Hunters become the hunted: Elephant poachers fall prey to their phone calls

  • Leena Gita Reghunath
  • Updated: Jul 07, 2016 13:24 IST
For the first time ever, Operation Shikaar made use of sophisticated Call Data Records (CDR) software to follow the ivory trail and track the huge criminal network, which led to the arrest of 73 accused. (Photo: Wildlife Trust of India)

Elephant poaching made national news last year after Kerala’s forest department seized a total of 464 kg of ivory artefacts, making it one of the India’s biggest-ever ivory hauls. The massive mission, “Operation Shikaar”, involved the seizing of items — roughly estimated to be worth over Rs 13 crore in the international black market — from the custody of a Delhi businessman named Umesh Agarwal.

It is believed that more than 30 tuskers from Kerala and Karnataka were killed to make these heartbreakingly beautiful pieces of art. But if the department’s operation sounds like the plot of an action thriller, consider this: For the first time ever, “Operation Shikaar” made use of sophisticated Call Data Records (CDR) software to follow the ivory trail and track the huge criminal network, which led to the arrest of 73 accused. Truly the stuff movies are made of.

It isn’t just the Kerala forest department that has tracked criminals’ phone records in order to hunt down the killers of their precious tuskers; investigation agencies across the country are increasingly relying on this technology. Earlier, investigators could summon the cellphone data of a suspect from a service provider, and try to understand the calls he made and the area he was in from the data provided. But with more sophisticated software now available, they are able to collect and process much more data in a matter of seconds to gather intelligence and make connections.

In cases of high priority, like national security and terrorism, law enforcers use different software that help them track the movements of suspects and their accomplices, sometimes even in real time. As soon as an investigating officer has a crime on his hands, he calls for cellphone tower data around the place of crime for the duration of the crime, or if he has a suspect, he can ask for the suspect’s call records for the past few days or weeks. Read along with human intelligence, the IO can draw conclusions to get hold of leads in the case.

In the United States, according to a report, the FBI has a dedicated team called the Cellular Analysis and Survey Team that is specially trained to work on software to analyse cellular data. “The Delhi Police too has a team that is trained to work on this,” special commissioner of Delhi Police (crime branch) Taj Hasan, who stresses that this technological information is useless unless combined along with human intelligence, said. CDR analysis or mobile phone analysis just forms one part of intelligence-gathering in an investigation.

The charge sheet of the Mecca Masjid bombing case reveals how the accused, Devender Gupta, Lokesh Sharma and Ramji, had purchased several Nokia mobile phones and 11 SIM cards using fake IDs from various locations in Jharkhand, Bihar, West Bengal and Faridabad, and used them to trigger the blasts. One of the investigating officers in the case, on the condition of anonymity, explained that CDR actually provided the first major breakthrough in the case.

During analysis, investigators found that the SIM cards were put into the mobile phones of the accused and activated, providing the police with clear digital footprints at the scene of the crime. What connected the accused to the crime was that the phones with the specific International Mobile Station Equipment Identity (IMEI) numbers — the unique 15 digit code assigned to each cell phone device — and SIM cards were all found to have been used together.

In the case of the Kerala forest department, sophisticated CDR analysing software helps to process data from multiple towers of multiple service providers over a span of a few days, to understand if an unusual level of communication has taken place in the forests when a tusker dies.

It is believed that more than 30 tuskers from Kerala and Karnataka were killed to make pieces of art. (Photo: Wildlife Trust of India)

Only 6-8% of India’s elephant population is believed to have tusks, making them an unfortunate minority. “It’s not easy to spot a dead elephant in a jungle,” an employee with the Wildlife Trust of India, an NGO that works closely with communities and government on nature conservation projects, explained. During monsoons — poachers’ favourite season — a dead elephant is easily lost in the thick vegetation and decomposed or finished off by other animals within days.

By the time the forest authorities go patrolling, there might be nothing for them to look at. With the help of local guides, who know the forests and the travel patterns of the elephants intimately, the poachers lie in wait in pockets and caves away from the patrolling path of the forest officials. They are often armed with local blacksmith-made guns and bullets crudely shaped out of rounded window bars, and food supplies that can last them for days in the jungle.

Though caught often by forest officials, the poachers are soon back at their job as already overburdened officers struggle with gathering evidence and putting together a case that can meander through a trial court for years. That gives poachers the courage to return to the jungle to continue hunting tuskers. Nothing demonstrated this better than the story of Sansar Chand, who literally wiped out the tiger population of the Sariska tiger reserve in Rajasthan. Though first accused at 18, the Indian judicial system left him free to live a life of crime critically endangering the wildlife that fell prey to him, until cancer claimed his life in his late fifties in March 2015.

Now, the same cellphone technology that helped the poachers get more organised and connected them to middlemen and agents are helping forest officials track them. One investigator, who asked not to be named, explained that earlier, when you got a tower dump from a mobile phone service provider, all you could know from it was that X called Y, who had a particular kind of mobile phone with a specific IMEI number, at a particular time and location. This is not intelligence, it is just data, he explained. Now, however, one can quickly look up other people that Y may have called after completing a call with X on a specific day.

An investigator can also look up the location of X between a certain time (say, between 4 and 5pm) every day, to see where X was travelling. Using these analyses and ground intelligence an investigation officer can figure out what X’s mode of transport was to a particular location. With the help of Android phones and iPhones and the GPS tagging they enable, it is now also easier to locate a person at any given point of time.

The Kerala forest department is not the only agency to use this technology to protect animals and solve wildlife whodunits. The special task force (STF) fighting organised wildlife crime has also been using CDR to drive its investigation of poachers and traffickers of the critically endangered Indian pangolin. Pangolins are nocturnal ant-eating mammals found mainly in Asia and Africa, and are in high demand for use in traditional Chinese medicines, making them the most trafficked mammals in the world.

Only 6-8% of India’s elephant population is believed to have tusks, making them an unfortunate minority. (Photo: Wildlife Trust of India)

The STF has so far nabbed 83 people from 9 states — Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Orissa, West Bengal, Delhi, Assam and Mizoram. More arrests are soon to follow, according to the force, as the racket is spread across India and investigators are following culprits into other states too.

With the growing use of CDR, companies that analyse this information are finding increasing demand. Eighty percent of Indian crimes are now probed with the help of CDR, claimed Manoj Dubey of the Mumbai-based company Ketan Computers, one of the most sought-after firms that help police analyse call data records provided by service providers.

Though the Kerala forest department is happy with the user-friendliness of Ketan Computers software, there are many more players in the field, like the software C5 by Prosoft e-Solutions based in Belagavi, Karnataka. Interpol has its own more sophisticated tracking software that is shared with and used by the Indian investigation agencies.

The technology to trace criminals may be advanced, but it is not foolproof. Investigation officers find that informed criminals often destroy their mobile phones and SIM cards after committing a crime; some even use software that helps them place calls through another person’s mobile phone.

If there was any doubt that this is the stuff of cinema, one investigator said that movies like the 2013 Malayalam film Drishyam further empowered convicts by showing how to mislead the authorities on their trail. In the movie, the hero, portrayed by superstar Mohanlal, waylays investigators about the location of a missing person by throwing the person’s SIM, after inserting it in a second-hand mobile phone, on top of an interstate carrier truck. Although the missing person is dead and buried, the police believe him to be travelling across the country.

Another investigation officer shared an interesting story in which a culprit couriered his mobile phone plugged into a power bank, to throw the police off his tracks. His plan worked well as the mobile phone travelled to the other end of the country, plagued by further delays from the courier company, as police patiently tracked it for weeks.

Though caught often by forest officials, the poachers are soon back at their job as already overburdened officers struggle with gathering evidence and putting together a case that can meander through a trial court for years. (Photo: Wildlife Trust of India)

Ironically, the end customers of the illegal ivory trade are often prominent politicians, movie stars, businessman and judges of the country, said investigators, who blame them for creating the demand that drives the trade. It didn’t help the case of the Kerala forest department when Mohanlal was found to be illegally in possession of 13 pairs of ivory tusks; the ministry of environment and forest and climate change reportedly ended up awarding him with a possession certificate for at least one pair — confusion remains about the amount that was actually seized.

Call data, while useful in tracking criminal activities, can become a dangerous tool in the hands of the wrong person. In June 2016, Haryana police nabbed an IT cell staffer, working under contract with Gurgaon Police, for selling CDR data of Bollywood personalities. Special commissioner Hasan assured this reporter that strict controls are in place to stop people from misusing such data.

“The software by itself can’t do anything,” Dubey of Ketan Computers said. “You have to get all the data dump from every service provider and feed it into the system. Only then can the software give you accurate readings.” And in almost every state, only a police officer at the level of superintendent of police or deputy commissioner of police can demand such details from internet service providers and telecom providers, making it difficult for anyone to summon such sensitive data without security checks.

A major roadblock for forest officers fighting crime is that they have to apply to the police department to get call data from service providers, and this slows down the investigation considerably. Instead of having to resort to the inter-department request system, investigators are hoping that the government will issue power to someone higher up in their department, and give them the same authority as an SP or DCP, to call for this data.

There is one other drawback to using CDR for criminal investigations: Its value as evidence in a courtroom is limited. Courts require documentation and reports analysing CDR can be tampered with — when they are admitted as evidence, they need to be certified by competent authorities as original reports. In Indian courts CDR is rarely called for as primary evidence; and when it is submitted as secondary evidence, it is duly supported by other documents and statements.

In the United States, where CDR is often used as clinching evidence to secure sentences, the recent case of Lisa Marie Roberts — who was released after being wrongly imprisoned for nine and a half years for a murder she did not commit because her cellphone data was misinterpreted — has also called into question the legal validity of CDR as legal evidence.

The divisional forest officer of Malayattor in Kerala, K Vijayanand, credits CDR with the success of “Operation Shikaar”. Currently, the investigation has been rounded off and the Forest Department team is in the thick of submitting charge sheets in the 18 related cases. In six of these cases, the trials have already started. Vijayanand said that this time, his team has worked hard to ensure that poachers do not get out on bail only so they can go right back to poaching. Using CDR along with other intelligence, he is confident that they have collected enough evidence to take these cases to their just conclusions.

(Published in arrangement with GRIST Media)

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