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Above: Uttarakhand has lost an alarming number of tigers to poachers in recent times/Photo: delhipedia.com

The Uttarakhand government seems to be looking the other way as poachers, hand-in-glove with forest officials, fabricate records and destroy evidence, even as the big cat population falls alarmingly

By Atul Chandra in Lucknow

The tiger reserves in Uttarakhand could be headed the way of the Panna Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh which had lost its entire tiger population by 2009. This fear could come true as, over 2016 and 2017 alone, Uttarakhand lost an alarming number of seven tigers and two leopards to poachers, with forest officials allegedly being accomplices. One report put the number of tiger and leopard deaths at 40 and 272, respectively, in the last two and a half years.

The Panna Tiger Reserve’s intelligence cell found that forest officials were equally responsible for the disappearance of tigers as they were in cahoots with poachers. Within a span of four years, the tiger count had dwindled from 25 in 2005 to nil. An inquiry by the National Tiger Conservation Authority in 2009 revealed that there were no tigers left in Panna.

A similar nexus is now at work in Uttarakhand where senior forest officials have been found helping poachers. They have even been accused of destroying and fabricating evidence. And with the government preferring inaction, the big cats, besides other wild animals, are fighting a losing battle for survival. The role of forest officials, who have been accused of concealing the serious crime of poaching, has also contributed to the question mark over the actual number of tigers and leopards in the reserve forests of Uttarakhand.

In the two almost back-to-back cases in the state, senior forest officials, who are meant to protect the big cats, have been indicted for their alleged role in poaching. And protecting the accused, it appears, are some bigwigs in the government, which is far from being alarmed by the situation.

About two years ago, on March 22, 2017, a team from the Dehradun forest division found bones, flesh and a leopard hide near the Motichur range of the Rajaji Tiger Reserve. Investigations by the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun, revealed that the flesh and bones belonged to two tigers and two leopards. An inquiry into the case by Manoj Chan­dran, chief conservator of forests, found that the director of the Rajaji Tiger Reserve, Sanatan Sonkar, 11 other forest officials, including an assistant conservator of forests, and some workers were involved in allegedly concealing and fabricating information about the poaching.

Chandran, who was the investigating officer in the case from June 2017 to January 2019, submitted his report to the state government and in the court of the chief judicial magistrate, Dehradun, on February 13 this year. His report also names two range officers, a government veterinary doctor and six other forest officials for “involvement, negligence, attempt to destroy evidence and fabricating information”. Their offences come under various sections of the Wildlife Protection Act, the Indian Penal Code and the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act.

Chandran is said to have stated in his report that “after receiving information on the poaching, Sanatan Sonkar allegedly forced his subordinates to frame a couple of social activists. He tried to hide evidence recovered from the spot”. As per the inquiry report, Sonkar’s crimes come under Section 107 (abetment), Section 201 (causing disappearance of evidence) and Section 202 (intentional omission to give information of offence) of the IPC.

According to media reports, Sonkar has refused to comment on the inquiry report as he had not “seen it”. He also reportedly dismissed the report, saying that “it has no meaning as Chandran was no longer the investigation officer”.

Besides his attempt to hide evidence, the charges against the assistant conservator of forests include torturing an informer of the forest department and keeping him in illegal confinement. He is alleged to have given the informer electric shocks and forced him to sign on a blank paper, all of which are serious offences under the IPC.

Uttarakhand’s principal chief conservator of forests, Jai Raj, told India Legal that Chandran’s report was being examined by the government. “Let us see what decision the government takes,” he said. When told of Sonkar’s reported remark that Chandran’s report had no meaning now that he was no longer the investigation officer, Raj said that the government has to explain the reason for removing Chandran from the case.

In a more damning report, Raj himself had charged none other than Uttarakhand’s former chief wildlife warden, Digvijay Singh Khati, and the former director of the Corbett Tiger Reserve, Samir Sinha, for “administrative laxity” which led to the poaching of five tigers in 2016. Raj had said in his report to the government that “it appears that on his (Khati’s) intimation the evidence was made to disappear. This proves his criminal intent”. This report was based on investigation into the recovery of five tiger skins and 136 kg of tiger bones from Haridwar’s Shyampur area on March 13, 2016.

In 2017, a PIL was filed in this poaching case by a trust—Operation Eye of the Tiger-India. The Uttarakhand High Court sought the government’s response and was told that a Special Investigation Team had been constituted to investigate the poaching case.

A division bench of Acting Chief Justice Rajiv Sharma and Justice Lok Pal Singh was not satisfied with the government’s reply and ordered the Addi­tional Chief Secretary (Forest) of Uttarakhand “to file supplementary affidavit by 23.08.2018 stating therein what action has been taken by the State Government on the letter dated 28.06.2018 [that is, Raj’s report], failing which, the matter may be referred to CBI, taking into consideration the seriousness/sensitivity of the matter, whereby five tigers were reported to have been killed by poachers and the evidence destroyed by the poachers and allegedly by forest officials”.

The High Court later ordered a CBI inquiry in September 2018. A month later, in October 2018, the agency began its investigation against unidentified officials of the state forest department and others for their alleged “criminal misconduct, complicity, involvement, collusion” in poaching and deaths of big cats in the hill state in the past five years.

The CBI was mandated to cover deaths and killing of tigers and leopards in protected areas of Joshimath, Rajaji National Park, Corbett Tiger Reserve, Pithoragarh, Haldwani, Almora and Kumaon ranges. While ordering the CBI inquiry, the Court said that there was enough material on record to show complicity, involvement and connivance of officials with poachers.

Raj said that the affected parties have got a stay on the CBI inquiry from the Supreme Court where the matter is now pending.

Uttarakhand is the biggest offender when it comes to following the guidelines of the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA)—the body overseeing tiger conservation in India. The guidelines say that tiger reserves have to maintain “a beat level ID file of each tiger, having collation of all available information including photographs, kill data and camera trap record” gathered through “a combination of telemetry, camera traps and pug marks”.

Last year, the Special Task Force (STF Wildlife Crime) of MP forest department booked four forest employees for allowing four of the seven persons allegedly involved in the poaching of blackbuck to move around freely.

But it is the tiger poaching that is a cause for concern. In 2008, the tiger count in the country had slid to 1,411, jolting the government into action. After sustained efforts, their numbers rose to 2,226 by 2014. According to World Wildlife Fund and Global Tiger Forum, the number of wild tigers increased to 3,890 in 2016.

However, with the increase in poaching cases, these numbers may see another round of decline, as happened in 2008, especially in Uttarakhand where the big felines are falling victim to the greed of individuals.

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