On a full moon night in early May, poachers struck in Agratoli on the eastern side of India’s famed Kaziranga National Park.
Forest guards found the carcass of a greater one-horned rhinoceros with its horn missing on May 9, confirming it to be a case of poaching. Eight automatic rifle bullets were recovered from the spot.
More than two months after the incident and several arrests and an encounter killing later, police say they have vital clues which suggest that cadres of the Zomi Revolutionary Army, an insurgent group with a presence in the Manipur state in the North East India and its border with Myanmar, are a crucial cog in a transnational rhino horn smuggling racket that extends to South East Asia and China via Myanmar.
The police have invoked the stringent Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act – a controversial anti-terror law – against two of the alleged poachers to ensure a more coordinated investigation, according to officials who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The May poaching incident in Kaziranga, situated in Assam, was the first such incident in 13 months. Data shared by the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau, the country’s apex agency to combat organised wildlife crime, show a drastic decline in wildlife crime and poaching cases.
The records show 698 such cases were recorded in the country in 2015. The number fell by less than half to 295 cases in 2019. By mid-June this year, only 19 wildlife crime cases had been registered in the country, according to incomplete data provided by the bureau in response to a Right to Information query. The bureau did not provide details of specific cases.
West Bengal tops the list, with 56 cases in 2019, followed by Uttar Pradesh with 54 cases. Assam, much smaller in size but home to endangered flora and fauna, recorded 24 cases in 2019.
Poaching syndicates are looking for any window of opportunity, the authorities say.
This was borne out on August 8, when another rhino poaching was reported from the banks of the Brahmaputra river in Kohora, the central range of the national park.
Situated in Central Assam, the more than 1,100 sq km of Kaziranga National Park and Tiger Reserve’s wetlands and forests are a refuge for many species, including India’s “big five” – greater one-horned rhinos, also known as Indian rhinos, eastern swamp deer, Bengal tigers, buffaloes and elephants.
The park is known for its protection of rhinos, whose population has risen to more than 2,400 and whose conservation status has changed from endangered to vulnerable since 2008.
Around the same time the rhino poaching incident took place in May, police in Karbi Anglong district neighbouring Kaziranga received information about the movement of a heavily armed gang.
“We did not know if they were insurgents or poachers, but we launched an operation to nab them,” said a top police official in the district who asked not to be named.
Karbi Anglong shares a border with Nagaland, a hilly state in northeast India bordering Myanmar that is known to harbour armed insurgents.
On May 28 this armed group was waylaid by forest guards on patrol in the Daldali Forest Reserve in Karbi Anglong, close to the Assam-Nagaland border.
In the encounter, one alleged poacher – Mangboi Paite – was killed and six others managed to escape.
In June the six members of the gang who had escaped were arrested. Sophisticated weapons, including four AK series rifles, were seized.
“We recovered more than 500 bullets. It shows their intentions,” said the police official. “They had big plans for the monsoon season.”
A forest department official said the gang had arrived in the Karbi Anglong district before the Covid-19 lockdown in March. “You need one bullet to kill a rhino. They managed to kill the rhino after three failed attempts in other areas of Kaziranga,” the official said.
The rhino was allegedly shot by David Siama, a geography graduate who lives in Churachandpur on the Indo-Myanmar border, according to Ramesh Gogoi, the divisional forest official in Kaziranga.
Siama had trained with the Zomi Revolutionary Army but had quit the organisation midway during his training and before he was officially inducted as a member, Gogoi said. Siama is the brother of Mangboi Paite, who was killed during the gang’s initial encounter with forest guards.
The gang included two known rhino poachers, John Thang and Simon Lakra. Police and Kaziranga forest officials say the six have confessed to their role in the May rhino poaching incident, and charges will be filed against them soon.
Thang and Lakra have a history of involvement in rhino poaching and have been arrested previously, said a police official. “They planned this poaching when they were in jail together in 2018,” he said.
Thang is alleged to have been an active poacher since 2007, and was first caught in 2014 with more than 200 AK-47 bullets that he was allegedly delivering to a shooter, said police sub-inspector Deben Bora.
In 2015 Lakra and Thang were again arrested during a police raid on a poachers’ camp in Karbi Anglong, and they were both arrested again in 2017. After each arrest, they were released on bail.
Investigators made a breakthrough this time when based on clues during the interrogation of the six alleged poachers, they arrested Chizason Valte on July 2 in Churachandpur.
The director of Kaziranga park, P Sivakumar, said Valte was a big catch. “He heads one of the rhino poaching groups,” he said.
Valte is a crucial link between the Zomi Revolutionary Army and the rhino poachers. “He is the planner and financier,” added the first police official quoted above.
The Zomi Revolutionary Army, one of the many armed groups in Manipur, was formed in 1997, following an increase in ethnic tensions in Churachandpur district. It is part of the United People’s Front, a larger umbrella group of insurgents which have suspended operations during a dialogue with the central government.
A senior leader of the group, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the Zomi outfit was one of the largest in the area, with at least 300 cadres who receive a monthly stipend from the government.
Valte arrived in Karbi Anglong more than a decade ago, according to police, and stayed there for three to four years running a small tea shop. He came in touch with Lakra and carried out several rhino poachings, the official said. He subsequently wound up his small business and returned to Churachandpur.
“He made enough money and started financing the poaching groups,” the police official said.
Valte’s suspected involvement in rhino poaching also cropped up in 2017 when a rhino horn was recovered from a car involved in an accident in Guwahati. Lian Dingmuan, the lone survivor of the accident, told police the rhino was poached in West Bengal by him and three other cadres of the Zomi Revolutionary Army at Valte’s behest.
“Valte is a habitual offender. He is part of the cartel,” said an official with Manipur’s forest department.
“Valte has given us crucial information about how the network operates,” said the first police official quoted above. “We have come to know that the Zomi Revolutionary Army either orders the poaching, or buys the rhino horn from other poachers.”
The Zomi Revolutionary Army acts as an important intermediary between the Indian border state and Myanmar before the horn is further smuggled to China, he said.
The group’s leader said they operated mostly in Churachandpur and to some extent across the border in Myanmar, but cross-border business had come to a standstill since the Covid-19 lockdown.
Asked if wildlife parts are also trafficked, the leader said, “Sometimes it happens.”
Asked if the group was part of the recent trafficking network, the leader squarely denied this and said, “No way! Zomi Revolutionary Army is not in any dirty business, smuggling or drugs.”
He said he had read about Valte’s arrest in the newspapers but he had nothing to do with the insurgent group. “He may be an individual hunter,” the leader said.
Cross-border trade of rhino horns into Myanmar has become the primary smuggling route from Assam after strict law enforcement crippled the Nepalese poaching networks using pipelines via Nepal to Tibet, the Asian Rhino Specialist Group noted in a 2016 report. Rhino horn fetches a high price in and is used in traditional medicines. Others buy it as a status symbol.
A security official in Manipur said the cross-border trade happens with the connivance of the many insurgent outfits operating in the area.
“Nothing moves without their connivance,” said this official, who asked to remain anonymous. “It is these groups who have the network in Myanmar as well.”
The Indo-Myanmar border town of Moreh was until recently a haven for smugglers, but the highway that leads to Moreh has multiple checkpoints and smuggling has become increasingly difficult. In 2018 a Manipur police constable was caught carrying rhino horn in Senapati district. The horn was headed to Moreh.
“Churachandpur offers an easier route,” said the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau official.
Another retired security official who was involved in investigating wildlife trafficking from India to South East Asia pointed out how the road from Churachandpur town to Behiang, a village on the Indo-Myanmar border, falls under Zomi Revolutionary Army’s area of influence.
“Zomi Revolutionary Army has well-established links and networks in Myanmar as well which they leverage to sell the horn,” the first police official said.
Based on Valte’s interrogation, investigators are optimistic about cracking other layers of the wildlife crime syndicates. The investigators believe there are five or six such groups active in Churachandpur. Earlier, the investigators could only trace the planners in Nagaland or Arunachal Pradesh.
In Assam, where Kaziranga is based, sustained pressure on poaching networks has yielded results.
Tiger poaching cases came down from 61 in 2016-2018 to just four in 2019. Instances of elephant poaching decreased from 33 in 2015-2016 to six in 2018-2019.
Between 2013 and 2016, 120 rhinos were poached in Assam and West Bengal, and there were instances where forest department workers were also arrested for their suspected role. Data furnished by Assam’s forest department shows that from 37 rhino poaching incidents in 2013, the number reduced to just two incidents until August 10.
“No poaching incidents doesn’t mean the pressure is not there,” said Gogoi. Data from the Assam forest department records 343 arrests between 2016 and 2018. Between January 2019 and July this year, Biswanath Wildlife division, a part of Kaziranga, recorded 68 arrests.
“In Assam, there is a clear political will to tackle poaching,” said the first Wildlife Crime Control Bureau official quoted above. “From 25 rhino poachings per year, the number has come down to 0-5 a year over the past three years.”
However, if convictions in court are anything to go by the investigations have been tardy. Records of Assam forest department show that between January 1, 2016, and December 31, 2018, only 19 persons arrested and charged for their role in poaching were convicted, amid allegations that the forest officials were also targeting innocent locals.
“This is due to procedural lapses in investigations,” Sivakumar said. He added that there had been an improvement in convictions involving rhino poaching cases.
A low rate of convictions is not the only reason in the way of checking wildlife trafficking. Officials complain about lack of coordination between states which hinders investigations.
Manipur, for example, has a poor record when it comes to tackling wildlife trafficking. Amrita Sinha, Superintendent of Police in Churachandpur, who was instrumental in Valte’s arrest, said there were no cases registered in the district in the past year.
The whole state of Manipur only reported one case of poaching of other wildlife crime in 2017 and 2019.
Wildlife Crime Control Bureau, the body entrusted with the collection of intelligence and coordination of action between states, is hugely understaffed.
Assam and Manipur have just one inspector-level official each. One of its officials complained about how states did not provide the agency with complete data on cases of wildlife crime.
Nonetheless, investigators in Assam are optimistic about making more inroads into the transnational poaching networks. Invoking the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act would make obtaining bail difficult for suspects and could pave the way for the country’s top investigative agencies to take over the probe.
“This will help in uncovering the larger network,” said the first police official quoted above.
GP Singh, Assam’s Additional Director General of Police, said the local police had sought help from central investigative and intelligence agencies in its probe of the May incident.
Back at Kaziranga, reeling under severe floods in recent months, Sivakumar knows it’s a long battle. “It is still a long way to go,” he said.
Forest department officials detained six locals for questioning after the latest rhino poaching on August 8.
The police official first quoted above said since the poachers likely came from the North Bank of the Brahmaputra, it was suspected the incident was linked to Arunachal Pradesh and that the rhino horn would make its way to Myanmar via Nagaland or Manipur.
“We are moving up the chain and investigating the planners sitting in Nagaland, Manipur or even Myanmar,” said GP Singh. “We are also investigating their linkages with insurgent/terrorist outfits operating in the region.”