-By Jose Louies, Assistant Manager, WTI Kuttampuza Forest Range (Kerala), July 30, 2009: “I stood here, hidden behind this tree. The tusker came to the clearings from the bushes, about 15 metres from me. I pulled the trigger” Aji confessed without remorse.
Aji belongs to a gang of poachers who had killed a young tusker in Kuttampuza Forest Range in Kerala on July 7, 2009. At the crime site, hand-cuffed, he described the brutal hunt to enforcement officials.The tusker in Kuttampuza was the third elephant killed by Aji, an ace hunter now.
After shooting it, the gang waited an hour in their camp to make sure that the helpless animal was dead for sure. When they returned, they were greeted by a situation they had not imagined.
The other individuals of the hunted elephant’s natal herd stood by its side, guarding the carcass while also desperately attempting to revive it.
The poachers had no choice but to return to their camp, as the elephants showed no sign of retreating, and the weather seemed to be on the elephant’s side. It rained.
Furthermore, as if a curse had fallen on them, one of the members was injured in an accident while they waited in their camp. Their stack of gun powder used in poaching caught fire, as one of them was drying it. The member suffered severe burns on his hands and face. The poachers were forced to abandon their camp to take the “victim” to a hospital.
Three days later, they returned, only to find that the carcass had been moved 20 metres from where it had fallen, and that one of the tusks was missing. Circumstantial evidence showed that the herd had tried to take the carcass away.
They removed the remaining tusk using stones as tools. Usually the tusks from a poached elephant are removed within a few hours of the crime, using axe and knives or through controlled burning using diesel to ensure that the tusk is not damaged.
Their good-fortune was short-lived. As the news of the tusk on sale spread, the Forest Department’s covert operative picked up the cue. The Intelligence Cell meticulously planned and executed an undercover operation against them, and succeeded in arresting all but one of the gang on July 16. The last member who was the supplier of the arms for the gang, was arrested on Saturday, July 25; the weapon used in the crime was also seized.
A habitual wildlife offender, Aji has four wildlife crime cases pending against him, filed over the past six years. Two of these are related to elephant poaching. He jumped bail in a sandalwood smuggling case, and was now arrested for killing yet another elephant.
Aji began his training to hunt elephants in 2003, under the apprenticeship of his cousin, Bhaskaran, a notorious elephant poacher. That year, he shot his first tusker.
“Bhaskaran is not actively involved in poaching now, but with his connections in poacher-trader circle in and out of Kerala, we believe that he could have become a middle-man/collection agent,” said a Forest Intelligence Cell officer. “Most elephant poaching cases in the nearby forests have a Bhaskaran connection.”
“Brother taught me how to prepare the shot which is powerful enough to bring the tusker down without blowing the gun apart. We used to stay for days in the forest, avoiding the patrolling parties while scouting for the right animal to shoot. Sometimes it takes more than a week to select the victim; once found, the victim is followed for hours till we get the correct angle. The shooter never carries a second gun,” Aji said.
“Most of the times the shooter is only a few metres away from the animal, hiding. The shot is fired from the side, targeting the animal near its shoulder. The bullet (usually a 9-12 mm diameter iron rod, 3- 5 inches long) damages the vital organs, killing the animal almost instantly,” he added, pride gleaming in his eyes.
|Times change, methods don’t
The gun seized from Aji and his gang was a country-made weapon, using a jeep steering rod case for the barrel. Use of such improvised weapons in killing large mammals has been documented in the past from across India, even as early as late 80s and early 90s.
“20 years have passed, but the method hasn’t changed,” says Vivek Menon, Executive Director, WTI.
“This case reminds me of a poacher Otta Kaiyyan (one-armed) Jose, resident of Randu kayye, Vellikulangara in the early 90s. He was famous for shooting elephants from a country-made rifle, fitted into the stump of his missing arm with a specially made brace.”
Menon describes the weapon in his book ‘Tusker’: In most part of the country, the commonly used firearm is the muzzle-loader. The muzzle-loader barrel is made of a galvanized iron pipe or even the steering rod of jeeps, resulting in the bursting of a large number of them during firing. Despite this hazard, these guns with their barrels sometimes reinforced with copper wiring, are used for elephant poaching. In Wayanad, in one instance, an arrested poacher admitted that he had only the barrel and did not use a stock for firing. He would carry a tiny, hand-made trigger into the forest while the barrel was always hidden inside the forest. In this way he could move around with the minimum amount of detectable evidence on his person. Even if detected, the trigger would not look like part of such a deadly weapon. As there was no stock to this muzzle-loader, it was impossible to fire the weapon from the shoulder. Instead, the half-gun was jammed between the stumps of trees orr some appropriate rock-cleft from where the shooting took place. Most country-made muzzle-loaders are too big to be fired from the shoulder (one was over 6 feet in length) and this also obviates the danger of the gun exploding on the poacher.”
“Apart from the trigger, the ammunition has to be carried and even this does not often look like bullets. Sometimes, rough leaden balls are used with a charge of gunpowder, while in many cases in southern and eastern India, it has been observed that iron rods cut into six-inch bits are preferred. These rods can be cut off the bars of a window or cut from a solid iron bar. Very little shaping is done of these projectiles before firing.”
However, his pride may be short-lived. He has been charged under the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, which offers a maximum jail term of seven years for hunting a Schedule I animal like the Asian elephant. Moreover, the Kerala Police has filed a case under Arms Act, 1959, after the recovery of the weapon used in the crime. Meanwhile, Kerala Forest Department officials with the assistance of Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) are determined to ensure that bail application of the poachers is rejected and that they are severely punished.
Raw material to finished products
Tusks once obtained from an elephant are sold by the poachers through a network of traders. The price of the tusks depend on the length, weight, colour etc. The money from the sale is divided among the gang as per the role of each members in the poaching operation. The gang then disintegrate for sometime and await their next opportunity.
Ivory carving is a traditional occupation in Kerala. Expert artisans, specialised in ivory carving, settled in Trivandrum before the British rule. The tradition thrived till ivory trade was banned in India. This ended the era of legal trade, but marked the beginning of illegal trade. With stricter enforcement, the ivory supply chains went dry and the traditional skill that threatened the elephants in India was in itself threatened. However, the demand for ivory in the international market continues to fuel illegal trade. Ivory artisans are taken to secret locations in Kolkata, West Bengal, to carve ivory illegally.
“Usually a skilled ivory craftsman earns about Rs 1000 per day, or they take contractual jobs. The profits are good, which is why many are still willing to take the risk. We keep an eye on these carving experts and have arrested several persons for illegal possession of ivory,“ said Martin Lowel, Assistant Conservator of Forests, Kerala Forest Department.
|Alternative illegal ivory source
In addition to ivory from wild elephants, the supply comes from the captive stock. Kerala has the highest number of captive tusker population in the country numbering more than 700.
The tusk is trimmed biannually by the mahouts; the ivory tip is generally sold in the underground market. “The ivory extracted from captive tuskers measure between 15-20 cm. There is a high demand for this ivory, as the tip of the tusk is solid (and not hollow like the rest of the tusk). As per the law, the trimming should be done under the supervision of the wildlife officials and the veterinary officer, but this seldom happens,” says Dr Eswarnan, Wildlife Veterinarian with the Kerala Forest Department.