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police, courts must act to protect our wildlife

Adv P & H High Court Chandigarh

At a juncture, when the Union Environment Ministry and conservationists are brain-storming about how to enhance protection of wildlife, especially endangered species such as tigers and leopards, the Supreme Court almost awarded bail to poaching kingpin Sansar Chand. In a Jaipur jail for the past four years for the crime of trading in banned animal parts and skins, his plea for bail was reported to have elicited a sympathetic hearing from the two-judge bench. It remarked that he deserved bail because he had "not killed men but animals". (Italics ours.) Then the recollection of his notorious past dawned upon one of the judges. The bench granted the Rajasthan Government four weeks time to file its response, and also allowed the Wildlife Protection Society of India and Wildlife Trust of India to file pleas against award of bail.

The previous year, the apex court had shockingly suspended the jail term of the habitual offender in August 2009. But, fortunately, he was not let out on account of numerous pending cases in trial courts. Over 40 cases relating to wildlife crimes have been filed against Sansar Chand, but he is said to have been convicted in only two. His criminal activities began in the mid-1980s. The man and his accomplices are an absolute menace, with CBI sources claiming that they controlled almost half of the illicit wildlife trade. The last time he was given bail was in mid-2004, a judicial decision that was to prove disastrous for the Sariska tiger reserve. On April 29, 2004, the Ajmer Government Railway Police arrested him. Though sentenced to a five-year prison term, his plea for bail was favourably heard by the Ajmer sessions court. He was let out of prison after about three weeks. Thereafter, he is charged with having engineered the poaching of Sariska's 22 tigers.

He was again arrested in June 2005, and has been in prison since then; and should continue to remain there for the sake of our depleting wildlife. Bheema, a suspected accomplice of Sansar Chand, was arrested in November by the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau. He had earlier been let out on bail in 2005 despite being charged in numerous cases. Clearly, the lax application of existing laws governing wildlife-related crimes is to blame for habitual offenders managing easily to get bail, and then resuming operations without worry. This is a comment not only on the police's handling of such cases but the judiciary's approach to them.

Now that Sariska reserve is struggling to rebuild its tiger population, with three big cats having been transferred from Ranthambore National Park, it needs to be emphasised repeatedly that Sansar Chand and others of his ilk should not be allowed to move about freely. Otherwise, these three tigers will also be targeted. In another disgusting instance of the ineptitude of wildlife custodians, and complicity of local people and guards in poaching, Panna reserve's tigers were all found to have disappeared. This fact came to light early last year. The whole administrative system in place in wildlife reserves and national parks needs an immediate overhaul, the existing one having failed miserably.

Most important, cases involving crimes and violations under the Wildlife Protection Act need to be treated as seriously by the police, Interpol and courts as the most heinous offences. The proposed amendment to the act spells out penalties. A first crime against critical species will be punishable by a jail term of five-seven years and fine of Rs 5 lakh. Subsequent offences of the same nature will invite a seven-year prison sentence and Rs 25 lakh fine. An offence relating to trade in critical species incurs a seven-year jail term and Rs 25 lakh fine. Subsequent offence, again linked to such trade, will be punished with a seven-year prison sentence and Rs 50 lakh fine. Penalties for trade and crimes related to other species are also detailed. Those allowing space and place to be misused for wildlife crimes also come under the ambit of this law.

But the best intentions, put down on paper, can only work if offenders are actually convicted of the crimes that they are accused of, and sentenced. The Sariska and Panna examples bear testimony to the freedom with which poachers and their accomplices operate under the very nose, so to say, of the directors and other personnel of sanctuaries and parks. Once caught, they should be tried and given exemplary punishment so that they abandon poaching and illicit trade. But the practice of giving them a reprieve betrays the reprehensible laxity both of the police and courts.





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