Meet Shekhar Kumar Niraj, a man at the forefront of the country’s battle against poaching
Movie producers looking for a fearless-officer-risks-life-to bust-smuggler-ring story could get in touch with Shekhar Kumar Niraj, IFS, Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Project Tiger), Tamil Nadu.
His dissertation for PhD (University of Arizona) on Sustainable Development, Poaching, and Illegal Wildlife Trade in India and records of his working life have enough material for a two-hour film script, with a happy ending. No wonder the Royal Bank of Scotland Foundation chose him for the prestigious ‘Earth Heroes — Green Warrior’ award for 2017.
“I was selected for working for the protection of wildlife, creating intelligence networks for anti-poachingin India and its neighbourhood,” he says. “My work in the last 15-20 years in the field of anti-trafficking in Mumbai, Delhi andChennai has been taken into account.” What work that was, specially as country-head of TRAFFIC (the wildlife trade monitoring network) from 2013 to 2017.
In 2003, he and his team suspected that a leather-goods seller in Colaba (Mumbai) was sourcing ware illegally. Posing as international buyers, they asked to see better inventory, which included snake-skin belts, purses and a dress made of leopard-skin worth ₹5 lakhs.“To follow the whole sourcing-chain,” they continued to hobnob with him, and finally asked him to bring his entire collection to a place in the Bandra-Kurla complex. Niraj was the primary decoy, “for operational efficiency” and would be arrested along with the culprits.
The operation went smoothly till the back-up team arrived. Mistaking Niraj for a criminal-conduit, the policemen thrashed him, shoved him on the floor of the jeep and took off. At the station, someone finally identified him.
“It helped me understand the international trade-chain,” he says calmly. “I realised a small force of young people could organise a raid successfully.”
After raids at Crawford Market yielded tusks, pelts, exotic birds and snakes, he and his family got death threats. Home surveillance was set up. He was offered a transfer, he refused. “I had to show the smugglers a tough face, and I didn’t want my successor to work in fear. My staff receive threats all the time, but despite challenges, they work hard to protect wildlife.”
It’s a tough job. The jump in international demand for animal-based cosmetics makes his work at once vital and dangerous. His teams have cracked 400 cases worth billions of dollars in the last 4 years, all based on intelligence, all with linkages to international trade.
In 2013, he says that rhino poaching numbers were at the highest,despite much interest in conservation. “The Assam government formed an anti-rhino-poaching task force and sought our help. I created a new network in Assam, recruited members of the local community for intelligence-gathering. We helped the forest officials stratege operations and conduct raids.”
Poaching came down in 2014. “We cannot do conservation by getting emotional. We need a practical approach. We need to look for resources, involve youngsters, formulate strategies, optimise resources,” he says.
He may officially be on a big-game-protection project, but he says his heart goes out to lesser known species. Animals like the pangolin, gecko, monitor lizards, monkeys and peafowl are caught illegally for skin, health and cosmetic products, and food supplements. Sale of sea-cucumber is a billion dollar industry. “Many of our smaller animals are disappearing fast. We need trade-based research on pangolin, especially.”
As for the tigers? He is upbeat. “India has a great future in tigers with programmes like Tiger India.
Now what we need is to combine forces. “Conservation needs the combined involvement of every segment of society — students, NGOs, para-military/military personnel like BSF, Coastguard and Navy, to check animal-product-trafficking across borders.”