Confessions of a tiger poacher – Part 3

Jose Louies, Head of Enforcement for the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI), reveals the amazing story of how six notorious tiger poachers were caught and convicted in a joint operation with BTR Tiger Reserve, thanks to funding by Care for the Wild’s supporters.

After a few more days and the poachers had re-visited the prepared holes, where fresh pug marks confirmed they had selected the right location. They were ready for the final part of their plan, to set the three traps and catch three animals within just a couple of days so they could quickly leave the area. The traps are placed carefully in the small hole and then camouflaged with dry leaves and grass so it is completely hidden.

WTI poachersA broken twig is placed just inches before the trap. This is because a wild animal will often avoid stepping on a broken twig so they will place their paw just after the twig, exactly where the trap is. They dug holes in the ground to set up the heavy chains which would secure the traps on the ground. The holes measured about two feet deep and each took an hour to dig. While one poacher worked, the other acted as a sentry watching out for the forestry guards, villagers and of course, tigers and elephants.

Fortunately, soon after the traps were laid, an elephant stamped on one of the traps and instead of getting caught, damaged the side leaver which secures the jaw when snapped. Despite having spare parts and tools for the repair, the part they had with them did not fit the trap and they were forced to return to their base camp to perform the repair. In the two days that had gone by, they had not caught a single animal. They dismantled the traps and hid them in different locations before going back to their base camp.

Caught by a blanket

This was when they were spotted by the forest staff – who were on high alert. They were detained and questioned, at first using their cover story of impoverishment and travelling to the area to sell plastic flowers for a living. Their personal belongings were examined and at first nothing unusual came out of it, until till part of the jaw trap fell out the blanket! The small piece of iron by itself looked harmless but the range officer recognised it for what it was, and emailed the photo to our experts to confirmed its use as part of a jaw trap for capturing tigers.

It was now clear to the forest department that they were experienced poachers and that there were traps set in the jungle. After continued questioning, Dale Singh finally relented and admitted to the guards where the traps were hidden. One of the poachers soon corroborated his story and our team were brought in to re-enter the forest and remove the traps.

Dale Singh proceeded to show investigators how the traps had been set giving a live demonstration about how he had camouflaged the deadly trap – when he was done all one could see was a little twig a few inches from the site. Singh told us that the twig was left on purpose and that a tiger or a leopard will inadvertently place their paw on the trap in a bid to avoid stepping on the twig!

The traps are set in the evening and the poachers hide nearby so they can hear when the tiger is trapped. They wait for some time following this so the animal is exhausted and they can approach safely. The animal is then speared through the mouth and left to bleed. This prevents any noise attracting attention and kills the animal faster. It also means the skin has not been damaged in any way, retaining its price. Once the tiger is dead, the skin is removed within half an hour and the body hidden so they can come back later to collect the bones which will boost their profit. The skin is then coated in salt and herbal preparations before being dried.

Dale explained his tactics to avoid capture:

“We only set it up in paths mostly used by the big cats, which are away from the forest staff’s patrolling route. There are exclusive tiger paths which are often avoided by other animals and we search for such paths to ensure that we don’t catch anything other than a tiger.”

The knowledge displayed by the captured poachers on tracking and identifying recent presence of big cats was astounding to our specialist investigations team and saddening to think this could be a knowledge and skill-set used to conserve rather than poach the tiger.

Skins are transported by the women in the group who hide the skin under their loose clothes as they are unlikely to be searched. They deliberately keep themselves so filthy that no one wants to touch them to avoid frisking during their travel. They almost always travel by train and after arriving at their destination, wait for the middlemen to come and collect the goods which are taken to the international borders to be sold.

The planning and precautions undertaken by the group is amazing considering the minimum resources available to them. The two men’s confessions of targeted tiger poaching corroborated, and over the course of the investigations our undercover team learnt the incredible details of what was uncovered to be a highly planned interstate poaching gang supported by an illegal wildlife criminal network.

For our conservation team their in-depth investigations have gained vital evidence for prosecution and gained greater knowledge of poachers’ tactics. The gang of six were eventually convicted as a result of the specialist support of our WTI team. This knowledge is valuable to tiger conservation and criminal investigations work across India and will enable more successful arrests like this one.

Find out more about Care for the Wild’s work with WTI here.

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