[Assam] Hunters poaching in Assam for Osama
Pradip Kumar Datta
pradip200 at yahoo.com
Thu May 24 00:00:07 PDT 2007
Hunters poaching for Osama
Rhino and buffalo horn, elephant tusk, tiger parts: all are being poached and turned into a useful source of funds for terrorist operations linked to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda.
Photo: Composite Picture
Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark, Guwahati, Assam
May 13, 2007
IT IS 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 â" 429 square kilometres of forest, sandbanks and grassland â" 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-Qaeda 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 4000-kilometre border with India. They have gone into business with local animal trappers and organised crime syndicates around Kaziranga â" as well as in parks and reserves in Nepal, Burma and Thailand â" 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 senior Indian security source 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" that 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 conviction that the "transnational crime" of trafficking in endangered species had growing links with terrorism.
One has only to tour Kaziranga, or any of the outlying parks in Assam or Nepal, to understand how it is happening and why prosecutions are rare. Dawn breaks as our convoy of Gypsies reaches the park. The rangers whisper urgently, "Gorh", the local word for rhinoceros. Metres away, eight rhinos lumber through the rich alluvial mud, showing off their prized uni-horn. There are more than 2000 of these short-sighted beasts here, making up three-quarters of the global stock of one of the rarest pachyderms in the world. 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 are more Bengal tigers per square kilometre than in any other stretch of jungle in the world â" 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 rent a wooden canoe to take us across. 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 nomads 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. Our 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 â¦ 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."
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 co-ordinated 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 that 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 that.
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 agent they name in a nearby city.
In nearby Tezpur, the wildlife trade agent turns out to be a rich local jeweller, but he is tight-lipped and refers us to his boss in another town. This boss, who runs a local hotel, says he can't talk without clearance from the bhai, the big boss in Siliguri. After 10 hours on the broken highway, we find his modest house in a chaotic suburb. Over plates of dhal-fry, bread and curd, he tells us he is a haulier, shipping freight over the border with Bangladesh, but also "a man of many hats. One hat, you could say, is in animals. I move a lot of everything: elephant ivory, cat skins, musk deer, bear gall bladders, rhino horn, live leopard cubs that are sent to Nepal, Burma and then into Thailand. The prices we pay are so low, the profit margins are healthy." He opens both arms expansively, as if demonstrating the size of a fish. "We can get a snow leopard pelt for $1000 and sell it for 10 times that. Ivory can be bought for as little as $200 a kilo and sold for 100 times
He munches on a red onion as a glass of milk poured straight from a churn froths in front of him on the table. How did he get involved? The wildlife trade in the town took off in 1983, he says, when old trafficking networks in Calcutta were effectively shut down by the police.
The Siliguri police confirm that soon after this, a stash of horns was discovered, tipping them off to the town's new business. But it was not until 1995 that the local authorities grasped the scale of the racket when, in the first operation of its kind in India, an entire syndicate trading in rhino horn was rolled up and found to have members in China, Taiwan and Tibet. "But these police successes were few and far between," claims the haulier, showing us his gleaming new trucks and his home â" the first in town to have a flat-screen TV, now with one in every room.
He is happy to talk, and calls colleagues to confirm his stories. Eventually we ask who's behind the Bangladeshi business. "Where, not who," he says and points to Bangladesh. "Religious men hold the purse strings now. The business has changed. Their agents came to see us. They want a low-risk business."
A trader from Siliguri 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 irresistible. "
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 (meeting) in a madrassah (seminary) in Siliguri." A trader with an import-export company near 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 â" horn, teeth, pelts â" 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 needed.
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-Qaeda; the second was Jama'atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), whose leader, Sheikh 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 in Dhaka. In May 2004, the British ambassador to Bangladesh was targeted in a bomb blast that claimed the lives of three others. In January 2005, a former finance minister and 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 wave of 459 explosions that detonated across Bangladesh in August 2005.
Indonesian authorities raised concerns about the direction Bangladesh was taking after interrogating Hambali, the leader of Indonesia's militant Jemaah Islamiah group, who was arrested in Thailand in connection with the Bali bombings in August 2002. Hambali, currently in Guantanamo 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 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 1.42 kilograms of explosives, electronic detonators and hand grenades thought intended for 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 (the British) Government our concern that the increasingly ambitious militant groups in Bangladesh are aiming to incite the exiles and so broaden the jihad â" as Pakistani groups did in Britain."
Making a killing Small rhino horn with good provenance (the beast's tail and ears, presented to a prospective buyer) and in the right marketplace (Asia, Europe or North America) can fetch $50,000.
Big cat pelts can fetch up to $24,000.
Monkey brains, bear bile, musk, big cat carcasses, elephant feet, tails, horns and teeth have considerable value. A shipment worth $6.5 million was recently intercepted by British customs.
Profits from the trade run from $35 billion to $60 billion a year, according to estimates from global environment and animal protection group WWF.
The penalty for trading in these items is generally a fine as low as Â£700 ($1675) in India and Â£2100 in Nepal.
http://www.theage. com.au/news/ world/hunters- poaching- for-osama/ 2007/05/12/ 1178899164208. html?page= fullpage# contentSwap3
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