Veerappan, the saviour?
In his lifetime, Veerappan was the bandit king of India, a legendary figure who would spring out from the obscurity of impenetrable jungles on to front pages of newspapers and television headlines with sudden acts of audacity. When he was killed in October 2004, 20,000 people showed up for his funeral in the remote village of Gopinatham in Karnataka. The Economist ran an obituary of the man recalling an “Osama-style video that showed him talking with relish of the pain inflicted on one victim before he blew his head off”. It also noted that a 750-strong task force had spent 14 years and a fortune trying to catch him.
Veerappan killed 138 people including 32 policemen, and 1000 elephants. His sandalwood haul is estimated at Rs 100 crore. Yet, five years after his death, poaching and smuggling have only increased in the 6,000 square km of forest in the three states of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala that Veerappan had lorded over.
“We’ve never seen so many seizures of ivory and tiger skins. Now everybody wants to be a Veerappan,” says Sharath Babu, 33, an electronics engineer who left his degree far behind to risk his life as an undercover agent fighting wildlife crime. “When the brigand was alive, his writ ran large over all these areas and few could trespass,” says Babu.
“We’ve been getting a lot of inputs from our informers on the ground; the poaching pressures have definitely increased after Veerappan’s death. He was only interested in elephants and sandalwood but not tigers,” says Belinda Wright of Wildlife Protection Society of India. This year alone, seven tigers have been killed and six skins have been seized in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Since 2005, 17 tigers have died and 32 skins have been seized in the three states. All the skins were fresh.
Though there seems to be no organised elephant poaching, everybody is trying to have a go at this gigantic but emotional creature. “One tusker was killed this summer in Palani in Tamil Nadu after a gap of almost 16 years. That’s a disturbing sign,” says Jose Louise, 33, of the Wildlife Trust of India. Louise was a network security advisor with an MNC for six years before he gave it up to follow his passion for wildlife conservation.
Tamil Nadu STF Chief Sylendra Babu claims that his force has caught “eight small time poachers in the last six months”. Being the largest, the elephant population in this territory is key to the survival of the Asian elephant.
All kinds of people are trying to profit from the forests. Ajith, Abhilash and Punith Kumar — three students from SBBRM Engineering College, Mysore — were caught this May trying to act as couriers for ivory (FIR no: 002184, Periyapatna range). “Ajith was so deep into this business that his phone records yielded six more tusks. He almost had 40 girlfriends, who kept calling him. There are more engineering college students involved and we are keeping an eye on them,” says Babu.
Even as new breeds of people are getting into wildlife crime, the Forest Department however has remained very static with no fresh recruitments for 15 years now. "Most of the Forest Rangers are above 50 years and can’t go into the forests. 50 percent of the posts are lying vacant at all levels. There is a dire need to induce young officers," says Jayachandran of Tamil Nadu Green Movement.
“There are at least ten inter-state gangs operating right now and there is information about at least ten thousand known criminals. If the DFOs are saying everything is calm, then they are wrong,” says KSN Chikkerur, who was Inspector General of Karnataka CID Forest Cell till July 2008.
“Wildlife trade is second largest illegal trade after narcotics. There is always an international demand for these products. These days there is a great demand for eyes of Slender Loris in China as it is considered a love potion. Most of these lovely animals are being killed and exported to China. Then there is always a demand for Tiger products in China and ivory in Japan,” adds Chikkerur. The international demand has been keeping the wannabe Veerappans going.
Adding to poaching pressures are mining and tourism in these areas. “After his death, land rates have gone up everywhere. One acre of land around Bandipur Sanctuary, which used to cost Rs 50,000 till his death, now costs Rs 25 lakh,” says Krupakar, a wildlife filmmaker, who was kidnapped by Veerappan in 1998.
“When Veerappan was alive because of his fear, and later, due to the fear of the STF, nobody would venture into the forests. But now in Mudumalai Tiger Sanctuary, there are 60 illegal resorts, 90 percent of which have come up after him. The forest quality has also come down,” adds Krupakar.
Agrees Uday Kumar, ACF of MM Hills, Karnataka: “There was no quarry work for fifteen years. According to the Forest Survey of India reports, forest cover had increased during his period. All the money spent chasing him must’ve been recovered in mining in the last few years.” Uday Kumar knew how ruthless Veerappan was. He worked for P. Srinivas, an IFS officer who was beheaded by Veerappan. But what’s happening now in the brigand’s territory is many times the damage he had unleashed; now no animal is safe anymore.
Perhaps Veerappan, the murderer, poacher, sandalwood smuggler, was the lesser evil.