Assam is taking steps to rein in wildlife crimes by speeding up prosecution and conviction of poachers. Thanks to new fast-track courts set up especially for trying wildlife offences, six convictions have already been made in five separate cases so far this year.

Out of 17 wildlife crime-related arrests in the state so far this year, 11 cases have been prosecuted, according to official figures. Six convictions have already been secured in 2017 – three relating to rhino poaching at the Kaziranga National Park and the rest pertaining to illegal entry and habitat destruction near the Nameri Tiger Reserve.

In contrast, official figures show just one conviction for wildlife crime in Assam in all of 2016, five in 2015, two in 2014, four in 2013, none in 2012 and two in 2011. From 2000 to 2010, there was a combined total of just three convictions.

The acceleration of prosecutions follows a November 28 order by the Gauhati High Court to set up 10 fast-track courts specialising in wildlife crimes in the districts where most of the state’s parks and wildlife sanctuaries are located.

A Bengal tiger, pictured here at the Ranthambore National Park. (Credit: Rhett A Butler / Mongabay)

Holding poachers accountable

The most recent conviction was handed down on June 2, when a court in Sonitpur sentenced Budhiram Soren to six months of rigorous imprisonment and a Rs 12,000 ($185) fine. He was charged with trespassing and damage and destruction of trees in Sonai Rupai Wildlife Sanctuary, recently declared a satellite area of Nameri National Park.

Two other offenders were convicted in March by the same court for similar crimes. In each of these cases, the court made the rare decision to reward forest personnel for capturing offenders by awarding them bonuses out of the fines paid by the convicts.

In another recent case, a fast-track court in Golaghat on May 25 put poacher Sukhdeo Kutumb behind bars for seven years, and imposed a Rs 25,000 fine, for involvement in two 2013 rhino killings in Kaziranga.

At the time of the incident, Kutumb managed to escape after an encounter with forest personnel. He remained in hiding for almost three years, until he was captured by the forest service in September 2016. Once arrested, Kutumb confessed to cutting away rhino horns and selling them at Dimapur, a clandestine trade hub for rhino horns and other wildlife products in the neighbouring state of Nagaland.

“Earlier, such trials took more than four to five years to be decided, which eventually weakened the case. The poachers, taking advantage of such inordinate delays, often escaped to other places and tracing them would become further time consuming,” Kaziranga National Park field director Satyendra Singh told Mongabay.

A greater one-horned rhino (Rhinoceros unicornis) at Kaziranga National Park. (Credit: Metaphysical Music via Flickr)

High-profile arrests

The surge in prosecutions has been matched by an increase in the number of arrests for wildlife crimes in the state. According to the chief wildlife warden, Bikash Brahma, 207 people were arrested from May 2016 to May 2017. These cases, he said, are in various stages of investigation or are currently facing trial in the fast-track courts. This is among the highest rates during the last five years, Brahma added.

On May 16, four people – including a government employee from the neighbouring state of Arunachal Pradesh – were arrested for possession of leopard bones and skin from Assam’s Sonitpur district.

That followed a surprise raid conducted on March 25, in which the Assam unit of the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence recovered a tiger skin more than 10 feet long as well as more than 200 tiger bones at the Banderdewa checkpoint on the vulnerable Assam-Arunachal Pradesh border. One person was arrested, while two others fled.

The bulk of arrests, however, continue to be related to rhino poaching. The latest of these came on June 9, when five suspected poachers were arrested from the Mayong area in Kamrup district. They were allegedly planning to kill a rhino in nearby Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary.

On April 29, the Assam Police nabbed a gang of six alleged poachers and wildlife traders, recovering a rhino horn from Nagaon district. Two more poaching suspects, including a student, were apprehended on March 24 by the Anti-Rhino Poaching Task Force from the Kamargaon area in Golaghat district, while they were heading towards Kaziranga. A .303 rifle, ammunition, a silencer and a motorbike were seized from them. The task force, operational since May 2014, is a joint initiative of the forest and police departments.

Nameri National Park in Sonitpur district of Assam is home to numerous species including elephants, tigers, leopards and sambar. (Credit: Giridhar Appaji Nag Y via Flickr)

However, upping arrests and fast-tracking prosecution is not enough, on its own, to secure more convictions for poachers, said Rahul Dutta, a consultant on wildlife trade and crime for the International Rhino Foundation. Investigators need to be properly trained to investigate such crimes, he explained.

When it comes to wildlife crimes, Indian law stipulates that courts cannot act on ordinary charge sheets or first information reports filed by the police. Instead, the Wildlife Protection Act requires that petitions of complaint be filed before a magistrate by designated authorities of the forest or police departments, or other specially designated persons. “However, due to lack of clarity in this understanding, countless such cases filed through charge sheets or FIRs are either pending in the court or has not moved beyond the investigation stage,” said Dutta.

To make matters worse, when charges are (incorrectly) brought by the police, offenders may be accused under “inappropriate” statutes, Dutta said. For example, wildlife traffickers may be charged under laws concerning the theft or killing of domesticated livestock. Such cases fail to stand in the courts and get quashed, enabling the poacher to go scot-free, he said.

If offence reports are not prepared correctly, even fast-track courts cannot expedite cases, Dutta added.

A greater one-horned rhino in Assam's Kaziranga National Park. (Credit: Udayan Dasgupta / Mongabay)

In an effort to improve conviction rates, the forest department is conducting training programmes in investigation methods for both forest and police staff, said Brahma, the wildlife warden. These include instructions on forensic techniques such as the recovery and seizure of evidence and proper recording of statements from the accused and from witnesses. The aim, he said, is to allow investigators to present evidence that meets legal standards and can help bring cases to a solid conclusion. The latest of these exercises was organised in Kaziranga on June 3.

The state is also stepping up its anti-poaching efforts with the procurement of sophisticated weapons such as INSAS rifles, Self Loading Rifles, Ghatak Rifles (the Indian equivalent of the AK-47) and 9-mm pistols for the soon-to-be-launched 112-member Special Rhino Protection Force in the state, said Brahma.

“All such initiatives put together are certainly clamping down on wildlife crimes in the state,” said Deba Kumar Dutta, a member of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Asian Rhino Specialist Group and senior project officer at WWF India. Such efforts are also helping the authorities combat major crimes in the region in general, since poachers are often linked with extremist groups or criminals involved in drug and human trafficking, he said.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.