When Habib Talukder was a little boy, his father used to take him on fishing trips in the Sundarbans. The boy later grew up to become an expert fisherman who knew the forest like the back of his hand, but unsurprisingly, greed got the best of him.
After years of fishing in the Sundarbans, he began hunting deer as well. Venison and deer hide is much more expensive than fish, and though poaching is illegal in Bangladesh, Habib found no shortage of influential customers for peddling his goods.
After mastering the art of hunting deer, Habib set his sights on the apex predator of Sundarbans – the Bengal Tiger – classified as "Endangered" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. He got arrested on Friday over allegations of poaching 70 tigers.
The Business Standard spoke with Habib at a jail cell in Bagerhat Court on Saturday, and caught a rare glimpse into the life of a notorious poacher.
The 50-year-old man – who certainly does not look like a tiger hunter depicted in movies – has never acted alone. When he was still hunting deer, he became acquainted with a gang of poachers who hunt tigers.
According to Habib, this gang has been operating in the Sundarbans for years. They make hefty profits by killing deer and tigers, and then selling their hide, meat, bones, teeth and other organs for a large profit.
This gang also makes a killing by smuggling animal parts and live rare animals to foreign buyers, all under the nose of local law enforcers.
Habib however was no stranger to legal action. After he joined up with the gang of poachers and started killing protected animals, nine cases were filed against him, forest department and local police have said.
He is accused in three cases for hunting and killing tigers, five for killing deer and one for engaging in illicit activities inside the forest. Authorities also issued warrants in three of the cases filed against him.
Habib's father – who passed away four years ago – was a convicted robber who operated in the Sundarbans region. Though his father was a law breaker, Habib was known by his neighbours at the Sonatola village as a simple man.
Many from his village still refuse to believe Habib hunted and killed dozens of tigers, though they knew the professional fisherman hunted deer in the Sundarbans. Habib himself told his neighbours he killed 32 tigers so far, but very few believed him.
After his arrest, Habib became somewhat of a celebrity in his village, and the local people have named him "Tiger Habib."
Recounting his experience, Habib said, "I relied on the Sundarbans as my only source of income, as there is little opportunity to make money here by other means. I actually stopped hunting deer after a few years over fear of the law enforcers, but I later resumed poaching.
"Aside from the poaching gang I used to work with, there are at least 20-25 other such parties operating in this forest. I got caught because they conspired against me. Kingpins behind this illegal trade have ties with forest department officials, and this is why they remain out of the law's reach."
Commenting on the matter, Save the Sundarbans Foundation's Chairman Dr Sheikh Faridul Islam said, "The law sometimes catches poachers such as Habib, but they become free again after some time exploiting the legal system.
"The ringleaders perpetrating such illicit activities continue to work in the shadows. They are smuggling tiger hides, bones, and teeth out of the country and making a hefty profit in the process. People like Habib have nearly wiped out tigers from Sundarbans, but we see no action against those facilitating the poaching."
An incarcerated Habib told The Business Standard that he has a vendetta against tigers, because a tiger attacked him near the Chandpai range in the forest. He barely escaped with his life, and then became motivated to kill as many as he can.
When asked about the hunter, Sundarbans East Divisional Forest Officer Mohammad Belayet Hossain said, "It is difficult to say how many tigers Habib has killed so far, but he is accused in three cases because of the allegation. He was also banned from entering the Sundarbans.
"An international gang – in collaboration with local influential people – manipulates local fishermen into poaching, as tiger body parts fetch a high price in the global market. We are working to track down these culprits with support from the Forest Department's Crime Control Unit."
Habib's poaching days are over for now, but his home in Sonatola village does not exactly show signs of wealth, or even any solvency. Years of killing protected wild animals and getting involved in the illicit and lucrative world of poaching did not make him a fortune.
The court sent Habib to Bagerhat Central Jail after Saturday's hearing, said Sharankhola police station Officer-in-Charge Md Saidur Rahman, adding that the poacher was wanted by the police for a long time, and was on the run from the law before his arrest.
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