| Rati Ram Sharma |
Guwahati, Oct. 9: There is a string of commonality that has got forest officials from the anti-poaching team on the Assam side of the border worried — one that could prove that rhino poachers who operate here in the state could actually have bases in neighbouring West Bengal and elsewhere.
The issue has come to light with a dreaded poacher, Rati Ram Sharma, who was arrested in Assam recently, revealing contacts in the neighbouring state, something that allowed him to operate with impunity even while he was out on bail.
Sharma is currently being held in judicial custody in Karbi Anglong.
According to sources here, Sharma, who has earned himself the epithet “Rhino Man”, is the kingpin of the illegal trade in animal products in eastern India.
“He is originally from Rajasthan,” sources here said. “Sharma not only buys off horns of rhinos felled by poachers but also gets the job done through various people. He is known to sell horns in Nepal, Bhutan and Myanmar for an estimated Rs 50 lakh each,” a source said.
With alarm bells ringing, Assam police have sent out messages to “all concerned” for further information on Sharma. Officials here believe that Sharma, 65, had set up base in Jalpaiguri in West Bengal. His arrest in the Niuland area in Nagaland’s Dimapur on September 28 was based on inputs from the police here, the sources said, adding that he was handed over to Assam police as he has cases pending in the state.
“We have sent messages to police forces of all states asking them to provide us information about him or his accomplices so that we can build a strong case,” the source said.
Sharma’s operations, despite his age, have baffled police officials.
In December 2002, the police while interrogating a person in connection with a rhino killing case came to know that Sharma was one of his buyers. This led to a raid in September 2003 by the Bokakhat wildlife division on a hotel in Tezpur. Sharma, however, escaped even as Jagmohan and Maya Devi, two of his associates, were apprehended. Sharma remained untraced for years after that.
It was in July 2006 that based on information received by forest officials from the Cooch Behar division regarding illegal trade in wildlife products, a raid was carried out in Jaigaon situated on the Indian side of the Indo-Bhutanese border. The man arrested was identified as Sharma. Following his interrogation, forest officials recovered a number of wildlife products including four leopard skins, 140 rhino skins and a skull as well as bones of tigers. Sharma further revealed that there were cases against him pending in Assam and Bengal.
After his conviction in 2006, he moved a bail plea and was subsequently granted bail by the Calcutta High Court, following which Sharma is believed to have returned to trading in wildlife products, to be arrested again, this time by the Karbi Anglong police in Dimapur in Nagaland on July 2, 2012. He was, however, again released on bail from Diphu court.
Wildlife workers are now hoping that Sharma is put away for his crimes.
“He should be dealt with under all legal options available, to ensure he is convicted under the amended provisions of the Wildlife Protection Assam Amendment Act, 2010,” said Bibhab Talukdar, secretary general of Aaranyak, a wildlife conservation organisation. Talukdar also chairs the Asian Rhino Specialist Group under the International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
The Five Rhino Range Countries of Asia — India, Nepal, Bhutan, Indonesia, Malaysia — had decided at a meeting in Indonesia last week decided that countries should raise red corner notices via Interpol for suspects operating across national boundaries.