Following a tip-off about sandalwood smuggling, a team from Pune Rural Police chased a tempo for over 7 km on the Pune-Ahmednagar Road on Monday midnight, only to find the vehicle’s carrier area empty. The cops were, however, in for a surprise find: a hidden compartment in the tempo, in which nearly 190-kg smuggled sandalwood was being transported.
The Local Crime Branch (LCB) of Pune Rural Police, which found the stash on the intervening night of Monday and Tuesday, has now launched a probe into a possible sandalwood smuggling racket operating in Pune and adjoining districts.
The tip off-was received from informants of LCB Inspector Padmakar Ghanwat, about a tempo heading towards Ahmednagar, in which sandalwood blocks were being illegally transported.
A police team from the LCB laid a trap on Pune-Ahmednagar Road from Monday night. After a while, the police team realised that the licence number of the vehicle, as shared by the informant, was slightly wrong and the suspected vehicle had already passed. The team immediately gave chase.
As the driver of the tempo truck realised that police were tailing him, he tried to give them the slip. But after a hot pursuit of around 7 km, police finally intercepted the vehicle.
To the LCB team’s initial disappointment, the carrier area had just a mattress in it. But after sustained questioning, the driver, Suraj Ubale (24), spilled the beans and showed the police a hidden compartment under the carrier area. The compartment was constructed by making a part of the carrier floor removable and installing a tin box beneath.
The compartment had 190 kg of good-quality sandalwood, worth Rs 20 lakh. Police subsequently placed the driver of the tempo, who was transporting the blocks, under arrest and launched a probe into the case. Good-quality sandalwood is worth Rs 10,000 to 15,000 per kg, depending on the grade.
Speaking to The Indian Express, Inspector Ghanwat said, “Based on this seizure, we have reasons to believe there is an organised sandalwood smuggling ring behind it. Most of the times such sandalwood is stolen, illegally felled and then sold to factories extracting oils for various purposes, including for making cosmetics or incense sticks etc. We are now working on various leads that have come to the fore… we are sure of making further headway soon and zeroing in on the main operators.”
The seizure was done under the supervision of Pune Rural Superintendent of Police Abhinav Deshmukh, and by a team led by Inspector Ghanwat, which comprised Assistant Inspector Pruthviraj Tate, Sub-Inspector Amol Gore, Assistant Sub-Inspector Dattatray Giramkar and constables Mangesh Thigale, Akshay Navale and Prasannajeet Ghadage.
Explaining the modus operandi of how sandalwood is smuggled, particularly in western Maharashtra, Rohan Bhate, a member of the Wildlife Crime Control Board, said, “Sandalwood trees growing anywhere — whether private land, government land or forest land — come under a set of legislation when it comes to cutting and transporting. We need to understand, only the inner core of the trunk, a couple of feet above and below the ground, are the valuable parts of the tree. For cutting and transporting a sandalwood tree, a permission from the Forest Department and transit permit is required. There are gangs active across the state, which chop off and steal the valuable parts of trees that they find in farms, bungalows, house premises or various types of forest areas. These chopped parts are then smuggled and sold to oil extraction units or other factories. These gangs, many times, have criminal elements associated with them. Coordinated efforts from police, forest department and awareness among people is needed to put a check on these illegal activities. Illegal cutting, transport and unauthorised sale of sandalwood is punishable under the Indian Forest Act and Maharashtra Forest Rules.”
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