As Salman Khan Walks Free, Will India Ever Punish All Its Poachers?

Cases work on a complaint method and providing evidence is often a lengthy process. The burden of investigations is also on the Range Officer, a person unfamiliar with criminal procedures.

Members of the Bishnoi community protest against the Rajasthan HC's decision to acquit Salman Khan in the poaching case, Bikaner, July 25, 2016. Will India ever punish all its poachers?

Members of the Bishnoi community protest against the Rajasthan HC’s decision to acquit Salman Khan in the poaching case, Bikaner, July 25, 2016. Credit: PTI

Bollywood actor Salman Khan was acquitted by the Rajasthan High Court yesterday for two cases of poaching wild antelopes, the chinkara and blackbuck, from 1998. The high profile order follows from a conviction by the Jodhpur Court, which had previously held the actor guilty of poaching.  

This particular case was filed following a complaint by members of the Bishnoi community, who accused the actor of poaching during the shoot of his movie Hum Saath Saath Hain. In the 18 years that have followed since the alleged incident, witnesses have turned hostile and evidence has been hard to find. While the acquittal appears unsurprising – given that the popular actor has been able to get away with many brushes with the law, even feted by the government while his cases were being heard – the incident only throws up the dismal face of poaching conviction in India today.

“No one killed the chinkara” said many disappointed people on social media yesterday, while huge numbers of loyal fans said he deserved to be free. The case has largely been looked at as a powerful Khan against a scared animal; the influential getting away with crime against the weak. These concerns are valid, but an even more pernicious issue is that India’s ‘complaint case’ system is almost unenforceable for wildlife crime, even as the country reels under big-ticket poaching.

Reports by the United Nations have said that the global illegal trade in wildlife and natural resources is worth $213 billion dollars every year. India regularly loses some of the most-valued trade animals to poaching: rhinos, tigers, lions, elephants and leopards. But whether poaching is for international trade, domestic ‘trophies’ or meat, conviction has been dismal. For instance, about 4% of those accused for poaching tigers within a 19-year-period were convicted, according to the Wildlife Protection Society of India.  

The chinkara is a small, skittish antelope that usually lives alone. The blackbuck, a larger antelope, usually lives in herds. Both animals run and jump like the wind and are not easy to chase. Found across arid landscapes in Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, the chinkara evolved specifically to desert conditions and can survive for long periods without drinking water. It is hunted in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and poached illegally in India. Just this Sunday (July 24), reports of chinkara being poached came in from near Nagaur in Rajasthan. “The nature of poaching is changing,” says Sumit Dookia, a wildlife biologist affiliated with an anti-poaching network in Rajasthan. “Earlier it was for bushmeat and local consumption. Now, animals are being poached for feasts in hotels. Some of it is for a tourism and VIP lobby. The fact is it is happening continuously.”

Dookia adds that the conservation of wide-ranging species like chinkara and blackbuck is impossible without local support, even as some local communities have often become lone voices against poaching. “Conserving desert species like chinkara and blackbuck can’t be done just by the government. It can only be accomplished by the support of villagers,” he says. “Today, you will barely find chinkara or blackbuck in non-Bishnoi areas. Communities like the Bishnoi have been fighting against poaching, but they need more institutional support. In the Nagaur incident, Bishnois and Jats led a dharna when the chinkara were found poached. But how far will this go if no one gets convicted?” In this particular case, three poachers from the Bawariya community have been arrested and the case is ongoing.

First, the issue is that poaching cases work on a complaint method and providing evidence becomes a lengthy process. Second: the burden of conducting an investigation is generally on the Range Forest Officer of a forest department, whose other duties include fighting forest fires, organising events for the forest department and afforestation. In short, a Range Officer – who usually does not have specialised skills in investigating crimes and is not familiar with criminal procedures – becomes the investigating officer.

“Under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, poaching cases are filed as complaints before a judicial magistrate, as opposed to chargesheets filed by the police,” says Saurabh Sharma, who has served as a special prosecutor in poaching cases. “There is a process for ‘pre-charge’ and ‘post-charge’, meaning evidence has to be provided twice. This makes it a lengthy and cumbersome process. It would be more desirable if a chargesheet process was followed where the evidence only needs to be provided once.”

The nature of evidence itself is hard to establish; it includes things like animal carcasses, knives, guns, jaw traps, etc. But the pre-charge and post-charge appreciation of evidence invariably makes the process longer. Compounded by an overburdened forest department, convictions become hard to get even if complaints are filed. As a result, there are even others who feel they could use specialised wildlife courts.

“In the hierarchy of cases, human interest takes precedence. Wildlife cases are not seen as important. The judge on the other hand has too many cases and usually considers wildlife cases as too trivial to deserve any serious attention. Even if there is a positive judgment, the judgment of the trial courts are full of loopholes and are difficult to sustain on appeal,” according to Ritwick Dutta, an environmental lawyer. “The offender on the other hand has all the legal mind and resources to ensure that no conviction takes place or even if it takes place is overruled in Appeal. This is the story of all wildlife cases and the Salman Khan case is no different. We need specialised criminal courts to try wildlife offenders in the same manner as polluters are tried by the NGT. We also need trained lawyers in wildlife and assistance of wildlife experts with forensics.”

It was recently reported that the Corbett tiger reserve decided not to continue working with the Wildlife Institute of India for a tiger estimation after the latter found that four tigers had been poached from the Corbett landscape. Clearly, poaching is a hot potato but it remains to be seen if the messenger, whether officer or local, gets shot in the process of conviction.

Neha Sinha is a Delhi-based conservationist.