Army personnel accused of wildlife poaching

On 13 June, 2021 at about 3:30 PM, a team from the Department of Wildlife Protection, Leh spotted four men carrying a dead blue sheep on a stick across the Indus from the main Leh-Changthang highway near the village of Nurnis (Nee), which is 130 km east of Leh town in the Rong Chu rGyud area. The Department of Wildlife Protection team observed this incident while they were returning from a recce in Changthang.

According to information gathered from different sources, this team also noticed an army vehicle parked on the main highway with its number plate covered with brown tape as were the name-tags of the army personnel in the vehicle who were carrying a walkie-talkie. As the Department of Wildlife Protection team started to investigate, the four men across the Indus who were allegedly wearing army uniform dropped the carcass and hid behind some bushes. When challenged by the Department of Wildlife Protection team, the four men across the Indus, who were armed, escaped by climbing the hill behind them.

The Department of Wildlife Protection team reported the incident to their seniors in Leh with a request for a rescue team. The second team arrived four to five hours later at around 8:30 PM. They loaded the female blue sheep carcass with help from some villagers to the department vehicle and transported it to Leh. The next day, the Department of Animal Husbandry conducted the post mortem and found that it was a pregnant female blue sheep with a bullet on the right side of her body.

The Preliminary Offence Report (POR) for this case was registered by the Department of Wildlife Protection with the reference number 01/WLRC/POR/2021. Chief Wildlife Warden for Ladakh, Preet Pal Singh, IFS said, “The case has been legally transferred to the Indian Army under the provisions of The Army Act, 1950 and the discretion of the case lies with them.” On 30 August, Mr. Preet Pal Singh confirmed that the Indian Army had still not submitted any written documents to the UT administration in Ladakh. After this, I made several attempts to reach Mr. Preet Pal Singh but he did not take or return calls or respond to messages. I also tried to reach officials in the army. After much effort, I was able to speak to representatives of the Indian Army stationed at Kairy village. They invited me for a meeting to discuss the case but I could not visit them in person in time for this issue. These representatives confirmed that they “…are investigating the case and the reports will be submitted soon to the concerned authorities of UT Ladakh.”

When asked about the incident, Executive Councillor for Animal/Sheep Husbandry and Wildlife, Tashi Namgyal Yakzee said, “This First Information Report (FIR) for this case has not been filed in the court yet as the General Officer Commanding (GOC) of the Indian army stationed at Kairy village has deputed a team to investigate the matter. In a recent board meeting chaired by the Hon’ble Lieutenant Governor of Ladakh, R. K. Mathur many issues regarding wildlife including poaching cases were discussed. The GOC of Indian Army is supposed to update the Wildlife Board about the FIR in the next monthly meeting, which would take place at the end of the month.”  

He further added, “They are also following up on the other poaching cases such as the one in Gangles around Losar in 2020. There is a lot of evidence in this case and several hearings have already taken place.”

There are several other poaching cases too that are still being tried in the court. President of Wildlife Conservation and Birds Club of Ladakh (WCBCL), Lobzang Visuddha spoke about a poaching case of a Ladakh urial and another of a blue sheep that took place in April and December 2016 respectively. He wrote in an article on poaching in the first edition of WCBCL’s periodical, Jungwa, “These incidents took place on national highways in broad day light. In one case, the accused was a civilian guest of the Indian Army and the other ones were Ladakhis. Though there were witnesses in the poaching case near Gya-Meru not a single person has come forward to record their statement. As a result, the culprits remain unconvicted,” he added.

He further emphasised that poaching is a ‘criminal act’ and witnesses must come forward to report it to the authorities, who in turn are responsible for ensuring the safety of the witness. He added, “…till the need for new strategies for protection of Wildlife in Ladakh are developed along with meaningful collaborations and practical strategies are implemented to engage with all stakeholders, the prospects of conservation in Ladakh remain poor.” He argued for the need to integrate people working in the field of wildlife conservation as honorary representatives of the Department of Wildlife Protection to help expand conservation activities. He further added that the Department of Wildlife Protection must engage more closely with community representatives and civil society organisations.

Another important area that is concerning is structure of the Department of Wildlife Protection in Ladakh. For instance, there is a Chief Wildlife Warden and a Regional Wildlife Warden with identical jurisdiction that includes the whole Ladakh region. This is followed by a Wildlife Warden each in Leh and Kargil along with a Divisional Forest Officer for Changthang and Nubra. This in turn is followed by Range Forest Officers (RFOs) and guards whose numbers are relatively low given the vastness of the landscape. Ironically, the DFO, Kargil also holds charge for Nubra and Changthang region. This is absurd given the distance between Changthang and Nubra, and Kargil. 

Executive Councillor, Tashi Namgyal Yakzee acknowledged that this is a problem and explained it was discussed in the recent board meeting. He said, “There should be a Wildlife Warden each for Changthang and Nubra. In the case of Rangers, currently there is one each for Changthang and Nubra. The number of RFOs should be increased to cover the vastness of both regions.”

While numerous poaching cases have come to light and been recorded over the last few years, their conviction rate has been abysmal, especially in cases that involve the army. The Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 provides clear guidelines for poaching cases but this has not been implemented in these cases despite the legal protection extended to the hunted animals.

Furthermore, more effort must be invested in improving relationships and communication with local villagers and Department of Wildlife Protection personnel. This will ensure that the villagers will not engage in poaching and remain alert to prevent anyone else from hunting in the vicinity. In addition, a system for stringent and fast-paced conviction of culprits is also required for the law to serve as an effective deterrent.

Councillor from Chushul, Konchok Stanzin outlined some measures to address human-wildlife conflicts. “The relationship between the Department of Wildlife Protection and local villagers in Changthang is not amicable. One reason for this is the fact that there is only one ranger for the entire region of Changthang. This means that there are delays when there are cases of human-wildlife conflict. Furthermore, the Department of Wildlife Protection declares wildlife sanctuaries in these areas without consulting the local residents. Such actions strain the relationship between local communities and the Department of Wildlife Protection. There is an urgent need to address this shortage of manpower and hold regular interactions with residents of the region. In addition, planning meetings are only held at the UT level and attended by senior officials. There is no one to represent the interest of the people at the grassroots level like the Sarpanch, Panch and villagers. So far no meetings have been held to discuss wildlife with villagers.”

This was echoed by Director of Snow Leopard Conservancy-India Trust, Dr. Tsewang Namgail. He explained that action must be taken in poaching cases using legal provisions. “The main priority of the Department of Wildlife Protection is to protect wildlife from poaching”. He also stated that their organisation focuses on educating and social activism around conservation of wildlife among the local communities of Ladakh.  “In addition to poaching, there are several other serious challenges to wildlife conservation in Ladakh that require immediate attention such as feral dogs in the breeding grounds of wildlife, climate change, and land use change”, he reiterated.

The lack of conviction in poaching cases points to a number of administrative failures in the implementation of conservation laws. This includes protection of wildlife, adequate staff to manage human-wildlife interactions, and the need to hold dialogues with various stakeholders to conserve wild animals. Ladakh’s wildlife is already under pressure due to climate change and land use changes. Illegal hunting exerts an unsustainable pressure on wildlife populations that are already depleted due to other pressures.

By Dr Rigzin Chodon

Dr Rigzin Chodon is an independent researcher based in Leh