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On The Brink

Fading stripes in the North-East

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BODY BUSINESS: Due to excessive poaching, less than 120 tigers are said to be left in the wilds of the North-East. The returns are enticing. Just 10 gm of tiger bones sell for $200 in the international underground market

Trucks rumbling down NH-39 usually ferry rice and sugar along various points crisscrossing Manipur, Nagaland and Assam. But sometimes they carry deadly cargo on a highway that stretches right up to the Indo-Myanmar border town of Moreh - tiger parts that sell at jaw dropping prices in the Southeast Asian market.

It's risky business but the returns are too enticing. Just 10 gm of tiger bones sell for $200 in the international underground market. In the North-East, where tigers are known to have been traditionally hunted for meat, poachers can get up to Rs 2 lakh for killing a tiger. Just the skin will fetch you Rs 1. 5 lakh.

Decades of insurgency and relatively easy availability of arms has made the situation even more critical in the region. At least 50 insurgent groups operate in these parts and the lure of easy money draws many to tiger poaching. Corrupt government officials and a section of the police force complete the dirty circle.

On June 26, 2006, 30 kg of tiger parts were seized from police officer Dilip Kakoti's vehicle, says Moloy Baruah of Early Birds, a Guwahati-based wildlife NGO. Kakoti was coming from the Kalamati forest range in Sonitpur when he was intercepted.

Ideally, the mountainous North-East should have been a haven for tigers, the thick and distant forests sheltering the big cats, much like in the Sunderbans, from poachers. As it turns out, it is this remoteness which has made the animals doubly vulnerable.

Less than 120 tigers are left in the wilds of the North-East, but no one can be sure. Officials claim that at least 25 have been poached in the last five years. There's no telling how many have been trapped, poisoned, shot or butchered to satisfy the hunger for tiger parts in China, Vietnam and southeast Asia.

Though a proper assessment of the tiger population is yet to be done, it is estimated that till recently the Kaziranga national park in Assam had 100 tigers. The Wildlife Institute of India's 2008 census, however, says that only 70 tigers are left in the 1, 164 sq km forests of Assam. Arunachal Pradesh can boast of only 14 tigers and Mizoram six. These figures are hotly contested by conservationists, but everyone agrees tigers aren't burning bright anymore. Kaziranga, one of the best protected parks in India, lost 12 tigers in the last two years.

As long as the forests in other parts of India could feed this voracious hunger for tiger parts, North-East sanctuaries remained safe. But now that the tiger population elsewhere has severely depleted, poachers are turning to virgin territory. Rampant militancy in some pockets of the region has made patrolling difficult and access to guns easy. Proximity to the Myanmar border and a fragmented tiger habitat complete the formula for disaster. The 1, 463-km international border with Myanmar is indeed a worry. Only 52 km are manned by security forces and Nagaland, Manipur, Arunchal - all of which border Myanmar - have tigers in the wild.

Organisations tracking tiger crimes in India say poachers from the north have set up links with their counterparts in the North-East, dangling big money to the otherwise innocent traditional hunters of the region who gather and consume the meat of wild animals, including tigers. "It's happening in Nagaland and Arunachal. If a tribe kills a tiger now, it has the option of selling the parts. In January, there was a report that tribals in Namuk village in Arunchal consumed tiger meat and sold the skin to smugglers in Assam for Rs 1. 5 lakh, " says a reformed poacher.

Belinda Wright of the Wildlife Protection Society of India feels tigers are vulnerable everywhere. "Poachers are so desperate that they are willing to take any risk. At Kaziranga, the high density of tigers makes them vulnerable. They tend to stray out in their search for food and poachers are waiting for a chance to kill, " she says.
About 20 km from the Kumarikata reserved forest in Assam's Baksa district, is Darranga Mela, once a prostitution hub and now the heart of wildlife trade in the country. "There is a healthy tiger population in the forests of Bhutan along the international border. There is every possibility of poachers hunting them and selling their parts at Darranga Mela, " says wildlife expert Anwaruddin Choudhury.

There is telltale evidence of how Dimapur (Nagaland ) runs the trade. Two consignments of tiger bones, seized between June 16 and 20 in Guwahati this year, were couriered by one 'Peter' of Bank Colony in Dimapur. The packages were meant for 'K Singh' of Khagenpally in Imphal West of Manipur and were headed for Moreh. But the tiger bones had to be re-routed via Guwahati because of the recent highway blockade in Manipur. The parts were later confiscated at the airport. Very little is known about other smuggling routes, such as Noklak-Tobu in eastern Nagaland.

Local businessmen are also keen for a share. They often goad poachers to venture into the jungles of Bhutan to hunt tigers. Mahajan, a reformed poacher, admits to killing two tigers between 1995 and 2000 and selling the skins for Rs 45, 000 each. The bones were sold at Rs 80 per kg to Dadul Das, a trader in Barpeta district of Assam. Interestingly, Das later shifted base to Darranga Mela. "Adjoining villages here are now active hubs of poachers, " he says, wondering if his fight will ever be enough to save the tigers he once killed.

THE BIG BAZAAR

The North-East's rich biodiversity is turning out to be its nemesis. Every day, hundreds of species are hunted to meet the demand in the international market. The global trade volume of wildlife parts is about $12 billion, second only to narcotics. From insects to mammals, birds to bats - everything that crawls, moves or flies is on the hunting list.

The eastern Himalayas, Patkai-Naga hills, Lushai hills, and the Brahmaputra and Barak plains are home to a profusion of diverse life forms and with a huge platter to choose from, poachers are not after rhinos and tigers alone. Himalayan black bears, mongooses, otters, valuable medicinal and aromatic plants, turtles, butterflies, owls - virtually every species of plant and animal life is under threat. Some are sold in the country's grey market, most are smuggled out to southeast Asian countries.

In June 2008, a German couple was nabbed collecting beetles from the Thembang Bapu Community Conserved Area in Arunachal Pradesh. Later, two Czechs - one of them a well known entomologist - were arrested at Srikhola (Darjeeling) for possessing 500-odd beetles.

The latest trend is owl smuggling, used in black magic and alternative medicines. Each owl fetches Rs 200 to Rs 1000 locally, but by the time it reaches the buyer, it is many times more expensive.

On June 19, the seizure of a single consignment yielded 146. 8 kg of pangolin scales at Guwahati railway station. Last year, 482 kg of pangolin scales along with 10 bear glands and a huge amount of rhino bones were seized by Assam Rifles. In 2008, cops in Manipur seized 75 kg of elephant tusks, trunks and jaw parts, deer skin and antlers.

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