By V.N. Balakrishna, IANS
Ahmedabad, Dec. 16, 2008 | It was a macabre serial crime. Ten killings in over a month and the killers had melted away in the darkness of the dense jungle. But a dogged Criminal Investigation Department of Gujarat Police that probed the killings of 10 Gir lions was able to crack their first wildlife case, using conventional forensic methods, and nab the criminals.
In early 2007, in a span of 35 days 10 lions were killed in three different incidents in the sprawling Gir wildlife sanctuary in western India. “Only two claws were recovered,” says Keshav Kumar, Inspector General of Police, Prisons, who prosecuted the case.
“After a lacklustre probe by the forest department, the CID Crime was called and I was asked to head the probe,” Kumar, who had served for four long years in CID Crime, told IANS.
“There were many firsts to the case. It was a wildlife crime investigation case that was given to the police CID Crime to investigate. None of the accused was released on bail until conviction – a national record as in most wildlife crime cases bail is granted within 15 days,” said Kumar.
In October, 20 people, including three women, were sentenced to three years’ imprisonment along with Rs.10,000 fine each for poaching lions in the Gir forest of Gujarat.
It was a rare conviction for wildlife crime in India by the court of a Senior Division Judicial Magistrate First Class of Junagadh.
Speaking to IANS about his experiences in handling the wildlife crime, Kumar said, “When I began I knew nothing about wildlife crime though I had 23 years’ expertise in solving conventional crimes with orthodox police training. I therefore sought the help of wildlife crime investigation experts, wildlife NGOs and expert help from the forensic lab.”
“It was then that I contacted Belinda Wright, who heads the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI). She told me to focus on hazel-eyed Baheliyas, a tribal community of Madhya Pradesh, that specializes in poaching activities at an all India level.”
“But how was I to recognise a Baheliya? Belinda told me that foul smell emanated from these people as they rarely took bath and usually pitched tents on the roadside selling exotic herbs. Their womenfolk looked different in ghaghras (full length skirts). She said they hid their instruments in potholes dug behind the tents,” Kumar said.
“My early focus was in Junagadh and my team picked up 55 suspects in the Junagadh Range… It was also for the first time that blood splatter analysis was done to reconstruct the scene of crime,” Kumar said.
He was given a full forensic team and deputy director who camped with him in the jungle for 15 days. It soon paid off.
“From Baheliya women in custody we found two lion claws. There was lion blood in the finger nails of their menfolk. The claws, the clothes and other things were sent to the forensic lab. I prepared the case systematically,” Kumar said.
As the case progressed the defence wanted bail on grounds of the accused being very poor.
“Baheliyas are known to jump bail and they cannot be traced as they are nomads,” Supreme Court lawyer Sudhir Mishra, appointed legal consultant for the case, told the apex court.
“I too pointed to the court that lion’s blood was found on the finger nails of the Baheliyas and further investigation is on, including polygraph and narco-analysis. The bail was cancelled. It was for the first time all lower courts and session courts had rejected their bail applications,” Kumar said.
Why did the culprits, who included the notorious Circus Lal of Madhya Pradesh, go for lions instead of tigers? “This is the first known case in India in which the lions were hunted for trade. Tigers are the first preference as each part of it is highly valuable. But with tigers disappearing, the poachers thought that lions would have to do, and secondly it is difficult to differentiate the parts of the two species,” Kumar said.
“The tools of conventional forensic methods were used for the first time in wildlife crime and it is Kumar who deserves full credit ultimately in cracking the case,” Samir Sinha, country head of Traffic India, which is part of WWF Delhi, told IANS.
Discussing another wildlife case, he said the Karnataka government had recently held one Prabhakar and seized from him Rs.12.5 million worth of tiger skins, claws and teeth. A fortnight before that, a notorious smuggler Shabbir Hassan Qureshi was apprehended by the Uttar Pradesh police from Lucknow and 17 tiger skins and 100 tiger bones, worth Rs.20 million, were recovered. A team went from Gujarat to Uttar Pradesh.
Qureshi, who was nabbed Nov 25, was interestingly booked under the Money Laundering Act along with the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972.
“Unlike the Wildlife Act, fixing Shabbir Hassan Qureshi under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA) was quick and effective as it involved only paper work,” said Rajeshwar, assistant director in the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence, Lucknow.
Speaking to IANS from Lucknow, Rajeshwar said it was a new dimension to book an accused of wildlife crimes also under the PMLA. “PMLA results in faster conviction in almost 100 percent cases,” he said.