The street inside the Tibetan settlement at New Delhi’s Majnu ka Tila wound around a cluster of small businesses. Striped Tibetan chubas and western skirts hung above the awnings of some shops. Ball. Food stalls with red plastic seats served steaming bowls of thukpa and po cha.

Walking briskly around the area, Guptaji headed to where he knew his contact was waiting. A middle-aged man of middling height, silver hair receding at the brow, clad in pants and a blue shirt, Guptaji carried a brown, scuffed duffel bag.

He found a plastic chair. A bowl of po cha appeared, followed by a man carrying a parcel wrapped in an old Hindustan Times newspaper. Guptaji opened his duffel bag and his companion briefly glanced into it. He, in turn, opened his parcel for Guptaji to inspect.

“Gaadi mein,” Guptaji instructed “In the car.”

Outside, an old Gypsy was waiting. Five minutes later, Guptaji was joined by two other men, with a much larger bundle. As Gypsy rounded the bend, three jeeps blocked their way. Uniformed men jumped out of the police vehicles. The Tibetans jumped out but were soon overpowered. A police officer came around to the driver seat and whispered to Guptaji, ‘Sorry sir, we have to take you in too.” As the handcuffs clicked, Guptaji chuckled softly.

Largest seizure

It was 1992 and the arrest of the two criminals was just about to blow the lid off a huge trading ring. The bundle retrieved from the jeep contained tiger bones and skin. In subsequent raids based upon the interrogation of the two men, more than 400 kilos of tiger and leopard bones and dozens of skins were seized from the Tibetan settlement. This was the single-largest seizure of big cat skins in India.

The authorities had discovered a well-oiled smuggling machine that was converting the national animal into skin and bones to be smuggled into China using Tibetans as couriers. These parts were used as ingredients in traditional Chinese medicine. The kingpin was a trader based out of the winding alleys of Old Delhi named Sansar Chand. He a low-profile, middle aged man who ran the world’s largest illegal empire in tiger parts. The arrest of his main partner in crime was made possible by a man with an equally low profile: Guptaji, who was known to his family and in conservation circles as Ashok Kumar.

The scuffed brown duffel bag was in the corner of the room where he interviewed me in 1990 to help him set up the first Wildlife Crime Monitoring Unit at WWF-India. We wrote a proposal that converted the unit into TRAFFIC-India, the country’s first professional organisation to monitor wildlife crime and to help enforcement agencies nab wildlife traders and poachers.

Pioneering reports

For the next two and a half decades, Kumar and I worked to fight wildlife crimes and to conserve India’s fast depleting wildlife. At the United Nations, we fought the lobbies that tried to create trade access for ivory, rhino horn and tiger parts. India’s position, to be unequivocally against opening any form of trade in animal derivatives, has Ashok Kumar to thank for.

At home, Kumar was instrumental in the formation of the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau in 2007 through his work as member secretary of the Subramaniam Commission, which was established to find ways to tackle wildlife crime. TRAFFIC-India pioneered wildlife trade studies in India with reports on ivory, rhino horn, tiger, shahtoosh and agarwood being releasedevery year.

Ashok Kumar with the pelts of poached animals in 2007

He started training programmes on wildlife crime for frontline forest guards and enforcement officers from the Customs, police, and para-military forces. In these multilateral and government rooms and halls, Kumar was always the outsider trying to make a point. It was in two other arenas that he really came into his own.

The first was as a serial litigant in the courts of law. Not just in the Supreme Court but in every small trial court where wildlife criminals first meets the judiciary. His home in Meerut was not far from the district courts and he grew up smelling court ledgers. When state governments asked him for support, he filed cases against poachers. He filed interventions against Sansar Chand and the ivory traders of India. He filed a PIL in 1998 to demand the enforcement of the law that made the chiru a protected animal in Jammu and Kashmir and against traders stockpiling ivory in Rajasthan.

While wildlife traders drew his ire the most, he went after celebrity hunters as well. Both in the Salman Khan case of 1998 and the Pataudi case of 2005, it was Kumar’s interventions, both covert and overt, that ensured that the cases made their way through the courts and stayed in the media spotlight. In tortuous, long-drawn out litigations, he displayed the zeal of a crusader and the tenacity of a bulldog.

Working in the shadows

The other role he played was that of a pretend criminal, wandering through dusty alleys that held the secret to the trade in wildlife parts. Guptajii would emerge in them regularly and across the country with his brown duffel bag with some show money hidden in it. Deals would be struck, law enforcement would move in and a key link in the chain would be broken. In doing all this he earned the loyalty of dozens of enforcement officers, for Guptaji could crack what none of them could or dared to. His understated persona was the reason he got people’s confidence, his razor-sharp focus was what undid them.

Kumar’s love for wildlife took root when, his youth, he walked the Himalayan foothills of Dudhwa National Park. He developed a conservation consciousness, he told Sanctuary Asia magazine, when he was working with Tata Steel in eastern India in the mid-1960s. His job took him through the region, passing “through forest after forest”. He added: “I used to visit Simlipal often, and those forests with their elephants had me totally captivated.” He began lobbying for the creation of Dalma Wildlife Sanctuary near Jamshedpur. In 1975, his efforts paid off.

Still, it wasn’t until he joined the WWF in 1990 that he began to work with wildlife fulltime.

Rich legacy

Kumar was a critical ally and a co-founder of the Wildlife Trust of India that we set up in 1998. Till his passing in 2016 at the age of 81, he commandeered the small unit that offered trade control and legal support to government with his characteristic understated brilliance, his fierce passion for bringing wildlife criminals to book and a soft chuckle.

The father of the fight against wildlife crime is no more but his legacy lives on in TRAFFIC-India, in the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau, the Global Tiger Forum, the Wildlife Protection Society of India and finally at the Wildlife Trust of India. It also lives on, whenever the country announces a rise in tiger or elephant numbers for it was his fight that exposed the insidious threats of wildlife crime that spurred the protection that followed.

Vivek Menon is the co-founder of the Wildlife Trust of India. He worked closely with Ashok Kumar.