A bad workman, it is said, finds fault with the tools. This seems to be true of the environment and forest ministry when it comes to wildlife conservation. Unable to check the rise in wildlife crime and the illicit trade in wildlife products, the ministry has put the blame on the Wildlife Conservation Act, 1972, which, it feels, is not stringent enough to deter criminals. It has, therefore, come out with a draft Bill to amend this statute, and hike steeply the penalties for wildlife-related misdeeds, the idea being to raise the economic cost of committing wildlife crimes. This is fine, but the cost of a crime becomes an effective deterrent only if the perpetrators are caught and convicted. This is not usually the case; wildlife activists reckon that the conviction rate is as low as 1 per cent. Even when notorious wildlife traders, such as Sansar Chand, are nabbed and convicted, the follow-up action to destroy their networks is usually found wanting. Little wonder then that the illegal trade in wildlife products continues to flourish. In value, it now ranks below only arms and narcotics.
Behind much of this trade are international gangs of criminals who run sophisticated networks. China is known to be a major destination for illegally procured wildlife products. But tigers and leopards are not the only animals sought after by poachers and smugglers. Going by the database of the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI), over 400 species of animals are on the hit list of wildlife criminals and traders. WPSI also claims (on its website) to have collected information about more than 14,000 wildlife criminals and their associates, wildlife traders, smuggling routes and the methods used for poaching.
The problem then goes beyond the law and its penalties. The problem cannot be dealt with without cooperation between the major forested states, on the one hand, and the countries where these gangs operate, on the other. Though the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, to which India is a party, should have come in handy, the accord is not being adhered to in its true spirit. On the home front, wildlife poachers who use sophisticated weapons and fast-moving transport, cannot be confronted with the outmoded guns and rickety vehicles that forest officers usually have. Besides, in most states a large number of posts of ward and watch staff lie unfilled. As for those who are on the rolls, the average age of forest guards is estimated by wildlife activists at around 50 years. But the most important factor is that wildlife habitats are shrinking, forcing animals to venture outside the core forest areas and become easy targets for poachers. Unless all these issues are suitably addressed, merely giving more teeth to the Wildlife Act will be meaningless