Jihad against wildlife. “Poaching for Bin Laden,” by Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark for The Guardian:
It is so early in the morning that the cooks in the roadside dhabas along India’s National Highway 37 are asleep in their kitchens, their tandoors unlit. Across the valley of Assam, in this far north-easterly corner of India, there is not a flicker of light except the feeble yellow beams from the Gypsies, the open-backed vehicles carrying small
groups of tourists to the edge of one of the world’s most bountiful jungles. Kaziranga – 429 sq km of forest, sandbanks and grassland – was recognised by Unesco in 1985 as a world heritage site. Tourists come in their thousands to glimpse some of the 480
species of bird, 34 kinds of mammal and 42 varieties of fish, many rare, endangered or near extinct, that inhabit this remote jungle.
In recent times, however, the wildlife has attracted a new kind of visitor. According to India’s security services, police, intelligence analysts, local traders and forestry officials, Islamic militants affiliated to al-Qaida are sponsoring poaching in the reserve for profit. These groups have established bases in the formerly moderate enclave of Bangladesh and have agents operating all along the country’s porous 2,500-mile border with India. They have gone into business with local animal trappers and organised crime syndicates around Kaziranga – as well as in parks and reserves in Nepal, Burma and Thailand – in a quest for horns, ivory, pelts and other animal products with which to raise “under the wire” funds that they can move around the world invisibly.
A small rhino horn, the size of a bag of sugar, with good provenance (the beast’s tail and ears, presented to a prospective buyer) and in the right marketplace (in Asia, Europe or North America), can fetch Â£20,000. Big cat pelts can go for up to Â£10,000. Monkey brains, bear bile, musk, big cat carcasses, elephant feet, tails, horns and teeth
have considerable value. A shipment worth Â£2.8m was recently intercepted by UK customs. Profits from the trade run from $15bn to an incredible $25bn a year, according to estimates from the WWF (formerly the World Wide Fund for Nature). The punishment for trading in these items is generally a fine as low as Â£300 in India and Â£900 in Nepal.
A senior Indian security source, based in the north-east, who has tracked the incursion into the trade by Bangladeshi militants, warns that the poaching has global consequences. “There is an environmental disaster in the offing here, but as pressing are the security ramifications,” he says. “Only a minuscule percentage of the vast profits need to trickle back into a nascent Islamic insurgency in a country like Bangladesh to bring it
to the boil. And then it can reach out around the world.”
One man says, “We are for hire. We can trap and shoot, but when the summer rain comes, the river breaks its banks and the animals float to us.” Another adds, “We patrol the park’s border, too; when the animals wander out, we are there.” He pulls from his pocket an unidentifiable animal claw.
What do they poach? “Whatever we can and whatever we are asked for.” The money is in rhino horn and elephant tusks, the latter taking advantage of a black hole in the forestry department’s record-keeping. While the rhino population remains closely monitored, no accurate records are kept for elephants. The forestry department estimates that 170 were poached over a six-year period, but the sand bar people claim a figure almost double that.
From whom do they take orders? The villagers look stony-faced. They talk among themselves. “The Tibetans and Chinese are big men in this,” says one, “but we are all from Bangladesh. Bangladeshis dominate the network now.” Are they talking only about those living in India, or about orders coming from over the border, too? They shrug and mumble, clearly distressed. We should talk to an agent they name in a nearby city. They cannot tell us any more.
A trader from Siliguri with betel-red teeth tells the same story. “This was a Chinese business but now it’s Bangladesh’s business. It’s become God’s work,” he says, raising an eyebrow. “And, as you know, the Prophet, peace be upon his head, is irresistible.”
It all began two years ago. Says the haulier,”A friend in common at a local mosque [in West Bengal] passed me a message saying representatives working for two militia groups in Bangladesh wanted a meet in a madrassah [seminary] in Siliguri.”
A trader with an import-export company near to the India-Bangladesh border explains: “They came to us because we are the same as them,” he says. “The hauliers and money men behind the wildlife trade are of Bangladeshi origin. The poachers, too. All of us can move freely over the border. We look right. Talk the same. They wanted in. Small, valuable commodities – horn, teeth, pelts – fetch incredible prices and are easy to conceal among legitimate export goods. Also, something truly valuable can be used to borrow against, to secure a line of credit.”
The traditional methods by which anyone wishing to raise and transport money invisibly were through nominal charities, the gold market and the global unofficial banking system known as hawala. But these were heavily disrupted after September 11 2001, the traders say. New channels were needed.
Three of those who claimed to have been at the meeting two years ago say they knew exactly whom the agents worked for in Bangladesh: Al Mujahideen, an obscure jihadist umbrella organisation governing a panoply of militant groups that have sprung up in Bangladesh in recent years. Two in particular, both banned by the Bangladeshi government, were in need of money and eager to get into the racket, said Siliguri traders. One was
Harkat-ul-Jihad-al- Islami (HuJI), allegedly linked to al-Qaida; the second was Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), whose leader, Shaikh Abdur Rahman, had joined Bin Laden’s World Islamic Front for the Jihad Against the Jews and the Crusaders in 1998. He was captured in Bangladesh and in March was hanged for the killing of two Bangladeshi judges and for
nationwide bombings in 2005.
We ask him about the new jihadi component in the trade. “We hear things but we have no hard facts. The rhino horns are used to buy guns and bombs, we are told. The guys we catch, what can they tell us? The colour of the shirt worn by the guy who paid them off.”
In December, Boro’s men tracked a gang of poachers to their tents. They had fled but left behind a new, modern tranquilliser gun and darts. “They used to shoot at rhinos, but the crack of the bullet is a problem as it carries far and we will hear. Some place poison. Others pull down power lines and try to electrocute the animals. However, recently they have come here with silencers. We are finding increasingly sophisticated weapons.”
The poaching figures for Kaziranga were stark until very recently. As many as 48 rhinos a year were being killed for their horn, a figure comparable to about 2% of the total population in Assam. The state is classified as a “disturbed area”, with a stubborn and often bloody secessionist movement desperate to break free from New Delhi. Militants have been fighting for 27 years and 10,000 lives have been lost. Recently, as peace talks began, there was a lull, then an insurgency blew up in Nepal. Boro says, “Through better organisation among the rangers and better stability in Assam, the gangs laid off us and started attacking Nepal, which also has rhino.” Then he adds dourly, “We cannot count on peace.”
Shortly before we arrived in Assam in February, seven Hindi-speaking labourers were shot dead at one of the state’s brick kilns. A railway bridge was blown up, just missing a crowded train. Masked gunmen attacked six labourers’ colonies in the northern districts of Dibrugarh and Tinsukia, killing 48 Indian settlers. Another eight people, including police officers, died when their vehicle hit a roadside mine in the central Karbi Anglong district. It was the state’s worst violence in a decade, all the killings perpetrated by the United Liberation Front of Assam. An indefinite curfew was imposed while the Indian security forces combed the jungle for rebel camps and forest rangers hid themselves among the trees, waiting, resignedly, for the opportunists to arrive. Whether it’s an independence struggle in Assam or an al-Qaida terror campaign, the outlook is perilous for the wildlife of Kaziranga.