VALSAD: The kingpin of a illegal wildlife products racket was nabbed and three leopard skins were seized by forest department personnel in Valsad district of Gujarat last night, according to official sources. The forest officials were assisted in this operation by Animal Saving Group (ASG), a wildlife conservation organisation based here.

Mr Amar Parikh, who runs ASG, said his organisation had been trying to nail the gang for the last four years. “We had been trying to track down the members of the group, but were unsuccessful finding their whereabouts till a few weeks back, “ said Ms Snehal Bhatt, a trustee with ASG.

It was just by a stroke of luck that ASG received information from an old man in Valsad who used to buy leopard skins from this particular band. It was this ex-buyer of wildlife contraband who put a decoy in touch with the gang. Posing as a buyer, he established contact with the gang members about three weeks back.

Having earned their confidence as a prospective buyer, the decoy was invited to the house of one Dharmesh in Dharampur village in the Dangs Reserve Forest area last night. He was shown three leopard skins for which Dharmesh demanded Rs 50,000. As the deal was being clinched, armed forest department personnel stormed into the house and arrested Dharmesh. Dharampur is about 45 km from Valsad town.

The kingpin of the racket, a woman by the name of Zareen, who was supervising the deal, was also arrested along with three of their “workers”. Ms Bhatt said the gang was known to resort to violence at the slightest provocation. Mr Parikh said leopards are killed in the Dangs area and sold to buyers from outside. There are other similar gangs too operating in the region.

With the arrest of the gang members leopards may have found some respite, but not so in the case of Mr Parikh. He has been receiving threatening phone calls since last night. Animal Saving Group, which is about three years old, has been active in the Valsad region and has been intrumental in regular seizure of wildlife articles, including 97 python skins alone.

But then, leopards are not the only wild animals being poached. Film stars from Mumbai are known to frequent the Dangs forest area to hunt spotted deer. Mr Parikh mentioned a well-known actor-turned-filmmaker in this connection, but regretted that Animal Saving Group could not catch him red-handed for the lack of a fleet of vehicles at their disposal.

Deer meat is also clandestinely served at a hotel closeby, “but even in that case we have not been able to pin them down since it is difficult even to establish prima facie evidence against the hotel authorities,” Mr Parikh said.