Last week, wildlife enforcers here posed as representatives of a fictitious religious math to entrap two men into selling them animal parts touted to be the pelt and teeth of an adult tiger.

A wildlife enforcer said the trap would not have worked if the enforcers had used a different cover. The skin and teeth had been sent for forensic examination to ascertain whether they were genuine or clever fakes.

(Often, skin of slaughtered goats and calves are finely painted and sold as genuine tiger or leopard skin to unsuspecting buyers.)

The interrogation of the suspects, hailing from Tamil Nadu, has thrown light on the growing “superstition fuelled” demand for pelts, feathers and body parts of rare and endangered wild species, ranging from tigers and leopards to monitor lizards, Indian sand boa (snake) and barn owl, in the State, a relatively recent trend, according to enforcers.

A set of private profiteers posing as shamans and soothsayers profited most from the racket. They recommended and often helped their impressionable followers procure wildlife articles to make potions or sport as talismans and good luck charms.

The enforcers said 50 tiger “kills or deaths” had been reported from across the country till July year. In comparison, there had been only three seizures during the period.

The low enforcement figures pointed to the highly clandestine nature of the illegal trade and the difficulty to infiltrate the network, which facilitated it.

This year till July, at least four tiger “deaths or kills” had been reported in Kerala. Three were from Wayanad and one from Nenmara near the Parambikulam Tiger Reserve.

At least 11 tiger “deaths or kills” had been reported from Karnataka and two from Tamil Nadu. They were mostly from Bandipur, Nagarhole and the Mudumalai forests contiguous to that of Kerala. The enforcers said there could be more.

They said poachers looking for lucrative big game, some of them operating from large private estates bordering forest areas, increasingly preferred concealed crude traps fashioned out of motorcycle clutch cables and second-hand vehicle parts over country-made muzzle-loading firearms to kill tigers and leopards.

The exorbitant price for unblemished tiger skin in Kerala seems to have induced inter-State poachers to change their method of killing the predators.

Officials pointed out that forensic examination of few seized tiger and leopard pelts showed no bullet founds. Some were found to have been cured using alum, crystallised aluminium potassium sulphate.

The buyers for tiger parts in Kerala were mostly well-heeled superstitious persons who believed that having a tiger skin, claws or teeth in their prayer room brought prosperity.

They said poaching of tigers and leopards often peaked during summer when it was relatively easy for hunters to shoot, trap or poison the cats near watering holes. Additional Chief Conservator of Forests, Vigilance, Y.S. Yelaki; Assistant Conservator of Forests, Forest Intelligence Cell, B. Santosh Kumar; District Forest Officer M. Unnikrishnan; and Forest Range Officer C.K. Sudheer are heading the anti-wildlife trade operations.

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