Siliguri, Feb. 12: In one of the biggest hauls in recent times, Matigara police last evening seized leopard and otter pelts worth more than Rs 50 lakh, blowing the lid off a “thriving cross-border animal trafficking trade”.
Acting on a tip-off, police officials intercepted an Ambassador at Medical More, with a cache of 20 “full-grown” leopard skins and 19 otter hides stashed in gunny bags in the boot of the car. Twenty-five-year-old Prahlad Niraola, said to be from Nepal, and his Indian accomplices Tapan Sarker and his wife Archana, as well as the driver of the vehicle, have been arrested.
“Though Prahlad possessed a voter identity card issued by the Election Commission of India, we have reason to believe he is a Nepal citizen and only a pawn in an organised Nepal-based cartel dealing in animal parts,” said additional superintendent of police Rajeev Mishra.
Breaking down during interrogation, Niraola confessed that he carried out a similar operation last week.
Revealing the modus operandi of the cartel, Mishra said the gang used Siliguri as a transit point for trade in animal parts.
“Going by inputs given by the trio during questioning it seems the gang uses the Siliguri-Matigara and Naxalbari-Panitanki-Kakkarvitta routes to send consignments to the gang’s Kathmandu hideout,” Mishra added.
“It is unlikely that the animals were poached from this region alone. This is the handiwork of a large organised gang of poachers, which operates in the forest belt stretching from Uttar Pradesh to Assam. The sheer number of skins suggests that the poachers must be operating over a large forest belt. The poachers must have collected the skins from other forests and the consignment was possibly on its way to being shipped into Nepal,” forest officials said.
“Leopard skins fetch as much as Rs. 1.5 lakh apiece. Otter skins are popular with Tibetan Buddhists who use it to make drums for religious ceremonies,” said Darjeeling divisional forest officer (wildlife) Raju Das.