Uttarakhand HC orders CBI probe into deaths of tigers at Corbett reserve, asks agency to look into officials' 'connivance'
The Uttarakhand High Court has directed the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to probe the death of tigers at the Corbett Tiger Reserve in the last five years.
The Uttarakhand High Court has directed the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to probe the death of tigers at the Corbett Tiger Reserve in the last five years and the possibility of ‘complicity’ and ‘connivance’ of the officers/officials with the poachers.
In its order dated 4 September, 2018, the court said, in view of the data placed on record by the petitioners and the transfer of officers/ officials of Haridwar Forest Range after their involvement in destruction of evidence, that “the present case is the rarest of the rare cases (sic) where the expertise of CBI is solicited.” The bench directed the agency to submit its report within three months.
A division bench of Acting Chief Justice Rajiv Sharma and Justice Lok Pal Singh also rejected the Uttarakhand’s forest department’s explanation in which the department cited Charles Darwin’s theory of “survival of the fittest” on the deaths of 40 tigers and 272 leopards in the state in a period of two-and-a-half years. The court described it as a “very big number” and said “all the tigers must be preserved and sound”.
Rajeev Mehta, one of the key petitioners and chief functionary of the Eye of the Tiger India Trust, said that 7 skins of tigers were seized between December 2015 and March 2016, out of which 5 skins and 135 kilograms of big cat bones were seized on 13 March 2016 by Uttarakhand Police’s Special Task Force. Another skin was seized in the month of May of the same year and one of the skins was seized from Nepal on 26 December 2015. All these seized skins were of tigers of Corbett, as confirmed by Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun.
Rajeev Mehta was the Honary Wildlife Warden of Rajaji, another national park in the state, from 2009 to 2017 and was also a member of the Uttarakhand State Wildlife Advisory Board from 2005 to 2017. He said that after the seizure of 5 skins on 13 March, the Deputy Director of Rajaji National Park, Kishan Chand asked him to submit evidence.
Rajeev Mehta with his informers, searched the area of Kotkhadar on Uttarakhand boundary and has recovered some bones, spears and flesh. He handed these over to the Chief Wildlife Warden, the then field director of Corbett and head of anti-poaching cell in front of then DFO Haridwar, HK Singh.
Since the forest department did not take any action on the evidence, Rajeev Mehra raised the issue with the forest minister of Uttarakhand, Harak Singh Rawat. Mehta also made allegations against Chief Wildlife Warden, DVS Khati, the then Corbett Park Director Sameer Sinha and the head of the anti-poaching cell Dhananjai Mohan and the possible involvement of the officials.
Harak Singh Rawat, acting on the complaint, ordered an inquiry on 19 April, 2017 under the supervision of Principal Chief Conservator of Forest, Uttarakhand. The committee submitted its final report on 28 June, 2018. The report has found that the number of such cases has increased because of the ignorance of both the Chief Wildlife Warden and the then director of Corbett National Park.
Meanwhile, in March this year, the Chief Wildlife Warden has banned Eye of the Tiger India trust, thus preventing its members from entering any wildlife sanctuary, national park or tiger reserve in the state. The warden claimed the NGO has failed to provide information on the permission they have taken to work in wildlife areas of the state. Rajeev Mehta said that he and the trust have been targeted because he has taken the matter to court. The court will hear the petition on ban on 14 September.
HK Singh, the then DFO of Haridwar said that he was certainly present at the time evidences were submitted and he has also given his version in the committee’s report. However, he refused to comment on the issue till the CBI completes its probe.
Imran Khan, a wildlife expert who has been promoting tourism in Corbett for over two-and-a-half decades, said that Khati and Sinha are two of the most honest and dedicated officials of Uttarakhand. He further said that foresters/rangers posted in the region have possibly hidden this part, but it does not mean that the forest officials have done anything wrong knowingly. “I am confident that they will get a clean chit in the CBI probe,” he added.
Khan also said that the deaths of 42 tigers were unfortunate but questioned if all of them were the result of poaching. The deaths also include cases of natural deaths, poisoning, and territorial fights etc.
Speaking on various directions which the court issued to preserve wildlife, such as banning the entry of private or commercial gypises to ply in Dhikala zone of the reserve, and ban on commercial use of elephants, including joyrides by the owners of resorts, Imran said that in the entire history of Corbett National Park, cases of poaching only came to light because of tourism.
Tiger conservation has acquired importance because of tourism. The six national parks in the country which have the highest density of tigers — Corbett, Tadoba, Pench, Bandhavgarh, Kanha, Ranthambore — are also the ones which have recorded the highest number of tourists. The number of tigers had been growing in Sariska National Park until the tourists complained of sighting only a pugmark and not a tiger. If this would not have been the case, nobody would have come to know that the number of tigers is rising only on paper in Sariska. There is no other way to save tigers than to boost tourism.
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