Vijay Pinjarkar, TNN
NAGPUR: In a stunning revelation, tiger skin trader Sarju Bagdi alias Suraj Bhan told TOI on Thursday that four gangs of poachers and traders were simultaneously operating in a 150km radius of Nagpur. While he himself picked up five skins for trading, the others too had procured as many over a period of 8-9 months.
It means that poachers have killed not just five tigers as the Forest Department has been saying and not 11 as forest sources had told TOI but more than 20 as per the admission of Sarju. He was arrested in New Delhi on September 7 and brought to Nagpur by a morning flight on Thursday.
The State Forest Department has been consoling itself that of the five tiger poaching cases it is investigating, only one tiger was killed in Vidarbha (Masondi in Melghat). Sarju's revelation could have a deep impact of the working of the entire forest force in the state and the country too. In the corporate world, a few heads would have rolled.
Sarju spoke to TOI outside the court where he was produced and was sent to forest custody till September 21 after strong arguments by Kartik Shukul, the special counsel for the Forest Department.
According to Sarju, at least four syndicates of tiger skin traders from Haryana and Delhi have been working in central India forests. They include Ranjit Singh Bawaria, who is wanted in the Dhakna tiger poaching in Melghat, Suraj Pal for whom Sarju is working, Dalbir and Kalla, all from Haryana.
Sarju's name figures in the statements of all the 12 poaching accused arrested so far and who are in magisterial custody in Nagpur Central Jail.
Though the forest department probe is revolving around 5 tigers, it has no clue where the others have been poached from. The arrested poachers have confessed to killing tigers in Akot (Akola) and Tumsar (Gondia). The department has also not acted upon the confessional statement of Lupustan who said that one tiger and two leopards had fallen into the same trap in Melghat last year.
In the six additional tiger skins being reported by TOI, Sarju, a resident of Akbarpur Bharota in Sonepat (Haryana), said he had no hand in them. "Dalbir had come here with some Nepali persons and procured the skins," he told TOI. In the last 9 months Dalbir visited Nagpur four times.
Sarju named one 'Kalla' as a trader who also used to procure tiger skins from here. Dalbir and Kalla are supplied material by three Bahelia poachers Keru, Sheru and Ajit. Besides, there were others like Kuttu and Kauaa, who also supplied skins to them.
Special counsel Shukul told the court that Sarju had visited 12 spots near Nagpur including Ranala, Kamptee, Bhandarbodi, Saoner, Patansawangi, Umred, Selu, and Parseoni. Besides, he went to a dozen places in the city, where he will be taken as part of the investigation.
Sarju's revelations more or less tally with the intelligence inputs provided to enforcement agencies by a leading NGO in wildlife crime that poachers have been planning to target 27 tigers in Kanha and Pench corridor and Vidarbha as from September 2012.
"In the last 3-4 years, the modus operandi of poachers has changed. Earlier, women gang members of Bahelia community used to transport the tiger skins and bones to Delhi for dealers, but after getting caught frequently, Delhi-based traders are now coming here to procure the material," said a wildlife crime expert.
Amdi Fata near Ramtek seems to be the biggest hub for supply of skins and bones of tigers poached in Central Indian forests.
Sarju said he had come in a car to procure skins. "I was accompanied by Naresh Lala (now under magisterial custody in Delhi)," he added. Dalbir too had come in a car.
The expert confirmed that Dalbir, unlike Suraj Pal, has many wildlife crime cases against him but has never been caught.
Meanwhile, the forest department will seek custody of Naresh Lala and Suraj Pal on production warrant. Pal's police custody ends on Friday. The department also plans to seek custody of cash, car, bones and claws seized from the accused.
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