Every month, the forest department officials inform the newspersons about the wildlife rescue drives carried out against illegal possession. But the press notes hardly contain information about legal actions taken against the wildlife-crime related persons or groups.
Let us look at the statistics for the last six months.
The forest department rescued 1,058 wild animals and birds from illegal possessions while only nine people were sued, and five were fined or jailed. A good number of the wildlife were rescued from some unauthorised mini zoos.
During the drives, the department officials warned the illegal zookeepers about further legal actions and released them after taking a written statement that they will not commit such crime in future again. All the rescued wildlife were freed in nature.
These all were done in accordance with the Wildlife (Conservation and Security) Act 2012.
Forest officials say that the act does not empower them to arrest wildlife crime offenders. They require assistance from local administration and law enforcement agencies to take legal actions including investigation.
According to the forest department, the Wildlife Crime Control Unit (WCCU), since its formation in 2012, has rescued more than 37,000 wild animals and birds till October this year. During this period, the WCCU detected at least 1,368 wildlife crime-related offences, but filed only 111 cases and arrested 157 offenders. The offenders were mostly arrested by mobile courts.
Deputy Chief Conserver of Forest, Jahidul Kabir, while addressing a discussion in a Dhaka hotel recently said, "There might be 1,368 or more offenders. But we could arrest only a few of them. This is a great limitation."
According to the wildlife conservation act, illegal possession and trading of wildlife and trophies are subject to maximum 1-year imprisonment or maximum Tk50,000 fine, or both, and maximum 3-year imprisonment or Tk2 lakh taka fine, or both, for any repetition of such offences.
Let us review some of the recent drives.
On 23 November, the WCCU conducted a raid at Green View Golf Resort in Gazipur and rescued four Barking deers and seized 56 Chital antlers. No legal action was taken against the resort owner.
Seven days earlier, a similar raid was conducted at a private-run Chandramahal Eco Park in the Bagerhat Sadar upazila. The FD officials, with the help of the Rapid Action Battalion, rescued 28 wild animals and birds from the park's mini zoo. A mobile court fined the park owner Tk50,000.
In November, the biggest rescue operation was carried out at Mozaffar Garden in Satkhira district. The forest department rescued 49 wild animals and birds, including some International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red-listed ones, from a mini zoo inside the resort facility which is locally known as Montu Miah's Baganbari.
The resort facilities, owned by one Khairul Mozaffar Montu, held the wild animals and birds captive in his mini zoo for years.
In 2009, the mini zoo was raided by the local Upazilla Nirbahi Officer. The zookeepers were fined. But the wildlife was still kept there under the zookeepers' custody as there was no wildlife rehabilitation centre supervised by the forest department.
When the resort was raided again after 11 years, the animals and birds were handed over to the forest officials as the department now has wildlife rehabilitation centres, a wildlife crime control unit, and a law to prosecute this kind of offenders. But the department has no official power to interrogate the zookeepers and investigate their crimes.
Systemic cracks and traps
Hoolock gibbons, Indian porcupines and capped langurs live in the forests in Moulvibazar. Then who trapped, transported and sold the animals to the mini zoo? There was no official statement.
However, a wildlife inspector said that some of the animals, including a crocodile, were collected from a Bogura-based private mini zoo.
Mozaffar Garden manager Parvez Mahmud kept his mouth shut when this correspondent enquired about the sources of the animals. He, however, said that mini zoos in the country often exchange captured animals and birds among themselves, besides importing.
The exchange of IUCN-Red-listed wildlife is a crime, according to the Wildlife Act 2012.
The act also prohibits capturing wildlife without a licence. Despite receiving a warning in the 2009 raid, Mozaffar Garden failed to have a licence to run the zoo.
How did the resort authority evade legal actions even though the 2012 Wildlife Conservation Act prohibits such illegal zoo operations?
A Satkhira-based wildlife conservation group Wildlife Mission organiser Rashed Bishwas, who was present during the 4 November raid, told The Business Standard, "Influential political individuals operate resorts and mini zoos. They do not care about wildlife conservation and legal action. They have money and they buy the animals from illegal traffickers at a high cost. They do this only for amusement."
Rashed added that his team received threatening messages from unknown senders due to their conservation campaign, particularly after the 4 November raid.
Preferring to be anonymous, one wildlife inspector who was present in the raid too, said that a local lawmaker had intervened in the rescue drive and requested the forest officials not to take legal actions against the Mozaffar Garden authority. This correspondent tried to reach the politician over the phone. However, calls were not returned or picked up.
Parks, resorts and their crimes
The Forest department also conducted raids at the Kriti Kunja Tia Shishu Park and 5-Star Park in Chandpur, and Arshinagar Park and Mini Chiriakhana (zoo) in Narsingdi in June. The park owners were politically influential there as well.
Amid the challenge of avoiding external interference in wildlife crime control, the forest department seldom has the scope to arrest and prosecute the wildlife traffickers. In October, a WCCU team raided a Savar cottage and found 215 birds including 105 munias and 60 parakeets in captivity.
The information there was that the birds were kept for trafficking. The raid however failed to arrest the wildlife traffickers red-handed.
For the last few years, the WCCU has been running an awareness-building campaign for wildlife conservation across the country. But the enforcement of the conservation law is crucial. That is why forest officials are seeking an amendment to the law.
Chief Conservator of Forest Md. Amir Hosain Chowdhury told The Business Standard that the Forest Act 1927 empowers certain forest officials to arrest offenders red-handed without a warrant but the Wildlife Conservation Act 2012 does not. However, the forest officials can sue the offenders.
"Forest officials usually do not lodge a case if a raid is conducted by mobile court. If the crime spot is in an urban area, we prefer mobile courts because the law and order situation may deteriorate beyond our capacity to control."
"Here, strengthening the capacity of the forest department through better logistical support and greater authority to arrest and interrogate the wildlife traffickers is essential," he said.
Also, the FD officials are not allowed to use firearms outside forest areas, which limits their capacity to intervene in wildlife crimes taking place outside the forests, the conservator added.
When enquired, Habibun Nahar, the Deputy Minister for the environment, forest and climate change, said that drafting the necessary amendment of the law is ongoing. "I believe that the forest department should have complete power to control wildlife-related crimes."