Kashmiri red deers commonly known as ‘hangul’ seen inside a jungle area in Dachigam Wildlife sanctuary, on the outskirts of Srinagar. Photo: Reuters/Fayaz Kabli
Srinagar: When police officials scoured the phones of two poachers arrested on February 17, 2021, in the Ganderbal district of central Kashmir, they found multiple photos of hunted birds (Anas platyrhynchos) locally known as ‘niliyij’ or ‘nilyuk’. The duo had been on nothing short of a killing spree.
“The range officer of the concerned area contacted me,” Hilal Ahmad, an environmental lawyer practicing in the Ganderbal district court, told The Wire Science. “I came to know that an FIR was lodged against two people under section 51. They were poaching the migratory birds with a single barrel gun.”
According to Ahmad, the accused had approached a sessions court for bail, and Ahmad filed a protest petition to deny it “because they had inflicted serious damage to our ecosystem.” The court denied their bail.
This incident comes barely a fortnight after Kashmir Reader report a large seizure of poached animals in the valley. On January 30, the Wild Life Crime Control Bureau coordinated with other departments and recovered eight leopard skins, four musk deer pods and 38 bear gall bladders in Anantnag district.
“It took us one month to trace the wildlife traders and poachers,” a source said. “We have been studying the region for a year. The wildlife smuggling trade is pretty organised and established here in Kashmir, and is occurring on a wide scale.”
The source also said that nomads had been supplying wildlife products to the offender arrested in connection with the crime.
With no data available about the number of poaching incidents and wildlife trade in Kashmir, wildlife researchers speculate that the seizures are only the tip of the iceberg.
“During one of our forest ranges two years ago in Thajwaas Baltal area of Sonmarg,” a wildlife researcher who wished to remain anonymous told The Wire Science, “we observed two men retreat at once as we approached. We were shocked to find the skin of a musk deer and feathers of a pheasant on the site. It was apparent that the men had [just] killed the animals.”
Similarly, researchers found a poacher with a 12-bore gun in the protected area of Kazinaag National park, in Uri, famous for the endangered markhor (Capra falconeri). Two years prior in the same area, vultures were swooping down on markhor carcasses in their mating season.
Globally, wildlife trade poses the second biggest direct threat to the survival of species, after habitat destruction. In Jammu and Kashmir, species at the greatest risk of being critically endangered include hangul (Kashmir stag), leopards, markhors and the Himalyan musk deer.
Such trade is a breach of the Wildlife Protection Act 1972, which affords the highest level of protection to these species. Violation of provisions under the Act is punishable with a term of three to seven years and a fine of no less than Rs 10,000.
Mehreen Khaleel, primatologist and chairperson of the Wildlife Research and Conservation Foundation, said that these recent incidences of multiple seizures by the wildlife department indicate that poaching has been occurring regularly over the past few years.
“The size of the haul suggests that poaching is well-planned and executed with precision,” Khaleel said.
Another wildlife researcher said some possible causes include minimal presence of the wildlife department in multiple areas and lack of a well-trained staff to deal with incidents of poaching and wildlife trade.
“The wildlife department doesn’t operate in Uri, Kupwara, Machil, Gurez, Tangdar, Poonch and Rajouri – areas where poaching takes place on a large scale,” the researcher said. “The forest department covers the maximum area in J&K and unfortunately, wildlife has never been their priority.
The researcher advised “that the Department of Forests, Wildlife Department and Forest Protection Division work in unison and not separately.”
Regional wildlife warden of Kashmir Rashid Naqash said seizure of articles and derivatives of wild animals makes retaliatory killings quite likely.
“Early investigations reveal that the culprit occasionally collects these hides and other products from migratory herders who usually resort to retaliatory killings in upper pastures of non-protected forests,” Naqash said.
He added that the seized products also indicate that their age ranges from one to eight years, making it difficult for the culprit to find a market for them and transport them easily.
In November 2020, two rare bewick or tundra swans were poached in the wetlands of Kashmir. “We received a group of four bewick tundra swans for the first time in the valley,” Naqash said. “As they were new to the area, they landed at unprotected sites, and poached for meat and sport. However, the department took strong steps to save the other two birds, and managed to get them to the Hokersar wetland.”
A senior official of the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB) said that with the Wildlife Protection Act in force in Kashmir, enforcement agencies will definitely get a boost.
“The law is clear and crisp, with WCCB now getting a jurisdiction. It empowers the forest department to arrest and investigate appropriately,” the official said. “Further, we are planning to take on people who still hold gun licenses in Kashmir.”
“We will train the forest staff by holding workshops along with proper documentation and gathering of cases,” he added.