Advertisements on the internet, communication through masked phone numbers, international network to confuse enforcement officials figured in the modus operandi of the illegal trade ring busted by the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB) and Kerala Forest Department’s Intelligence Cell, assisted by the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI).
“Advertisements placed online gave us the first lead of the traders . Two barn owls were on sale. We informed Mr S Narayanan, WCCB, who gave us a go-ahead to track these traders,” said a WTI official.
The online advertisement displayed the photograph of the owls labelled as ‘silver owl’ with a note describing it as “A VERY RARE SPECIES”. Communication ensued between the traders and a decoy customer.
“The decoy customer and the traders initially communicated through emails. On the next phase, the traders contacted the decoy customer through masked phone numbers with varying country codes using hi-tech software to ensure that their location is not traced. In fact, the online advertisement which did not give divulge details about the seller, was posted from Dubai to throw enforcement officials off track,” said the official.
The deal was set at a price of 10,000 rupees for each owl. Following final negotiations, a field operative was sent to verify the authenticity of the deal.
After verification, a team was formed as per directions of Martin Novel, Assistant Conservator of Forests, Intelligence Cell, Kerala. The accused were intercepted and arrested near Thrissur Railway Station, during delivery of the owls.
One owl, a motor bike and a car were confiscated from the accused. The second owl escaped during the course of the operation. Further links and earlier deals are being investigated.
“Barn owl is a common species; nevertheless, its trade is illegal in India. The owls are used by black magic practitioners or kept as pets. Traders extract a hefty amount on these birds from gullible buyers,” said Ashok Kumar, Vice-chairman, WTI.
“The concern in this case is however the highly evolved modus operandi, making use of latest technology to which few have access to or are aware of. We have been pressing for a web patrol to check on wildlife trade going on through the internet,” Kumar added.
The first cogent evidence to the on-going internet-based wildlife trade in India came to fore in August 2008. Traders using social networking sites for wildlife trade were arrested in Meerut, Uttar Pradesh, in a joint operation carried out by the Uttar Pradesh Special Task Force and Forest Department, assisted by WTI. A number of wild birds and animals including an albino civet were seized from the possession of the accused.