Wildlife Crime and Punishment
Bangladesh which had promulgated its wildlife laws in 1974 is revamping it. Under the present laws, the maximum penalty for a wildlife poacher or smuggler is 2000 taka which is equivalent to Rs1316/- and a two year prison sentence. Under the soon to be enacted new laws, the sentence has been enhanced to life imprisonment and 3,00,000 taka (equivalent to Rs. 1,97,529/-).
Now lets see what is happening in a biodiversity rich country like Malaysia, which is close to us.
Malaysia is scheduled to implement its new Wildlife Conservation Act 2010 by the end of this year. In this new law, killing of an endangered species like the tiger (Malay), Rhino (Sumatran) etc will invite a maximum punishment of RM 100,000 (Equivalent to Rs. 14,04,000/-) and five years in jail or both if the animal is young or is a female. The maximum fine for killing an endangered male species of rhino, tiger etc is RM 50,000 (equivalent to Rs. 702,000/-). Also, important is the fact that for the first time crime of setting up snares, hunting, or keeping certain species captive-such as rhinos and tigers- there is a mandatory jail sentence.
Now it is in sharp contrast to laws in India. According to the current laws the maximum punishment for murdering an endangered species like a tiger is three to seven years in jail and a fine of ten thousand rupees for first offence and twenty five thousand for second offence. And offences related to trade and commerce in animal trophies, articles derived from certain animals will result in a maximum punishment of three year imprisonment and fine upto Rs. 25000/- I am sure, you will agree that this is not a deterrent enough and the wildlife crime syndicates are able to easily get people to work in their channels.
It is said that the Government is interested in amending the laws to increase the punishment. The proposed punishments for killing a tiger is five to seven years for a first time offender and seven to ten years for a repeat offender. Needless to say that the present as well as the proposed quantum of punishment is not big enough to act as a deterrent.
Faulty Prosecution process:
We all agree that the prosecution process is faulty and drags on for a long time. The rich and mighty often get away with these crimes. For example, Hindi film stars like Salman Khan, Saif Ali Khan, Tabu, and Cricketers like Nawab of Pataudi etc are yet to be punished for killing blackbucks. And this is despite the strong and vociferous protest by the Vishnoi community.
Wildlife crimes are heard in a magisterial court rather than a Sessions court. The evidence is often dismissed because the evidence is not able to be presented properly. Since, very rarely a wildlife crime is committed in front of other people it becomes essential to create evidences and link it to the criminals. So expertise in forensics, ballistics, biology, chemistry, apart from plain old logic is required to deconstruct the crime scene and prove it in front of the court.
Argument against stringent Wildlife Laws:
A number of conservationists believe that it is more important to reform the prosecution process rather than enhancing the quantum of punishment. They cite the slow and tardy nature of the prosecution process. It is often difficult to prove the guilt. So the rate of conviction is poor.
Unfortunately, the conservationists are basing their arguments on their perception and are unable to see the big picture. It is a kind of juvenile attitude, where each kid thinks his candy is better. The solution to the issue of preventing wildlife crimes is not just by improving the prosecution process, but by strengthening the wildlife laws as well.
Shabbir Husain Qureshi, the man who was arrested with one of the biggest catch of wildlife parts in Indian history – 4 tiger skins, 70 leopard skins and 18,000 leopard claws – was released after quickly finishing his sentence. Obviously, he went back to committing wildlife crimes again.
Why punishments should be exemplary?
I would disagree with people who feel the present level of punishment stipulated in the laws is sufficient or who feel that we need not focus our energy in enhancing it.
Take the example of Indians who travel abroad. The so called elites, or the middle classes as well as the working class people like plumber etc are all very careful in obeying the rules in a foreign country like Singapore. The supposedly simple acts of indiscretion like spitting or defecating in public, which people here are so used to, is not at all practiced by our people in a country like Singapore. The level of punishments in the small country like Singapore acts as a big deterrent. If we are able to slap exemplary punishment for killing a tiger, then definitely the people on the ground who actually kill the tiger or act as conduits will refrain from doing so. We will then have a small amount of crime to contend with.
Recognition for wildlife crimes as equally important:
Today, Wildlife crimes are given less importance as perhaps there is a feeling that wildlife is an expendable commodity. Murder of a schedule I species like tiger is not treated as equivalent to the murder of a human being. And this is despite the tiger being the vahana (vehicle) of goddesses Durga. And ofcouse, we use the term poaching for killing of wildlife, where as murder is the term used for killing a human being.
If we look at some of the gruesome murders committed in India, like killing a person and skinning him or killing a person and burning her body in a tandoor (clay oven), the crime was adjudged to be the rarest of the rare and the persons given death penalty.
Now let’s look at the modus operandi of a poacher engaged by a crime syndicate. The poachers lay snares to trap a tiger; the tiger is caught and tries vehemently to free itself. With every effort, the snare tightens more and more and the tiger keeps on bleeding due to the snare cutting deeper into the flesh. The tiger is then discovered a day or two later, sometimes ever later, and then the poacher places the gun virtually on the tigers head and shoots it point blank. The tiger is then skinned. The flesh and bones are dried and sent to be consumed in a country abroad. Is it not gruesome enough?
Do you think we should condone such cruelty? Is this not a rarest of the rare case and fit for capital punishment?
It is time, we toss away our rule books and rewrite those to keep in sync with the times. Also, apart from wildlife related laws, the laws related to falsification/fabrication of evidence etc should be made stringent, so that people don’t readily agree to testify to cover up a crime.
Apart from strengthening all our laws, we should not overlook the importance of educating the communities that get involved in wildlife crimes. At times, the accomplices of poachers are poor individuals from the local community, who succumb to enticements and agree as they are often told that the crime will not come to light and if at all it is known, then the tardy process of law enforcement will result in them coming out in bail. The forest department with the help of NGOs and local media should undertake sustained campaigns to increase the awareness about wildlife crimes. That will go a long way in saving our wildlife till the law ministry is able to strengthen the laws.
A word for conservationists:
I think it would be pertinent to recall the story of the blind men and elephant that we had read during our school days. A few blind men came across an elephant and each one touched a particular part of the elephant. One of them felt that the elephant is like a snake, the other thought it to be a rope. The third one felt the elephant to be like a wall. And there were answers like pillar etc. One can know that each one is right in his or her own way, but still collectively they were farther from the truth.
I won’t be surprised if someone feels that our conservationists are acting like the blind men and the elephant. I hope our conservationists share their perceptions with each other and arrive at the overall picture. That will go a long way in saving our last tracts of wilderness left in this country.