular, both banned by the Bangladeshi government, were in need of money and “eager to get into the racket”. One was Harkat-ul Jihad-al Islami, allegedly linked to al Qaida; the second was Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh, whose leader, Shaikh Abdur Rahman, had joined Osama bin Laden’s World Islamic Front for the Jihad Against the Jews and the Crusaders in 1998.
The latter was captured in Bangladesh and in March was hanged for the killing of two Bangladeshi judges and for nationwide bombings in 2005.
Another Siliguri trader told the Guardian: “This was a Chinese business but now it’s Bangladesh’s business. It’s become God’s work. And, as you know, the Prophet, peace be upon his head, is irresistible.”