Poacher king in jail, queen rules - Animal skin smugglers on a roll

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  • Published 27.10.06

Sansar Chand, the man accused of killing more tigers than anyone else in the country, is behind bars, but his clan of animal skin smugglers is still on the prowl.

Sixteen months after his dramatic arrest from a Delhi hideout, the probe into a recent tiger skin seizure has thrown up the name of Rani Saini, Chand’s first wife.

Last week, forest guards at the Katarnighat sanctuary in Bahraich, 175 km from Lucknow, arrested six persons allegedly involved in a conspiracy to kill tigers.

The skin of many animals, a map of the reserve and documents suggesting plans to smuggle the items were found.

“During interrogation, Pai Devi, the lone woman member of the gang, revealed that in the absence of Chand, Rani was running the network,” Mohammad Ahsan, chief wildlife warden of Uttar Pradesh, told The Telegraph.

Pai is the wife of Barbara Pratap, one of the arrested members of the group, based in Haryana’s Hissar.

She gave forest officers some idea of how Chand’s network has been expanded, but Ahsan would not give away the information because it might weaken the investigation.

“The accused are being interrogated thoroughly to get further details. In fact, following the statement of Pai, some more arrests have been made and incriminating documents have been seized,” said R.K. Pandey, Bahraich’s divisional forest officer who led last week’s swoop.

Five tigers went missing from Katarnighat, a 400-sq-km swathe of Terai forests along the Indo-Nepal border, in the past few months, setting off the hunt that led to the arrests.

“Being very close to the Nepal border, the gang might be smuggling the booty into that country,” said Ahsan.

On June 30 last year, Delhi police’s crime branch had nabbed Chand, known as the “Veerappan of north India”. The arrest followed a CBI probe that had started under instructions from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh after his visit to the Sariska reserve, where Chand was the prime suspect in the disappearance of tigers.

Chand had been preying on wildlife since he was 12, when he joined his uncle in smuggling animal skins. His first conviction came at the age of 16. The second and last time he was convicted was in a case in Bhilwara, Rajasthan, in January 2003. In the strictest punishment ever awarded under the Wildlife Act, Chand was sentenced to five years in jail in April 2004. Three weeks later, he was granted bail. After that, he vanished.

Chand went untamed for long also because his key accomplices were often part of his family. Delhi police’s crime branch has identified 36 such members in his gang.

Rani, a small-time Delhi politician, was also arrested and sent to jail after being accused in a seizure of leopard parts in October 2004. She is out on bail, sources said.

Chand’s gang was always known to have a woman, who wore the animal skin like a petticoat to smuggle it out of a forest. Almost a courier, she would often travel in packed general compartments to avoid being noticed.

In Katarnighat, too, it was the presence of Pai that raised the guards’ suspicion about Chand’s possible involvement.