This has been a summer marked by intense political heat. I will stick my neck out and suggest that the new government must look towards Gujarat to draw some lessons in wildlife conservation. I write this from my first-hand experience of working with the Gujarat government in the infamous lions poaching case of 2007. This is one case that has no parallel in the history of wildlife crime investigations in India, and I feel proud to have been part of it. Let me recount the episode first.
In a period of one month between February and March 2007, some gangs of organised poachers from Madhya Pradesh had killed eight Asiatic lions in and around the Gir National Park in Gujarat. The case caused a furore in Gujarat and also in the wildlife conservation community in the country. So much so that the then chief minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, visited the area twice. In my two and a half decades on the job, I have not known any other instance of a CM visiting a poaching spot. He not only instructed the Crime Investigation Department to take over the investigation of the case, but made all resources available to the CID. The investigations were led by the then IGP of the CID, Keshav Kumar, who used conventional investigation techniques as well as modern technological interfaces to crack the case. J.M. Vyas, the director of the Gujarat Forensic Laboratory, also visited the crime scenes and deputed a team of 15 forensic experts, led by Deputy Director Dahiya, to assist the CID.
This team of experts meticulously collected samples for forensic analysis. In March, the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI) got a call from the Gujarat CID seeking assistance. Initially, WPSI Executive Director Belinda Wright helped the police and then put me on the case. We provided some clues regarding the possible appearance and features of suspects, on the basis of which the Gujarat police soon picked up a few suspects from Una and Girgadhada towns. The CID team recovered some SIM cards, phone numbers and one spring trap from them. The investigators collected dirt from the fingernails of the accused and sent it to the forensic laboratory in Gandhinagar, which found lion-blood traces in the dirt. The DNA matched that from lion parts recovered at the crime scene. This was the first breakthrough in the investigation.
We reconstructed each crime scene on the basis of inputs from the accused, as well as visible evidence. As we were doing this near Una, more lion poaching was reported from near Palithana. Meanwhile, Bhavnagar police detained 16 suspects who were about to board a train to MP. They were brought to Palithana for questioning. The case grew bigger by the day and soon, investigations spread to as many as five states and went on for almost 27 months till the CID arrested the last of the five absconders. The state was so committed to the case that on one alert, the CID used to mobilise and dispatch teams to nab culprits from as far as interior MP and Karnataka.
I believe the chief minister himself was monitoring the progress of the case regularly and extended support to the CID team. He mentioned the investigations frequently in his public speeches then, and rightly so. At no point in time did the Gujarat government make any attempt either to stifle the investigation or play down the number of lions killed by poachers. This was in sharp contrast to what has happened with many tiger poaching cases elsewhere that I have been witness to. Poaching cases generally end in acquittals as the investigations are mediocre. Not this one. After ensuring a thoroughly professional investigation, the Gujarat government went on to appoint special prosecutors at all levels up to the Supreme Court, resulting in conviction of all 39 accused.
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Today, Narendra Modi is seen as a champion of development and industrialisation. His choice for the minister for environment has surprised many conservationists, who fear that the new government will sacrifice forest and wildlife in the name of development. Though the minister has gone on record to assure otherwise, the fears are not unwarranted. It was not long ago that a well-known industrial house from Gujarat was allotted a coal block near the Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve of Maharashtra. Stiff opposition by conservationists and wildlife lovers made the government deny clearance to the mine.
One can only hope that Modi and his environment minister will not allow business houses to make fresh attempts to get clearances in critical areas, and the prime minister will show the same commitment to wildlife protection that he showed to the lions of Gujarat. All the more, since he is also now the ex-officio chairman of the Indian Board for Wild Life.
The writer is director, Central India, Wildlife Protection Society of India