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Too poor to pay for tip-offs, stay dumb

- Wildlife at risk without forest intelligence

Ranchi, March 3: Jharkhand’s wildlife protection mechanism has a glaring gap in the form of an absent informer network, with forest officials getting delayed information and almost no tip-offs, foiling any preventive action to save endangered animals across seven key sanctuaries from poachers.

When forest officials stumbled on an elephant carcass on February 11, 2013, in Saranda on the Jharkhand-Odisha border, there was no way of telling how long the animal lay dead. In the absence of informers, foresters received no tip-off about the attack on the elephant.

In February 2012, a tusker in Dalma was found dead, his tusks chopped off, and a leopard skin seized from Palamau Tiger Reserve (PTR) a couple of months after poachers killed the animal. Between February 2012 and 2013, the state forest department couldn’t get its act together to put in place an intelligence network to collect tip-offs or warnings beforehand.

For a state that boasts important sanctuaries — Dalma, Palamau, Palkot (Gumla), Topchanchi (Dhanbad), Hazaribagh, Udhuwa and others — no intelligence network is suicidal. More so, when the state has habitats of the Indian elephant (Elephas maximus indicus) and Royal Bengal Tiger (Panthera tigris tigris), both classified endangered by International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

How the lack of intelligence network hinders wildlife protection is plain to the eye. Foresters don’t come to know the bad news. So often, poaching or smuggling of animal parts or logs or even rebel movement goes unchecked. Authorities come to know something is wrong only when surveys reveal the shockers.

For example, PTR had 38 tigers around 2000-01. Now, it has eight or 10 big cats left. Bear and chital deaths at PTR also occur often, but no one knows why.

Panna National Park, Madhya Pradesh, which has a tiger reserve, reportedly also has a top-notch yet low-key intelligence network. It had informed PTR officials that poachers from Madhya Pradesh had sneaked inside Jharkhand.

In Maharashtra, too, there are Van Patils or forest guards/protectors and secret funds for foresters.

“Jharkhand doesn’t have anything,” rued a senior PTR official who didn’t want to come on record.

“PTR, in many ways the state showpiece, receives Rs 12,000-Rs 15,000 a year to develop its forest intelligence network. It’s too meagre to even maintain one agent. Naturally, poachers have an edge over us. They can bribe forest dwellers with huge money to seek their help in trapping a prized catch. Why will anyone give us tip-offs?”

There is also a strategic error in the government’s bureaucratic way of thinking.

“The details of funds spent on intelligence have to be submitted to the state. If we pay certain amount to an informer, we have to furnish his or her details in the report. What if names are leaked? Aren’t their lives at stake? In 2004-05, two persons who tipped us off about illegal trade were killed. Forget cash, we can’t guarantee even safety,” said the official.

Last year, in a lucky break, when forest reserve officials got to know about the leopard skin, they had to spend about Rs 50,000, informer payment and vehicle charges inclusive.

“Imagine how tough it was for us to manage the sum. But we couldn’t allow the smuggling to proceed. We managed by chipping in some money from our pockets and sourced from some funds,” the official said.

It is the same story at Dalma sanctuary, which gets Rs 15,000-Rs 20,000 a year for intelligence network. DFO Kamlesh Pandey conceded the funds were a pittance. “We try to maintain a network of informers based on personal relations. We organise awareness camps, activities to help forest dwellers build a rapport with us and help us in conservation,” said Pandey.

Principal chief conservator of forests (wildlife) S.N. Trivedi has joined only last week so it is too early for him to comment on the issue.

But wildlife veteran D.S. Srivastava minced no words. “When it comes to Jharkhand, the less said the better. Funds never come on time, more than 80 per cent posts of forest officials, trackers and guards are vacant, there is no functional wildlife research wing to track crimes and or give advice on conservation. It is truly jungle raj,” he said.

For consolation, Jharkhand can perhaps look at Assam where rampant rhino poaching has made a mockery of the forest department.