Investigation of wildlife crime is not an easy task to deal with since it happens in a remote location; it requires a lot of effort to collect shreds of evidence. Sometimes these crimes are not even informed to the concerned officers. The direction to investigate a wildlife crime is stated in the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972. The said Act is an umbrella legislation, which governs crimes related to wildlife in our country. Under this Act, any person contravening any provisions of this Act will be punished to the extent of three years imprisonment and or with a fine of INR twenty-two thousand. But these penalties are nadir in nature when compared to other conventional crime punishments.
On the other hand, the registered wildlife crimes are comparatively even lower than the actual commission of the same. This statement can be substantiated by the fact that there are only 4066 wildlife crimes that were reported and registered under the Wildlife Protection Act. Among them, the conviction rate was even lower because of the lack of evidence. Hence, the investigation of the crime scene plays a key role in convicting the actual offender. Thus, this article deals with the concept of wildlife crime, legislations dealing with wildlife crimes, and basic investigation of the same.
Wildlife crimes are committed often by indigenous hunters and poachers. In a country like India, which has a hugely diverse ecosystem, it is sufficient enough to attract customers across the world to buy derivates and wildlife articles. This market demand for wildlife products has boosted the practice of illegal trade of such wildlife goods via a highly organized network of illegal traders. Through this illegal trade, the trader community has made a big profit since the penalties and punishments are comparatively lower than other conventional crimes like robbery, homicide, and so on.
There exists a craze for ornaments made from wildlife animals and their parts, some superstitions attached to keeping various wild animals’ body parts like tiger skin, elephant ivory, and the rest as a symbol of cultural belief, status, and pride. Some even illegally trade wild plants for medicinal purposes. The poaching of wildlife is at the top of the list on wildlife crimes. Poaching and hunting are the same but hunting is legal and subjected to some restrictions. Whereas, poaching refers to the act that may involve hunting, killing and capturing or collecting of wildlife without abiding by the law of the land. Since 1980, the definition of poaching has included the illegal harvesting of wild plants as well.
Wildlife: Primarily, the term wildlife was coined by an American zoologist, conversationalist, and author William Temple Hornaday, who has played an indispensable role in the US conservation movement during the 1960s. In general, the term wildlife means non-domesticated native species living in their habitat, which is not possessed by humans. Section 2(37) of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 defines the term wildlife as any animal, aquatic, or of land vegetation which forms part of any habitat. Indeed, it is comprehensible that wildlife refers to the native flora and fauna of a country.
Wildlife crime: Ab initio, it is a crime against wildlife that involves illegal possession or habitat destruction, hunting, poaching, and trading any wild animals or plants or their derivatives to other places in contravention to the existing homeland legislations. The practice of poaching is at the top of the list of crimes against wildlife while the rest of them are considered to be ancillary offences.
However, the principal victims of these wildlife crimes are wild animals and plants; it has an adverse effect on the country’s ecology and environmental sustainability.
The concept of Wildlife Crime
The predominant offences against Mother Nature in India are generally registered under five prominent legislations, which includes,
- Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981.
- Water (Prevention and Control Pollution) Act, 1974.
- Environmental protection Act, 1986.
- Forest Act, 1927.
- Wildlife Protection Act, 1972.
Since wildlife is considered to be the wealth of our nation, to shield the same, Article 48(A) of the Indian Constitution under the chapter DPSP deals with the state’s obligation to protect and safeguard the wildlife and forest of the region. Similarly, Article 51A (g) of the Constitution states, it is a fundamental duty of every citizen of the nation to protect their environment, which includes wildlife and forest. Thus, protecting wildlife has been made a constitutional mandate to prevent national economic ramifications, as illegal poaching and trading of wildlife involves a large amount of money. Apart from being an economic offense, it also has a cascading effect on the ecosystem of the nation.
The wildlife offenders can divide into two categories,
- Hunters and poachers, who indulged in collecting, hunting, and capturing the wild animals or plants,
- The people, who are the buyers of the hunted, captured animals or their derivatives, collected plants, or their derivatives, either for consumption or trading purposes.
Comparatively, the second category of the people is well organized and more influential than the indigenous hunters and poachers. This trader community of wildlife usually has a big network of contacts all over the world and carries it out as a lucrative business.
To counter such practice of trading wildlife captives or their products among nations, in 2003, the UNODC has added wildlife crimes to the list of Transnational Organized Crimes (TOC). Wildlife crime is also considered a serious crime, which is punishable by up to 4 years imprisonment. The United Nations Office on Drug and Crimes (UNODC) defines TOC as, “a structured group of three or more persons, acting together with the aim of committing one or more serious crime, in order to obtain financial or material benefit and these crimes are planned and/or committed in more than one country”.
As far as India is concerned, the offences against wildlife were not considered a crime until the Wildlife Protection Act was enacted and came into force in 1972. Even though organized groups are involved in wildlife trafficking and trading, it still remains a largely overlooked crime in India. The reason for the same might be that the people are not the direct victims, unlike conventional crimes. In the event of any conventional crimes like murder, robbery, and so on, people are the primary victims. Hence it provokes some sense of fear among them and results in the taking of precautionary steps to protect themselves from such crimes. Whereas, wildlife crimes are ignored and overlooked by people without knowing the fact that they are the ultimate victims of this crime.
Legislations in India
One such important legislation related to wildlife crime is the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972. As mentioned earlier, it is an umbrella legislation, which empowers the forest and police department of every state/ union territory to carry reasonable actions to enforce the Act and the offenders shall be punished by the state. The requisite changes and amendments can be made by the state if needed. The objective of the said Act is to,
- Protect, preserve, and maintain the wildlife habitat.
- Prohibit hunting and poaching of wildlife, as defined in Section 2 of the Act, which includes both captives and free living.
- Manage and maintain zoos and national parks.
- Restrict and manage the trade of wildlife derivatives
- Enforce and protect the preserved areas.
- Protect and safeguard the wildlife in the list of endangered species.
This WPA penalizes every such deed of a person that violates any of its provisions, which include illegal possession, trading, and transportation of wildlife and even destruction of preserved or protected areas. The statutory authority of this Act is the Chief Wildlife Warder, who leads the state wildlife wing. Apart from this, the government has also established the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB), this agency takes up the primary investigation of any offences related to wildlife, and even if the state concerns the CBI could also investigate the wildlife crimes.
An officer from the police department is also empowered to investigate the said crimes under WPA. But, regardless of all, the registered wildlife crimes and convictions for the same are very few in India. Section 2 (16) of the Act defines “hunting” as killing or poisoning of any wild animal or captive animal and every attempt to do so, thus the attempt to commit a wildlife crime amounts to the actual commission of the crime. Hence it attracts the same punishments but the ratio of registered wildlife crimes is terribly low compared to the actual commission of such crime.
The Amendments to this Act were made twice in the past decade, one in 2002, and the subsequent amendment was made in 2006. In the first amendment, it was added that, if a person is caught while trading any wildlife derivatives he will be subjected to 3 years imprisonment and/or with a fine of INR 25,000. Later, the 2006 amendment strengthened the Act’s aim of protecting endangered species especially the conservation of tigers. Furthermore, a bill was introduced in 2013 and withdrawn in the year 2015.
Wildlife Crime Investigation
In layman terms, the word investigation means, systematic study of examination or inquiry of committed crime and the crime scene. Indeed, the same is stated in the Criminal Procedure Code 1973 as, Investigation includes all the proceedings under this Code (Criminal Procedure Code) for the collection of evidence, conducted by a police officer or by any person (other than a Magistrate) who is authorised by a Magistrate in this behalf”. A criminal investigation is a patient, step by step process of discovering, collecting, preparing, identifying and presenting evidence within the legal framework. But, nowhere in the said Act (WPA) had the term investigation been explicitly explained, however, Section 50 (8) mentions the word Investigation. Therefore, the investigation procedures in relation to wildlife crime will be followed in accordance with CrPC.
The Investigation includes search, seizure, arrest, and collection of evidence as mentioned in various Sections of CrPC. Among this, the evidence plays a key role when it comes to the conviction of the offender. Section 3 of the Indian Evidence Act of 1872, classifies the term evidence into two categories namely,
- Oral evidence: the statement given by the witness before the court.
- Documentary evidence: the documents related to the matter of fact under inquiry have been produced for the court inspection.
As per Section 50 of WPA, any authorized Forest Officer or Police Officer not below the rank of sub-inspector can investigate the crime scene, seize the same, and detain or arrest the accused. The Investigation of wildlife crimes will be carried out as per the following steps,
- Primary inspection in the crime scene and postmortem of the carcass
- Cross-examination of accused(s) or suspect(s)
- Interviewing and interrogation of the witness
- Collecting pieces of evidence, especially the documentary and samples for expert examination
- Collecting subsequent evidence like digital evidence and forensic evidence (if any)
- Analyzing the collected evidence
- Filing complaint under Section 55 of the WPA
For the investigation of the concerned wildlife crime, a team consisting of sufficient officers headed by the Range Officer will move to the incident spot as wildlife crimes are unlike conventional crimes since the targeted wildlife will be available in a specific location for the accused of poaching or captivating for various illegal business and trade processes. The investigation teams also had to reach the crime spot to examine the same. In case any unnatural death of the concerned animal is suspected, then the followings should be established,
- whether or not the cause of death of the animal was unnatural if it is so, then how,
- the location of the carcass
- if possible anticipating the time of death, and finally,
- who might kill the concerned animal.
After reaching the crime scene, the officers might demarcate the considerable site around the carcass to trace the evidence, and then the carcass will be sent for postmortem. Everything that has been found in the place of crime will be sent for expert analysis. If there is a suspected accused, then the officials will interrogate the accused and as mentioned in Section 50 (8) and (9), the evidence will be recorded by the authorized officer. Also, the confession statement should be recorded within 6 to 12 hours from the date on which the accused was arrested.
As people are not the direct victim of any wildlife crimes, they will not voluntarily come forward as a witness to give oral evidence. Somehow, if there is any witness, then any authorized officer above the rank of assistant conservator of forest can examine the witness, and indeed, it comes under Section 50 (8) of WPA.
The collected shreds of evidence will be compiled, and regarding the collection of forensic evidence, the investigation officer will need the aid of scientific forensic experts. Then the collected evidence is analyzed and arranged in a logical order, if the collected evidence is found to be enough for filing a complaint, then the officer can approach the court of law. The officer authorized either by the central or state government or by the wildlife ward is competent to file the complaint as exemplified in Section 55 of WPA. If the accused is under judicial custody, then the complaint is to be filed within 60 days of his arrested date.
Apart from the above-mentioned authorized officers, who can investigate wildlife crimes, the customs department can also take up the wildlife crimes investigations in case of any illegal transport of wildlife derivatives or articles. The CISF (central industrial security force) plays a key role in preventing the smuggling of wildlife products. Hence, it is comprehensible that the government has taken sufficient actions to safeguard mother nature. As mentioned in Article 51A (g) of the Indian constitution, it is the fundamental obligation of every citizen of the country to take reasonable due care to save our declining ecosystem. Even though wildlife offences are considered to be a crime, effective punishments have not been imposed. Further, unlike any other conventional crimes, wildlife criminals are not facing any stigma in society. It is ingrained in the psyche of people that hunting and owning any derivatives of endangered wildlife is a prideful deed. Here comes the need for awareness camps which should be conducted by the government and to inform people that they are the actual and bona fide victims of such wildlife crimes. At the end of the day, humans are also residing on the earth and harvest the ramification of their deeds.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
- What are wildlife crimes?
- Which category of wildlife criminals are the most efficient, and why?
- What are the objectives of the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972?
- What does Article 52A (g) of the Indian Constitution state and why is it important for everyone to abide by it?
- What are the steps to investigate a wildlife crime?