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Saturday, January 25, 2020

Of tiger bones & rhino horns

On October 29, the Chinese government lifted its ban on the use of parts of endangered animals in medicine. The Sunday Express speaks to government officials and activists to gauge how the development could affect West Bengal’s rhinoceros and tiger populations.

Written by Esha Roy | Kolkata | Published: November 4, 2018 6:03:40 am
West Bengal has two reserves each for tigers and rhinoceroses

Days after China rescinded its ban on the use of tiger bones and rhinoceros horns in medicine, the wildlife department has issued a red alert across the state.

The 25-year-old ban had been put in place as the parts of the two endangered animals are widely consumed in China and several other countries in South East Asia.

Speaking to The Sunday Express, Chief Wildlife Warden and Principal Conservator Forests, West Bengal, Ravi Kant Sinha said, “After we came to know of this, we have issued a red alert across the state. For more concentrated action, however, the Centre has to issue an official warning since it is an international matter. West Bengal is a concern due to our proximity to three international borders. Siliguri is a major transit point for poached and illegal wildlife products because of its neighbours Bhutan, Nepal and Bangladesh. Kolkata, by virtue of its proximity to Siliguri, therefore becomes a major transit point for the whole country.”

Jose Louies of the Wildlife Trust of India said inquiries for supply have already started pouring into the country.

“I had an informant call me today to tell me he received calls saying demands from China have already started coming for tiger bones. Tiger bones are in high demand in China. They are soaked in wine for several years and then this wine is sold for medicinal purposes. The poaching of tigers is extremely organised. There are two major tribes — the Pardhis of Madhya Pradesh and the Banwariyas of Rajasthan-Haryana, are the two major tribes that carry out poaching of tigers in an organised manner. They travel to different parts of the country to carry out poaching. For rhinos, there are professional shooters employed from the North East, particularly from Nagaland, to carry out poaching. While both populations are doing relatively well now, the lifting of the ban is alarming…” said Louis.

Bengal’s reserves

Bengal has two tiger reserves and two rhino reserves.

“The number of tigers had diminished in Buxa due to various ecological and environmental reasons, which is why our department has begun the tiger augmentation programme by which tigers will be brought from Assam to the sanctuary. At the last count, we believe there are six tigers in Buxa. But we don’t have photographic proof. So officially, there are no tigers at the reserve,” said Sinha.

Bengal has two tiger reserves and two rhino reserves.

The Sundarbans, on the other hand, officially has 86 tigers which have been photographed and documented. “But according to our information, the actual number is 100,” said the chief wildlife warden, adding there has not been a single case of tiger poaching in the state in the past five years.

The state has two reserves for rhinoceroses, both of which are located in north Bengal — Jaldapara reserve had 240 rhinos at the last count while Gorumara had another 40.

Crime and punishment

There have been four cases of rhino poaching in West Bengal in the last five years — three in Jaldapara and one at Gorumara. Of the four cases, there have been convictions in two, leading to jail time for seven people. Five of the seven accused received the maximum punishment of seven years imprisonment while another two received three years each. In the remaining two cases, the accused have been arrested and investigations are ongoing, said officials.

“The rhino population has been on the rise in West Bengal. The poaching that has taken place here has been primarily because of the increased enforcement at Kaziranga (Assam), where several years ago, night patrolling was initiated and forest guards with automatic weapons were placed every 500 metres. Because of the increased protection, poaching gangs started coming to Bengal,” said an official at West Bengal’s Wildlife Crime Control Bureau. The officer added that for any such operation, at least 12-15 different specialists are involved.

“There is a specialist shooter hired, usually from another part of the country. Then there will be a spotter, someone who will track the rhino over weeks, a financier who will be based out of Siliguri, Kolkata or Guwahati and a carrier to name a few,” he added.

In the case of tigers, an increase in demand for their pelts led to the wiping out of their population in two of India’s reserves — Sariska and Panna Tiger Reserve. Dr Raghu Chundawat was the whistleblower in the case of Panna Tiger Reserve, alerting the government to the disappearance of the tigers.

“Between 2003 and 2004, we saw a spurt in demand for tiger skins,” said Chundawat. “The last time there was such a demand for tiger parts, in particular, tiger bone was in the late 80s and early 90s. After the demand resurfaced, as many as 25 of 35 tigers at Panna were poached. By 2009, the remaining 10 tigers died out. The tiger had become extinct at Panna. Sariska lost 20 tigers in 2004. The fact that China has lifted its ban shows that they were never really committed to the conservation of these animals.”

Repopulation efforts

Two initiatives taken by the Centre pulled the tiger population back from the brink, said Tito Joseph of Wildlife Protection Society of India.

“Since 2006… the Manmohan Singh administration brought in two initiatives which saved the tiger. The first was the setting up of a temporary tiger task force which looked at planning and bringing in initiatives. The second was the establishment of the National Conservation Act and the setting up of the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau in 2007,” he said. “One of the impacts of these two decisions was that from 28 tiger reserves in 2000, we now have 50 tiger reserves in the country which are thriving. With the Chinese decision, it puts the tiger and rhino population at risk… especially in north Bengal and Assam due to their proximity to international borders. The Chinese have tiger farms where they breed tigers for tiger wine. But wild tigers are cheaper than killing tigers on these farms, which puts our tigers at risk.”

Meanwhile, WCCB Additional Director Tillotama Varma said that only time would tell the impact of China’s decision. “We have strong enforcement in all states and have cooperation with other agencies such as DRI, Customs, state police and border security forces. China’s lifting of its ban is, of course, alarming, but we will have to wait and see what happens,” she said.

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