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`Ten of us, we killed at least 22 tigers’

Sunday, November 20, 2005
Express Exclusive


Three hunters confess to killing 10 tigers, name seven who poached a dozen more. A stunned police now wonder what the 273 staff at Ranthambhore were doing. The Sunday Express, which first exposed the vanishing tiger, travels to Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh to meet, first hand, the men, who the cops say, took out the Ranthambhore tiger. And finds out that their startling testimony could hide more than it reveals


Sawai Madhopur/ Kota (Rajasthan)/ Sheopur (Madhya Pradesh), November 19 They are shocking in their frankness: “Jangal ke andar ghumte rahte the hum. Sher ka panja milne par per pe baith jate. Raat ko mar ke chale jaate aur subah jaake khaal nikalte the.” (We roamed in the forest looking for tiger pugmarks. Once we had spotted them, we would take position on trees. We hunted in the night and returned in the morning to skin the tiger.”

That’s how three poachers, by their own admission, killed at least 22 tigers in Ranthambhore since 2003right under the nose of 273 forest staff that guard India’s most famous tiger reserve.

Ever since the tiger count in Ranthambhore fell from 47 to 26 in less than two years, officials in New Delhi and Rajasthan have been wary of attributing it to poaching.

They can’t any more.

Working on leads from wildlife activists, a crack team of the Rajasthan Police has arrested three Moghiya tribal poachers who have confessed to killing 10 Ranthambhore tigers. They have named another seven who, according to them, have taken out at least 12 more tigers during the same period.

While Prithviraj alias Pirthia confessed to killing one tiger, Kesra and Devi Singh say they killed four and five big cats respectively. Pirthia and Kesra are tribals from Kota and Bundi in Rajasthan; Devi is a sarpanch of Dhamni village in adjacent Sheopur in Madhya Pradesh.

Interviews with the police and these three alleged poachers by The Sunday Express reveal a method remarkably simple:

• They operated from villages, like Uliana, right next to the national park.
• Their weapon of choice: muzzle-loading guns although in one case, metal traps were also used.
• Didn’t the guards act as a deterrent? Says Devi Singh: “Yes, we came across them but they never intercepted any of us.” He confessed to even firing guns within a few hundred yards of forest chowkies. Why didn’t anybody come checking? “Pata nahin (Don’t know),” is his answer.
• Kesra, who says he killed four tigers, is more forthcoming. “My in-law has good contacts and forest guards never told us anything while we moved around in the jungle),” he told The Sunday Express.

All of them say they supplied tiger skins and bones to one Azad in Madhya Pradesh who is now the target of a massive police hunt. While a tiger fetched Rs 60,000, a tigress would bring anything between Rs 40-50,000, depending on her length. They also poached leopards at will, each for just Rs 15,000.

Pirthia and his father were arrested on November 2 from their village, Ashok Nagar Kanwad, 100 km from Kota under Itawah police station. Police said the family had several wildlife items including tiger whiskers and bear claws.

Kesra was present at Pirthia’s residence and was also picked up. During interrogation, he named Devi Singh.

“The network extends from Sawai Madhopur to interiors of Madhya Pradesh. We hope to make more arrests soon,” said Alok Bashisht, SP, Kota (rural), who is heading the investigation.

“During interrogation, we were surprised to know how these poachers had such free access to the forests. They seemed very confident and even travelled by jeep. We will know exactly how deep inside the national park they ventured to once we take them for spot verification,” said IG (crime) Ajit Singh Sekhawat who is monitoring the investigation from Jaipur.

While police work on these confession statements, one thing is clear: if there is one thing these poachers have made clear, it’s the ineffectiveness of the official machinery.

Not without reason.

The average age of the Ranthambhore ground staff is 49  the last recruitment took place 15 years ago. How tuned the staff was to the poaching is evident by DFO G S Bhardwaj’s presentation to the PM during his visit to Ranthambhore on May 22 this year: Everything is in order, he said.

This denial wasn’t new. When The Sunday Express first reported that 18 tigers had gone missing in Ranthambhore, Project Tiger director Rajesh Gopal and DG (wildlife) R P Katyal dismissed the report. But after other national parks began reporting the same trend, officials were eventually forced to conduct a joint tiger census involving independent organisations.

In July, the census established that the tiger population was indeed down by 21. Besides, Census figures showed that seven tigers went missing in the adjoining Palpur-Kuno sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh during the same period.

• Anticipating resistance from villagers, nine policemen visited Dhamni village, near Sheopur, in two vehicles, posing as PWD officials.
• They asked Sarpanch Devi Singh (in photo) to join them for a quick inspection of sadak yojana work saying the Collector would survey it the next morning.
• Once Devi Singh came out of the village, the police team whisked him away.
• On November 10, interrogation began at Itawah PS and the sarpanch said he had killed five tigers. He named other poachers operating in Ranthambhore.
• The weapons have been recovered. Devi Singh will be in police remand until Nov 24, the others are in custody

• March 16, 2005: A gang of suspected poachers confessed to killing at least 10 tigers in Sariska during 2002-2004. All in custody. Trial yet to begin.
• June 30: Sansar Chand, India’s most wanted wildlife criminal, was arrested in west Delhi. Wanted by 9 states in over 50 cases of poaching and skin smuggling. Named by CBI in report on the disappearance of Sariska tigers.
• July 29: Arrested by Chhattarpur (MP) police, Raees and Yusuf confessed to selling five tiger and 29 leopard skins from Panna

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