[Assam] Poaching in Kaziranga for Bin Laden

Sanjib Baruah baruah at bard.edu
Mon May 14 02:51:25 PDT 2007

Thought this report in the London Guardian would be of interest.

Sanjib Baruah

Poaching for Bin Laden

In the jungles of India, local animal trappers have a new breed of client: 
Islamic militants using the trade in rare wildlife to raise funds for 
their cause. Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark report from Assam

Saturday May 5, 2007
The Guardian
It is so early in the morning that the cooks in the roadside dhabas along 
India's National Highway 37 are asleep in their kitchens, their tandoors 
unlit. Across the valley of Assam, in this far north-easterly corner of 
India, there is not a flicker of light except the feeble yellow beams from 
the Gypsies, the open-backed vehicles carrying small groups of tourists to 
the edge of one of the world's most bountiful jungles.
Kaziranga - 429 sq km of forest, sandbanks and grassland - was recognised 
by Unesco in 1985 as a world heritage site. Tourists come in their 
thousands to glimpse some of the 480 species of bird, 34 kinds of mammal 
and 42 varieties of fish, many rare, endangered or near extinct, that 
inhabit this remote jungle.
In recent times, however, the wildlife has attracted a new kind of 
visitor. According to India's security services, police, intelligence 
analysts, local traders and forestry officials, Islamic militants 
affiliated to al-Qaida are sponsoring poaching in the reserve for profit. 
These groups have established bases in the formerly moderate enclave of 
Bangladesh and have agents operating all along the country's porous 
2,500-mile border with India. They have gone into business with local 
animal trappers and organised crime syndicates around Kaziranga - as well 
as in parks and reserves in Nepal, Burma and Thailand - in a quest for 
horns, ivory, pelts and other animal products with which to raise "under 
the wire" funds that they can move around the world invisibly.
A small rhino horn, the size of a bag of sugar, with good provenance (the 
beast's tail and ears, presented to a prospective buyer) and in the right 
marketplace (in Asia, Europe or North America), can fetch 20,000. Big cat 
pelts can go for up to 10,000. Monkey brains, bear bile, musk, big cat 
carcasses, elephant feet, tails, horns and teeth have considerable value. 
A shipment worth 2.8m was recently intercepted by UK customs. Profits from 
the trade run from $15bn to an incredible $25bn a year, according to 
estimates from the WWF (formerly the World Wide Fund for Nature). The 
punishment for trading in these items is generally a fine as low as 300 in 
India and 900 in Nepal.
A senior Indian security source, based in the north-east, who has tracked 
the incursion into the trade by Bangladeshi militants, warns that the 
poaching has global consequences. "There is an environmental disaster in 
the offing here, but as pressing are the security ramifications," he says. 
"Only a minuscule percentage of the vast profits need to trickle back into 
a nascent Islamic insurgency in a country like Bangladesh to bring it to 
the boil. And then it can reach out around the world."
In 2000, US president Bill Clinton commissioned "a global threat 
assessment" which concluded that the illegal trade in animal parts and 
endangered species was second only to drugs in the profits it could turn. 
That same year, the UN general assembly expressed its strong conviction 
that the "transnational crime" of trafficking in endangered species had 
growing links with terrorism. The WWF took up the baton and commissioned a 
report from Wolverhampton University that found organised crime was taking 
advantage of existing routes used for smuggling small arms, drugs and 
humans. The UK scene was a microcosm, with 50% of those prosecuted for 
wildlife crimes having previous convictions for serious offences including 
drugs and guns.
That's if there is such a prosecution: ill-defined laws often prevent 
police making arrests. British torpor was highlighted in London in 2004, 
when customs intercepted a multimillion-pound ivory haul but were 
powerless to arrest anyone. Meanwhile, radical Islamists from Bangladesh 
have done what conservationists had long predicted and moved in on the 
endangered species racket.
One has only to tour Kaziranga, or any of the outlying parks in Assam or 
Nepal, to understand why. Dawn breaks as our convoy of Gypsies reaches the 
park. The rangers whisper urgently, "Gorh", the local word for rhinoceros. 
Metres away, eight rhino are lumbering through the rich alluvial mud, 
showing off their prized uni-horn. There are more than 2,000 of these 
short-sighted beasts here, making up three-quarters of the global stock of 
one of the rarest pachyderms in the world. Beside them are scores of swamp 
deer coloured like the scrub. A group of wild buffalo, whose colossal 
horns have the span of a longboat oar, plod by, as does a troop of 
elephants, their tusks glinting in the purple dawn. Somewhere in the long 
grass, which rises in clumps like a castle keep, are more Royal Bengal 
tigers per square kilometre than in any other stretch of jungle in the 
world - broken down into their constituent parts, each is worth as much as 
a bespoke Italian racing car.
The gangs hired to trap and kill in Kaziranga are said by forestry staff 
to camp on the vast sand bars created by the flow of the Brahmaputra 
river. The river here is at least a kilometre wide and we haggle with a 
man paddling a wooden canoe to take us across. But as soon as it dawns on 
him where we intend to go, he backs out of the deal. "I will not go 
there," he says. "The people who live there will skin me alive." He offers 
to rent us his boat instead, and with our driver, a migrant from the 
impoverished state of Bihar, we launch ourselves into the water. The 
nearest sand bar is clearly visible, but so vicious are the currents that 
it takes two hours to reach it.
As we near, people who look more like Saharan Touaregs than Assamese run 
towards the shore, waving hunting rifles. Trapped in a swirling eddy, we 
can't decide what to do. From the sand bar, they pelt the canoe with 
stones. The Bihari driver, who understands what they're saying, starts 
screaming. The canoe pitches and rolls as we try to calm him. He takes a 
deep breath and addresses the angry crowd: "These are only here for 
talking. Please... These bring gifts. Not the police." We hold up baskets 
of fruit, bags of nuts and sweets. The sand bar dwellers lower their 
weapons and motion us ashore.
We climb the bank and at the crest of the dune see there are hundreds of 
them, living in an improvised encampment. We want to know about life on 
the sand bar, we say, passing round the food. They shrug, munching. One 
man offers: "We are people who have few rights." Another agrees: "We are 
poor and we do what we can." Does that include poaching? Has anyone 
trapped animals from Kaziranga? Now everyone is eating and nearly all the 
hands shoot into the air.
One man says, "We are for hire. We can trap and shoot, but when the summer 
rain comes, the river breaks its banks and the animals float to us." 
Another adds, "We patrol the park's border, too; when the animals wander 
out, we are there." He pulls from his pocket an unidentifiable animal 
These sand bar dwellers at the start of the tangled enterprise know far 
more about the intricacies of the business than the authorities told us 
they would. They draw trafficking routes in the sand, explaining how the 
trade is coordinated by agents across Assam. A villager places stones on 
the sand-map to mark the towns. "Golaghat, Tezpur, Kamrup, Nagaon, these 
are the main places for agents." They answer to a boss based in Dimapur, 
one of the richest cities in the neighbouring state of Nagaland, with a 
highway that runs into Burma and rail links to New Delhi and Calcutta . 
"But everything tends to collect and move through Siliguri," a villager 
says, identifying a chaotic city in West Bengal which is also a 
springboard into the Himalayan kingdoms of Nepal and Bhutan.
What do they poach? "Whatever we can and whatever we are asked for." The 
money is in rhino horn and elephant tusks, the latter taking advantage of 
a black hole in the forestry department's record-keeping. While the rhino 
population remains closely monitored, no accurate records are kept for 
elephants. The forestry department estimates that 170 were poached over a 
six-year period, but the sand bar people claim a figure almost double 
>From whom do they take orders? The villagers look stony-faced. They talk 
among themselves. "The Tibetans and Chinese are big men in this," says 
one, "but we are all from Bangladesh. Bangladeshis dominate the network 
now." Are they talking only about those living in India, or about orders 
coming from over the border, too? They shrug and mumble, clearly 
distressed. We should talk to an agentder from Siliguri with betel-red 
teeth tells the same story. "This was a Chinese business but now it's 
Bangladesh's business. It's become God's work," he says, raising an 
eyebrow. "And, as you know, the Prophet, peace be upon his head, is 
It all began two years ago. Says the haulier,"A friend in common at a 
local mosque [in West Bengal] passed me a message saying representatives 
working for two militia groups in Bangladesh wanted a meet in a madrassah 
[seminary] in Siliguri."
A trader with an import-export company near to the India-Bangladesh border 
explains: "They came to us because we are the same as them," he says. "The 
hauliers and money men behind the wildlife trade are of Bangladeshi 
origin. The poachers, too. All of us can move freely over the border. We 
look right. Talk the same. They wanted in. Small, valuable commodities - 
horn, teeth, pelts - fetch incredible prices and are easy to conceal among 
legitimate export goods. Also, something truly valuable can be used to 
borrow against, to secure a line of credit."
The traditional methods by which anyone wishing to raise and transport 
money invisibly were through nominal charities, the gold market and the 
global unofficial banking system known as hawala. But these were heavily 
disrupted after September 11 2001, the traders say. New channels were 
Three of those who claimed to have been at the meeting two years ago say 
they knew exactly whom the agents worked for in Bangladesh: Al Mujahideen, 
an obscure jihadist umbrella organisation governing a panoply of militant 
groups that have sprung up in Bangladesh in recent years. Two in 
particular, both banned by the Bangladeshi government, were in need of 
money and eager to get into the racket, said Siliguri traders. One was 
Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HuJI), allegedly linked to al-Qaida; the second 
was Jama'atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), whose leader, Shaikh Abdur 
Rahman, had joined Bin Laden's World Islamic Front for the Jihad Against 
the Jews and the Crusaders in 1998. He was captured in Bangladesh and in 
March was hanged for the killing of two Bangladeshi judges and for 
nationwide bombings in 2005.
A 147 million-strong, predominantly Muslim state, Bangladesh was once 
renowned for its religious and ethnic tolerance. Then, six years ago, 
Jamaat-e-Islami, a radical Islamic party, was elected as a coalition 
partner in the ruling government.
Extremists, especially the HuJI and JMB, have already been accused of a 
string of terrorist attacks. In June 2001, former prime minister Sheikh 
Hasina was injured when an explosion killed 20 and injured 300 at a rally 
in Dhaka. On May 21 2004, Anwar Choudhury, the British ambassador to 
Bangladesh, was targeted in a bomb blast that claimed the lives of three 
others, including his bodyguard. In January 2005, the former finance 
minister and four other opposition activists were killed and 70 people 
injured when a grenade was thrown during a meeting in the north. Some 
graduates from terrorist training camps run by the HuJI were recently 
arrested, suspected of plotting a coordinated wave of 459 explosions that 
detonated across Bangladesh on August 17 2005.
There is already an international dimension, too. After the fall of Kabul 
in 2001, in a now notorious incident, the MV Mecca, a boat loaded with 150 
Taliban and al-Qaida cadres, was said by Bangladeshi intelligence sources 
to have anchored off the country's Chittagong port, where small boats 
ferried them ashore. The Indonesian authorities raised concerns about the 
direction Bangladesh was taking after interrogating "Hambali", the leader 
of Indonesia's militant Jemaah Islamiya group, who was arrested in 
Thailand in connection with the Bali bombings in August 2002. Hambali, 
currently in US custody at Guantnamo Bay, allegedly admitted having made 
plans to shift part of his organisation to Bangladesh as life got more 
difficult at home.
Earlier this year India said it had intelligence connecting Bangladeshi 
militant groups with some of those behind the Mumbai train blasts of July 
11 2006, in which more than 100 people died and 700 were injured. India 
also claims that on January 4 this year, two Bangladeshi nationals, who 
admitted belonging to HuJI, were arrested in New Delhi carrying 1.42kg of 
explosives, four electronic detonators and two hand grenades thought 
intended for the Republic Day celebrations.
The Indian security services officer we interviewed says, "There has been 
a significant migration from Bangladesh, with tens of millions fleeing to 
expatriate communities abroad. Poverty has helped radicalise them and we 
have put to your government our concern that the increasingly ambitious 
militant groups in Bangladesh are aiming to incite the exiles and so 
broaden the jihad - as Pakistani groups did in Britain."
This warning was echoed by Bruce Riedel, a former director on Clinton's Nd 
wildfowl tear out of the undergrowth, shrieking, setting off the 
bar-headed geese, which clatter and flap over the water. A lame Chinook 
clips the trees, shaking up a colony of ring-tailed macaques; they go off 
like car alarms. Osprey, kites and fish eagles. Wigeons, pigeons, 
shovellers and barbets. Shrikes, thrushes and bronzed drongos. Names of 
birds, inelegant and bizarre, are whispered by the mahouts, who identify 
everything they see as if constantly making an inventory of the jungle 
that is now at screaming pitch. A radio crackles. It is the rangers' HQ 
Miles away, with the electricity supply cut again, the duty officer 
huddles by a loudspeaker powered by a car battery. Next door, Central 
Range chief Dharanidhar Boro sits at his table, a bowl of rice in front of 
him. He is one of the most vigorous of the park's rangers charged with 
disrupting the poaching. But he is exhausted.
Boro is an awkward man. He does not drink or get stoned when all around 
him do. He believes in straight talking. "We cannot stop but it is 
difficult sometimes to go on. We are up against it. This is hard, hard 
work. We have to be merciless. This is a war for survival."
He pulls from a cabinet a photo album. On the first page is a picture of a 
corpse splattered by shotgun fire. "I killed this man as he prepared to 
stake out a rhino." He turns the pages and points to another corpse, its 
entrails dangling like ship's bunting. "I killed this one, too, as he 
sawed at a rhino's horn." There are scores more photographs picturing the 
dead laid out like mackerel.
We ask him about the new jihadi component in the trade. "We hear things 
but we have no hard facts. The rhino horns are used to buy guns and bombs, 
we are told. The guys we catch, what can they tell us? The colour of the 
shirt worn by the guy who paid them off."
In December, Boro's men tracked a gang of poachers to their tents. They 
had fled but left behind a new, modern tranquilliser gun and darts. "They 
used to shoot at rhinos, but the crack of the bullet is a problem as it 
carries far and we will hear. Some place poison. Others pull down power 
lines and try to electrocute the animals. However, recently they have come 
here with silencers. We are finding increasingly sophisticated weapons."
The poaching figures for Kaziranga were stark until very recently. As many 
as 48 rhinos a year were being killed for their horn, a figure comparable 
to about 2% of the total population in Assam. The state is classified as a 
"disturbed area", with a stubborn and often bloody secessionist movement 
desperate to break free from New Delhi. Militants have been fighting for 
27 years and 10,000 lives have been lost. Recently, as peace talks began, 
there was a lull, then an insurgency blew up in Nepal. Boro says, "Through 
better organisation among the rangers and better stability in Assam, the 
gangs laid off us and started attacking Nepal, which also has rhino." Then 
he adds dourly, "We cannot count on peace."
Shortly before we arrived in Assam in February, seven Hindi-speaking 
labourers were shot dead at one of the state's brick kilns. A railway 
bridge was blown up, just missing a crowded train. Masked gunmen attacked 
six labourers' colonies in the northern districts of Dibrugarh and 
Tinsukia, killing 48 Indian settlers. Another eight people, including 
police officers, died when their vehicle hit a roadside mine in the 
central Karbi Anglong district. It was the state's worst violence in a 
decade, all the killings perpetrated by the United Liberation Front of 
Assam. An indefinite curfew was imposed while the Indian security forces 
combed the jungle for rebel camps and forest rangers hid themselves among 
the trees, waiting, resignedly, for the opportunists to arrive. Whether 
it's an independence struggle in Assam or an al-Qaida terror campaign, the 
outlook is perilous for the wildlife of Kaziranga.

More information about the Assam mailing list