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An overview of Poaching as an Environmental Crime

Written by: Nimish Raja - 3rd Year, National Law Institute University, Bhopal, M.P
Patent laws
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  • Since last two decades environment has been a serious agenda at national as well as international level. Environmental crimes ie the crimes manipulating our environment inter-alia involves air pollution, water pollution, and the illegal transportation, storage, and disposal of hazardous waste, which causes most serious threat to public health and natural resources. One of such serious crimes is ‘poaching’ ie illegal wildlife trade. Because of its diverse origins, multiplicity of products, broad consumer base high-value/low-volume nature, poaching is probably the hardest area of environmental crime to control. This article analyses Poaching as an environmental crime and focuses on various incidences of poaching in India as well as in other counties and also discusses some suggestive measures to prevent it.

    Environmental crimes threaten the public health and natural resources of our nation. Just as the effective control of a stereotype street crime requires something more than increased risk of arrest, conviction, and imprisonment, so does the control of environmental crime require a more comprehensive approach, based on a wider array of institutions. The significance of this more expansive view of environmental crime control is reinforced by the fundamental changes, which began to occur in Western democracies about two decades ago with the Reagan ascendancies. A study by the U.S. Government concluded that environmental crime is one of the fastest growing areas of criminal activity with revenue of approximately $22 to 31 billion per year globally. In many areas of environmental crime profits are high and risks are low, and this allows gradually to develop a specialization in avoiding controls i.e. professional environmental criminals.

    Poaching as an Environmental Crime

    Destruction of wildlife can be caused due to either natural or human factors. Poaching is believed to be one of the main causes for the drastic decline in animal population on this land. Such destruction of wildlife due to human factors is called as ‘Anthropogenic Interventions.’ Today, nearly one-third of the world's wildlife is in danger of extinction and a major cause of which is its illegal smuggling-trade. Since it involves high-profit margins and low-risk of getting caught the animal-poachers find plenty of room to move. Many of these animals being taken from the wild are now worth more dead than alive.

    Within the wildlife trade, the activities can be divided into different heads namely,
    (i) Low-volume, low-value tourist cases;
    (ii) High-volume, low-value opportunist smuggling;
    (iii) High-volume, high-value smuggling by organized criminal networks, and
    (iv) Low-volume, high-value smuggle to order operations.

    Organised wildlife crime has the potential to destabilise countries, to undermine governments and to totally wipe out our endangered species. And the motive behind such crimes is always greed for high money.

    The U.S. is believed to be the largest consumer with illegal wildlife worth $1.4 billion entering the country every year. The skin of a tiger can fetch $900, a canine tooth goes for $125 and a claw brings $10, a tiger penis goes for $800. But the most popular parts are the bones. The bones are sold for $400 a kilogram with one tiger averaging 12 kilograms of bone. There are shops where you can choose the animals, which by, are not allowed to be sold. The animals include dried frogs, monkeys, antlers, and entire skins of black bears. It is a fact that, the more endangered a species is, the more valuable it is in the black market. The illegal trade in endangered species is estimated to be worth more than $5 billion per year in the U.S.

    The illegal wildlife trade takes place through very different distribution channels. Actually the restrictions at certain points along the international chains allow a classic organized criminal involvement in environmental crimes. This can be seen in case of cross-border smuggling groups, which specialize in avoiding border checkpoints. Such specialists very well know that how to take advantage of paper controls.

    Trade in illegal wildlife is a highly structured industry with large-volume, city-based groups supplying vehicles, steel traps, weapons and ammunitions to poachers, who often belong to traditional hunting communities. It is also the area where enforcement authorities have learnt to cooperate with the most success. Use of bribery and corruption to compromise the system, including the judicial process, is particularly clear in the case of tiger poaching in India and elephant killing in Africa. A series of violent attacks on law enforcement officials in Russia by caviar traders and the killing of Congolese forest officials by armed militia indulging in elephant poaching are only some examples that bear testimony to such organised crime.

    What does the Law Say?
    The Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 provides for the protection of wild animals, birds and plants and for matters connected therewith or ancillary or incidental thereto. Its Sec. 9 says, No person shall hunt any wild animal specified in schedule I, II, III, IV except as provided under sec. 11 and 12. The schedules I, II, III, IV provide a list of animals declared by our government as endangered species. While killing of Hares is a compoundable offence, killing a black buck, which is the state animal of Haryana and categorised in Schedule I of endangered species, will get seven years of rigorous imprisonment if the case is proved in a court of law. The India Penal Code also talks about environmental crime as a tort of nuisance.

    National Wildlife Action Plan, 2002-2016 provides for strategies and action points for wildlife conservation in today's context in order to protect India's long-term ecological security. The fine for poaching under U.S. law ranges from $2.60 to just $260. It's not illegal to possess protected wildlife, while a poacher can only be arrested if he's caught actually killing the animal. However at international level there are many conventions, such as Convention on international Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES); etc that provide to restrain the people from wildlife trading.

    Poaching Stories

    Organised poaching is the primary cause of decline in tiger populations in quite a few tiger reserves. Wildlife traders mastermind it in collaboration with local networks. The first sign of large-scale poaching of tigers dates back to August 1993, when 400 kg of tiger bones, eight tiger skins, and 59 leopard skins were seized in Delhi. In Delhi, there are more wildlife cases pending in the courts than in any other city; it is the base of known wildlife criminals such as Sansar Chand and remains the hub of the illegal wildlife trade. On January 31 this year came another shocking case, when Delhi police seized 39 leopard skins, two tiger skins, 42 otter skins, 60 kg of tiger and leopard paws, three kg of tiger claws, 14 tiger canines, 10 tiger jaws and other bones, and about 135 kg of porcupine quills. Four people were arrested, all related to or employed by Sansar Chand.

    Therefore, the question arises is that ‘what further evidence do we need that wildlife traders are operating with impunity?’
    The Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI), has documented the illegal killing of 719 tigers and 2,474 leopards between 1994 and 2006. Included in the total are 16 tigers killed by electrocution (a method now popular with poachers) over the past four years. Not included are mixed bags of claws, which would add further to the gruesome tally. Each dead tiger represents the loss of an extraordinary legacy and asset for our country. In addition to the Great Indian Bustard, three other bustard species found in India -- the Lesser Florican, Bengal Florican and the migratory Houbara Bustard -- are also under threat, say conservationists.

    The live animal trade, especially of rare and exotic varieties, is stimulated by market demand from collectors. A vicious circle thus operates: as a species becomes more endangered, its price increases and so does the profit. Trafficking of chimpanzees and parrots from Africa to Europe, Hyacinth Macaws from Brazil to the U.S., star tortoise from India to the Far East and Komodo dragons from Indonesia to Europe seriously threaten the survival of these species. The concealment of contraband in shipping containers, personal baggage and postal/courier packets is perhaps the most popular modus operandi. Misdeclaration of customs and airway bills facilitates the movement of many wildlife products including ivory, sea turtle meat and caviar. Trafficking of fur, reptile skins and other body parts of innumerable animals is also common.

    This alone can effectively counter the systematic onslaught of organized crime syndicates and save many species from the brink of extinction.
    Since January 1994, the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI) has collected data on the following number of tiger poaching cases and unnatural tiger deaths: 95 tigers known to have been killed in 1994 123 tigers killed in 1995 52 tigers killed in 1996 89 tigers killed in 1997 36 tigers killed in 1998.
    In October 2004 a London-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) reported the existence of well-organised syndicates trafficking tiger and leopard skins between India, Nepal, Tibet and China. In October 2003, customs officials in Tibet intercepted a record haul of 31 tiger skins and 581 leopard skins being trucked to the capital Lhasa. Networks of organized criminals gather skins and carcasses and smuggle them out of India using sophisticated techniques.

    In Russia, a series of violent attacks on law enforcement officials, by caviar traders and the killing of Congolese forest officials by armed militia indulging in elephant poaching are only some examples that bear testimony to such organised crime.

    Measures taken
    Wildlife criminals are bold and ruthless. And why shouldn't they be? Nobody seems particularly interested in catching them. During the 2005’s monsoon Sariska must have been a piece of cake for poachers to finish off, when there were no tourists in the park and virtually no patrolling. India has proved that it does not care about international concerns. Exasperated by India's sluggishness in enacting appropriate legislation, the CITES had recommended to suspend India from the Convention, however the suspension was later on withdrawn.

    However, the government spends huge sums on tiger protection, money that is spent largely on infrastructure and salaries for the 4,960 front-line forest staff in the 28 tiger reserves in 17 states. Officially, there are 1,576 tigers in these reserves, so there are more than three guardians per tiger. The current annual budget (2006-2007) for Project Tiger is Rs 28.50 crore. That comes to an astonishing account of something below Rs. 2 lakh ($5000.00) per tiger.

    The question here arises is that ‘why are these tiger reserves so vulnerable to poachers? Answer to it lies in the fact that though we have excellent wildlife laws, but they are not effectively enforced. Only a handful of people have ever been convicted for killing a tiger or trading in its parts, despite hundreds of pending cases. Even the big case of August 1993 in Delhi is still languishing in the courts. The reason behind such failure clearly is, that the money is not being spent effectively. The lack of accountability and independent audit are glaring lacunas. It is widely known that state governments are not releasing funds, nor are they filling posts or thoroughly investigating tiger deaths.

    Elephant ivory trade has long been disputed because of the excessive manner in which it is carried out. For several years in some African nations trade was continued at high rates with no checks or regulations related to elephant poaching. As a result, a ban was placed on ivory trade and elephants were categorized as an endangered species by CITES. For years poachers have killed elephants to retrieve their tusks and then trade locally or on the international market. Throughout the early 1990s illegal trade continued and in many nations poaching was on the rise, partly due to a decline in anti-poaching initiatives. The move comes amid warnings from both local wildlife experts as well as international agencies that India’s sanctuaries are ill equipped to cope with the threat of organised poaching and are poorly staffed and badly managed.

    Various conferences have been held in last few decades concerning about the fate of environment and the threat on environment as a result of human activities. The first ever such conference was held in Stockhom-Sweaden in 1972; then Rio Declaration in 1992; and the latest in 2000 in Johannesburg.

    The Way Forward
    The conventional approach of chance apprehension of traffickers will not protect our wildlife. What we need is a strategic offence based on thorough study and research. The paucity of information about the nature of the crime and the profiles of the criminals involved needs to be overcome by developing a reliable data bank at both the national and global level.

    In June 2005, on the banks of the river Saone, in the picturesque city of Lyon in southern France, over 100 representatives of 46 countries from all human inhabited continents congregated at the Interpol Headquarters to discuss the growing menace of environmental crime. They brought with them horror stories of the decimation of wildlife and the grave danger to enforcement officials. In particular, reports from India, Latin America and Africa of organised criminal networks ravaging forests by shooting, snaring, poisoning and electrocuting animals brought home the threat of organised trans-national wildlife crime. This also led to a renewed commitment to fight the persons behind the same and protect wildlife.

    Wildlife authorities believe that, in the case of Sariska, illegal poaching has been responsible for eliminating tigers from the area, and that villagers have played no small part in this. The plan, therefore, is to move the villages outside the boundaries of the two sanctuaries. While the Indian government has given the plan the go-ahead, the special tiger taskforce constituted by Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh to probe the country’s worst ever wildlife crisis, had suggested during a visit to Sariska that instead of shifting villagers from the forest they should be motivated to protect the tigers and their habitat. In a bid to save Ranthambore’s remaining tigers from poachers, a special task force appointed by the Rajasthan government recommends sealing off the park to outsiders. Meanwhile, the prime minister’s office has asked the Central Bureau of Investigation to probe the involvement of poachers in the disappearance of tigers in Sariska.

    Our environment is such a thing, which we cannot afford to abuse. But environmental criminals are doing just that. And in abusing the environment, what they put at risk is the health and safety of all of us. Poachers today are mostly the gangs of highly organised, selective and effective killers of the countryside. But it is viewed by many people as an acceptable crime, or even as not being a crime at all. If it is accurate that tigers have disappeared entirely from one of India’s premier tiger reserves then how much serious can it get.

    And therefore what is required on the part of our government is to frame out strategies and actions for wildlife conservation in today's context in order to protect India's long-term ecological security. Not only the government there must be a conscious effort by Media, NGOs and Educational Institutions. So an international ban on illegal wildlife trade is the only way to save the endangered animals.

    More Articles:
    Wild life Protection
    The Law And Animals
    Forest Management In India
    Poaching as an Environmental Crime
    Article 21 of the Constitution of India
    Environment Protection Laws in the British Era
    Role of PIL in Environmental Protection In India
    The Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972: An appraisal
    The Law And Animals: What To Do When You See Cruelty

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