Poaching: Forest staff on red alert

Staff reporter

KOTTAYAM: The seizure of a tiger skin at Kumily on Sunday and that of a leopard skin at Munnar the next day has put forest officials on a red alert. While organised poaching of the big cat had so far been of a lesser threat in the area, the inter-State connections of the seizure point to a potential threat posed by the emergence of such groups.

On Sunday, two persons from Theni in neighbouring Tamil Nadu were arrested by Kerala forest officials along with a tiger skin, tiger nails and other `valuable' parts. The two are believed to be intermediaries. The next day two others were booked in Munnar, with a leopard skin. The authorities have not so far been able to correctly ascertain from where the skin had come from. The skins are three to six months old.

The reserve forests of Kerala had never been in the list of top hunting spots for poachers for the sole reason that the reserves, unlike some in northern India or Karnataka, are sub-optimal habitat for tigers. This has also resulted in the absence of a ready market for the skin. However, with the recent controversy over a drastic fall in tiger population in some of the North Indian reserves, presumably on account of poaching, the surveillance has been beefed up and it is not unlikely that some of them are forced to seek fresh pastures. That a ready market has not developed so far is evident from the fact that the skins had been with the arrested persons for more than three months, according to forests officials.

The seizures have been made at a time when the Central Government is seriously thinking in terms of setting up a dedicated investigative task force consisting of officers form the Central Bureau of Investigation, the Forest Department and similar agencies. It is pointed out that a perceived change in the security scenario for the big cat will bring these areas too under the purview of the new task force. The cooperation such agencies get from the State police forces and the public will play a key role in the effectiveness of such operations.

According to forests officials, in the absence of organised poaching here, big cats that get caught in poachers' net are those that stray outside the core reserve area. For a fast breeding big cat such as the tiger, dispersal from the protected core area is a natural phenomenon as the population increases. This points to the need for more dispersal area. This in turn may point to the need for rationalisation of the protected area network, they argue.

In other words, the recent seizure of tiger and leopard skins from people with inter-State connections may point to an emerging threat for conservation efforts in the State and this will stress the need for putting in place an effective surveillance mechanism with people's participation and implementation of forward-looking environmental policies without delay.

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