Residents of Road no. 2 in Shyamoli are used to hearing strange squawks and grunts coming from House 13. The people who lived on the ground floor of the four-story building traded in pet animals and birds, the neighbours knew. But they could never have imagined that three Royal Bengal Tiger cubs had been smuggled into the house from the great Sundarbans.
On June 11, the Rapid Action Battalion, acting on a tip-off, recovered the tiger cubs, one male and two females, and arrested Zakir Hossain, 20, and his mother Jahanara Begum. Zakir’s father Abdul Kader and elder brother Masud escaped during the raid.
Zakir, who was sentenced to two years in jail under the wildlife protection act, claimed that Tapan Kumar Dey, a top forest official, placed the order for the tiger cubs — an allegation he has vehemently denied.
According to RAB sources, the cubs were supposed to be smuggled to Malaysia at Tk.20 lakh apiece.
Commander M Sohail, RAB’s legal and media wing director, said these cubs were brought from Shyamnagar in Satkhira district in mid-May. “We were looking for them and at last managed to recover them,” Sohail told newsmen.
The cubs, in frail condition, have been kept at a private zoo in the city. They are being fed bottled milk meant for human babies, as well as finely chopped chicken meat.
Tiger expert Dr Monirul Haque Khan of Jahangirnagar University told Dhaka Courier that this was not the right diet for the cubs, who are used to milk with less carbohydrate and more protein. “There is special food appropriate for tiger cubs, but until that can be brought in from abroad, this is the best that can be done.”
Vets on duty said the cubs were very weak and scared and were also being disturbed by the throngs of curious visitors coming to the zoo. Experts say the cubs cannot be released into the wild since they are too young to hunt.
The poacher’s trail
A Dhaka Courier investigation has revealed the trail of the smugglers who captured the tiger cubs from their natural habitat in the mangrove forests of the southwest.
Muhammad Shahzada, a trader in the Shyamnagar Thana of Satkhira district, said local people had heard about tiger cubs being captured from the nearby forest a few weeks ago.
Samiul Monir, a local journalist, reported that a group of honey gatherers led by one Ayub Ali found the cubs in the forest.
According to locals, Ayub Ali’s group was returning home on May 11 after Shohor Ali, a member of their group was killed in a tiger attack. While on their way home, they spotted a tigress with three cubs deep in the Satkhira range of the Sundarbans. When the mother left the cubs and moved off, perhaps to hunt, the men took the cubs and put them in a large earthen pot meant for gathering honey.
Together they managed to ward off the enraged tigress and returned to Shyamnagar with the cubs. On May 17, the group sold the tiger cubs to a couple of local businessmen named Abu Isa and Nuruzzaman of Ramzan Nagar Union.
Although the deal was for Tk.30,000, Isa reportedly paid them Tk.14,000 initially. There was a dispute and that alerted local people.
Local sources said that Isa and Nuruzzaman sold the cubs in a hurry to some outsiders. The buyers arrived in a white vehicle and took the cubs after paying a large sum of money, according to eye-witnesses.
RAB spokesman Commander M Sohail said the house in the city’s Shaymoli area had a number of empty cages, indicating that it was a transit hub for the illegal wildlife trade.
Reaz Morshed, Programme Officer at the Wildlife Trust of Bangladesh (WTB), believes an organised network is behind tiger trafficking. “It is alarming that not only were the cubs captured in the forest, but they were smuggled into the city quite easily. The middlemen who planned this are definitely organised and powerful.”
Until recently, poaching was not considered as the chief threat to the tiger population in Bangladesh. But the arrest of a poacher with tiger skins and bones last year raised fears that an organised poaching group was operating in the mangrove forests. The Bangladesh Tiger Action Plan (2009-2017) now lists poaching as a direct threat to tiger conservation.
Analysts say increasingly sophisticated poaching is the biggest threat to the survival of the big cats around the world. Asia has become the “source, transit and destination (consumers)” of wildlife crimes, mainly of Tiger parts, experts said at the ‘Heads of Police and Customs seminar on Tiger Crime,’ hosted by the International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime in Bangkok recently.
“Wildlife and other environmental criminals too often operate in remote areas with impunity, evading detection and circumventing full prosecution under the law,” Keshav Varma, of the World Bank Global Tiger Initiative told the seminar.
He said there had been a surge in the demand for tiger parts and illegal traders had become more aggressive and better organised going into another country for poaching.
The Bangladesh government moved to set up a Wildlife Crime Control unit last year with a World Bank loan of $36m. Forest department officials admit they do not have enough manpower, resources and training to counter the poachers.
“It is essential to build up the capacity of the forest department because the poachers are using increasingly sophisticated methods,” said Reaz Morshed of WTB.
Pro-active intelligence and national coordination is needed to tackle the illegal wildlife crime especially tiger poaching, Morshed added.
Recently, officials seized a number of protected wild animals from people who were keeping them illegally. Last year, customs officers at Bangkok airport in Thailand found hundreds of freshwater turtles and crocodiles packed in suitcases on a flight from Bangladesh. People have been detained trying to smuggle rare birds through Shahjalal International airport.
A legal tangle
Wildlife conservationists point to the weak laws which they say have failed to deter poachers. Bangladesh still uses the Wildlife Conservation Act of1974 which has provisions of maximum two years of imprisonment for a poacher or smuggler alongside a penalty amounting to Tk 2,000.
“The law clearly needs to be toughened up,” said Dr Monirul Khan.
In 2010, the Bangladesh government drafted new laws with stringent punishments to protect wildlife, including the Bengal tiger, but the law has not been ratified in parliament.
“We are pushing for better governance, smart patrolling and better management of the forests,” said Professor Dr. Md. Anwarul Islam, Chief Executive of the Wildlife Trust of Bangladesh.
In order to save the tiger, say many experts, authorities not only have to go after poachers but steps must also be taken to deny smugglers a legal market for any tiger products.
China has made it legal to sell tiger products from tigers kept in captivity and raised on tiger farms. Despite a government ban on the International trade since 1993, there is a robust market for tiger bones, traditionally prized for their healing and aphrodisiac qualities, and tiger skins, which have become cherished trophies among China’s nouveau riche.
“So now you have a legal way for poachers and the black market to sell tiger products as they become indistinguishable from the illegal products and sought after by the Chinese,” said Belinda Wright, executive director of the Wildlife Protection Society of India, in a statement. “Conservationists say the biggest threat to Asia’s largest predator is the Chinese appetite for tiger parts.”
The finger of suspicion
The arrested trafficker, Zakir Hossain, told the media that the tiger cubs had been ordered by Tapan Kumar Dey, the chief of the wildlife section of the forest department. Dey has denied any involvement. Tapan often handles government funds to buy animals for Bangabandhu Safari Park in Gazipur, according to reports.
Zakir said his elder brother Masud Hossain brought the cubs from the Sundarbans 12 days ago to supply them to Tapan. His father Abdul Kader had supplied four marsh crocodiles, a gharial, and pythons to Tapan in 2002. Zakir claimed Tapan’s nephew Tapash used to “place orders” for animals.
Zakir claimed his family never received payment for the gharial as Tapan Dey was hiding during the caretaker government. Police say Zakir’s father was arrested in 2001 with a leopard in the capital and served two months in jail.
Flatly denying the allegations against him, Tapan said Zakir and his father belonged to an international ring of poachers. “Traffickers always raise such allegations against forest officials to camouflage their activities,” he said. He insisted that there was no need for tigers for the safari park at this time.
Many analysts have called for an investigation into any links between the top forest official and the poachers, including tracking mobile phone calls. “”We are not discarding any allegation. We will investigate the allegation against him (Tapan),” chief conservator of forests, Yunus Ali said.
With fewer than 4,000 individuals left in the wild, the tiger is severely threatened throughout its range. The mangrove forests of the Bangladesh Sundarbans support one of the largest populations of tigers in the world with an estimated 300-500 tigers,
Poaching of prey reduces the capacity of the forest to support tigers, and unsustainable forest use and climate change threaten to reduce the area in which tigers can live. According to the Bangladesh Tiger Action Plan (BTAP), tiger poaching and associated trade have potential to decimate a population over a short period of time.
Little is known about tiger poaching in Bangladesh, with cases only being documented from opportunistic arrests or seizures by the authorities. At present, low numbers of poaching incidents are reported from the Sundarbans, with up to two incidents each year (forest department records), but the majority of incidents are unlikely to be detected due to the covert and illegal nature of this activity.
“We just don’t have enough data about the national demand for tiger parts,” said Dr Monirul Khan, “although a 1997 survey reported substantial trade in tiger skins, teeth, and claws. What is known is that there is a high regional demand for tiger products and an established international trade which makes it unlikely that Bangladesh will be overlooked as a source of tiger parts.”
The geographical position of Bangladesh between India and Myanmar, countries that experience rampant poaching, may further increase the vulnerability of the Sundarbans tigers, say conservationists.
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) more than 13 species have become extinct in Bangladesh over the past 40 years, and over 100 species are now considered endangered or critically endangered.
The country’s human population has tripled during the same period, while forest cover has shrunk to just 10 percent of land mass, resulting in more frequent clashes between people and animals.
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