Tucked among the tall trees of Jaldapara National Park, in the Himalayan foothills of India’s West Bengal state, Kodalbasti village is home to about 265 families. The corrugated rooftops of their homes dot the green landscape, slender betel palm trees swaying above. Despite the peaceful scenery, an environment of suspicion runs through the village. Outsiders who pass through are met with wary stares, surreptitiously followed, and even questioned about the purpose of their visits.

This small community is one of 12 villages within the boundaries of the 216.5 square km park. Another 48 lie on its periphery, bringing the area’s human population to more than 100,000. These people, who belong to forest-dwelling tribal communities including the Rava and Bodo, share Jaldapara’s sal forests, grassy floodplains and bamboo breaks with around 200 greater one-horned rhinos (Rhinoceros unicornis).

Two arrests occurred in Kodalbasti village after the February 5 poaching of a rhino in the park’s Kodalbasti Range, about three km to the east. This brush with the law explains the villagers’ wary attitude toward outside visitors, said Goben Rava, a village resident and member of the local Joint Forest Management Committee, which works with the forest department to protect and manage the park. “Who knows? Under the garb of inquiring about forests and rhinos, they may be actually here to collect information for poaching and we gullible villagers land into trouble later,” Goben said.

The entrance to Jaldapara National Park. According to the most recent census in 2015, the park harbors 204 rhinos. Photo credit: Moushumi Basu

One of the men arrested, Rupesh Rava, 30, was said to run a small shop selling basic goods. The other, Rajib Rava, 28, was a fisherman and day labourer. “Both of them were naive and unsuspecting, with no shady track record till then,” Goben said. “It is hard to imagine how and when the two got dragged into the plan.”

Sulaiman Mia, a Joint Forest Management Committee member from Dhoidhoighat village, voiced similar concerns. “Our native villagers would not kill a rhino on their own, as they are not aware of the complex networking and outlets involved in the trade,” he said. “Such plans are thus masterminded by poachers from the northeastern states, who lure the poor locals with quick and easy money.”

Eight people were arrested in connection with the February 5 incident, in which a rhino was shot at point-blank range. “Unlike the previous cases, it was a very quiet affair. There was no sound of firing. And for the first time, we recovered a silencer-fitted rifle,” said Bimal Debnath, assistant divisional forest officer at Jaldapara, whose team was able to make the arrests within just 36 hours.

Conspicuous among those arrested was an alleged sharpshooter from Arunachal Pradesh state, some 900 km from Jaldapara. His alleged accomplices did not have as far to travel, but were perhaps more unlikely. One, Sevoke Kami, was a karate teacher at a school at Bannerhat, about 60 km from the park. Another was Bimal Karzee, from a well-off family in Salkumar Munshipara village, on the fringe of Jaldapara.

“He was even involved in conservation initiatives with the forest department and would deliver good speeches before the villagers on the importance of rhino and forest protection,” said Niten Chandra Modak, a Joint Forest Management Committee member from Salkumarhat village. “Hence, when Bimal Karzee’s name emerged in the case, it was impossible to believe it is the same person.” Disbelief was so strong that nine people of the same name were picked up before the Bimal Karzee in question was arrested.

One of Jaldapara National Park’s resident greater one-horned rhinos. Large, easy to spot and with horns that command immense prices on the black market, rhinos are a prime target for poachers. Photo credit: Ratan Roy

How poaching is carried out

Away from the watchful eyes of the village, three self-confessed former poachers agreed to discuss with Mongabay how rhino-poaching gangs are formed and operate. Although Mongabay was not able to verify the details of their stories, two expert investigators confirmed that the accounts were consistent with what was known about wildlife trafficking in the region.

“The whole act is sponsored by organised traders, from Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur or Nagaland, who hire one or two shooters to kill the rhino,” said reformed poacher Kanai (name changed). The traders make contact with local villagers via a “linkman” or “introducer,” a trusted contact who is charged with finding a local contact to organise the mission. The small Indian town of Jaigaon, on the country’s porous border with Bhutan, about 22 km from Jaldapara, is a particularly flourishing ground for such “introducers,” Kanai said.

Two or three villagers are used as field men, carrying supplies and guiding shooters through the forest, Kanai continued. Another three or four serve as lookouts. After the shooter kills the rhino, it is one of the local field men who removes the horn and other body parts and takes them out of the forest with the shooter. They boil the horn in water to get rid of the attached nasal tissues, then one of the locals accompanies the shooter to collect payment from the trader.

The payment, which is issued according to weight, is then shared out among the team members. But, Kanai said, traders often short-change the villagers, promising to pay in full after future kills.

Halku (name changed), an elderly man, said he has killed at least seven rhinos in his life. During his youth, he said, rhino killing was not illegal. Rhino horns were legally sold in Assam state as recently as 1980.

“We tribals are adept at hunting, using our traditional bow and arrows, or spears; hence we were earlier hired to kill rhinos. The money was much less then,” he said. However, in the mid-2000s, rising demand in East Asia drove up the price of rhino horn dramatically and led a global surge in rhino poaching. Locally, the arrival of big money in the trade resulted in firearms and professional shooters being brought in, while villagers have been relegated to serving as guides or running errands, Halku said.

The Salkumar Joint Forest Management Committee with ADFO Bimal Debnath (fourth from right, in sunglasses). Photo credit: Ratan Roy

According to Naren (name changed), another self-confessed former poacher, the balance of power between locals and outsiders has shifted. In the past, shooters arriving from outside took shelter in homes within the villages and were passed off as relatives or guests, giving their hosts more bargaining power and a greater role in planning a kill.

Now, he said, the outsiders prefer not to be seen in the villages and ask their local helpers to meet them in out-of-the way locations. They may also pose as tourists, seeking the help of unsuspecting woodcutters or cattle grazers to get familiar with the landscape and rhino-sighting areas, he said.

Modak of the Salkumarhat Joint Forest Management Committee, and also a member of a local awareness group called the Rhino Welfare Foundation, said, “Such outsiders may initially come forward with apparently benign intentions and activities, as health care, blood donation camps, or claiming to work in non-profits for social and community development, in order to get familiar with the villagers,” he said. “Then with the help of local organisers, they identify the appropriate group members from among the villagers to carry on the act.”

There have also been cases where poachers have entered the forest without the help of local villagers. “The idea is to involve as few persons as possible, as during crackdowns and arrests local communities give away the leads and information on the group,” said Forest Officer Debnath. He cited an April 2017 case at Gorumara National Park in which he said three or four people from Manipur, who were trained and habituated in jungle warfare, camped in the park before killing a rhino and escaping with its horn. The perpetrators were only caught when the car in which they were traveling crashed in Assam state. The lone survivor, Lian Dingmuan, is now in jail.

Syringes, slingshots and other modified equipment seized during anti-poaching actions in Jaldapara National Park. Photo credit: Rahul Dutta

“Rhino poaching is getting more professional, high-tech and organised with the growing connections of insurgent groups active in the northeast,” said Rahul Dutta, a wildlife crime investigator with the International Rhino Foundation. He said the use of AK and M16 automatic rifles in recent poaching incidents confirmed the involvement of militant groups in poaching activities, and suggested that wildlife trafficking was being used to fund extremist activities.

Not all innovation is high-tech, though. During the arrests that followed the February poaching incident in Jaldapara, police confiscated an array of items including poison, locally made catapults and slings, and modified syringes and blowpipes used to kill wild animals at close range. According to Debnath, this improvised equipment was brought from Arunachal Pradesh, and is easier to conceal from forest guards than larger and more obvious weapons like rifles. “Such innocuous-looking equipment are safer bets for poachers,” he said.

Dutta said similar items were seized from poachers arrested earlier this year for hunting rhinos at Kaziranga National Park, some 530 km to the east. “This indicates that common syndicates had organised the poaching consecutively, at both Jaldapara and Kaziranga,” he said.

Across the border in Assam state’s Kaziranga National Park, alleged poachers have been arrested with similarly modified equipment. Investigators say this is further evidence the same networks are involved in poaching in both parks. Photo credit: Rahul Dutta

According to Dutta, some of the masterminds behind the rhino poaching operations come from trans-border tribes with a historic presence extending from the Chittagong tracts of Bangladesh to Myanmar. Now confined to the states of Manipur and Mizoram, they retain traditional knowledge of northeastern India and its borders with Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myanmar and China. In particular, many of these traders now live in Churachandpur, a district in Manipur believed by wildlife crime investigators and experts to be the hub of rhino poaching.

It is here that the rhino horns smuggled out of Jaldapara or other habitats eventually land, Dutta said. Manipur shares a 398 km porous border with Myanmar. Traveling through Assam and Itanagar in Arunachal Pradesh, the horns reach the border town of Moreh in Manipur, one of the major conduits for cross-border wildlife trafficking. From here, they are slipped to Tamu, the first transit town across the Myanmar border, about 5 km from Moreh.

According to a report by IUCN-Species Survival Commission and the NGO TRAFFIC, this cross-border trade into Myanmar is the primary route for smuggling rhino horns from India to China, the suspected end-use destination. The report identifies Myanmar’s Kachin and Shan states, which border China, as areas of particular concern. From here, the authors report, animal parts like rhino horns find their way into China, completing a chain of commerce that begins in small communities near rhino habitats.

A rhino in Jaldapara. Photo credit: Udayan Dasgupta/Mongabay

This article first appeared on Mongabay.