The worst is over, feels Kunjumon Devasey. Out on bail on August 25, after a year in judicial custody and jail, the whistleblower in what was Kerala’s, perhaps India’s, biggest elephant poaching case, is trying to lead a quiet life in his remote village, Kalarikudi, bordering the Idamalayar forests in Ernakulam district. He’s still an accused in 16 poaching cases, his wife is mentally not all there, but the man has no regrets about exposing the poaching syndicate. “I’ve no future but my conscience was killing me. It had to be done,” he says.
The 62-year-old former forest watcher’s journey of atonement started on June 3, 2015, when he walked into the Karimbani range office (under Ernakulam district’s Malayatoor forest division) and told a group of stunned officials how he had, on various occasions, accompanied a group of poachers, headed by ‘Ikkara’ Vasu, and killed over 20 elephants in Vazhachal, Thundathil, Munnar and Parambikulam wildlife sanctuaries in a span of two years.
Deputy range officer K.P. Sunil Kumar thought the man had gone crazy in his old age and even advised him to “go and see a psychiatrist”. But Kunjumon stuck to his guns, and the names and mobile numbers he came up with were of known offenders in the area (though most were thought to be ‘inactive’). However, Sunil Kumar decided against ordering a basic investigation or recording Kunjumon’s statement. When the latter insisted, the forester had him arrested and framed in a case of killing an elephant calf, ironically, the reason why he’d fallen out (well, that and money) with the poachers in the first place.
Fortunately, Kunjumon insisted his statement be put on record, and after news leaked that local foresters were hushing up a poaching case, the then state forest minister, Thiruvanchiyur Radhakrishnan, ordered a probe. Indian Forest Service (IFS) officer Surendra Kumar, who led the investigation, says, “His confessions were an eye-opener. It was the first time a poacher was making voluntary revelations about his own gang, and with specific information. More than revenge, it was ‘wildlife justice’. If Kunjumon hadn’t talked about the ring operating in Kerala’s forests, nobody would have noticed the extent of the elephant poaching going on.”
Currently director of the Institute of Wood Science and Technology in Bengaluru, Kumar’s team tracked down the hunters, carriers, primary collectors and sponsors of poaching, spread across Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Delhi and Bengal and in a matter of months arrested 74 people involved in the ivory trade. The team tracked their mobile numbers, raided hideouts, even froze bank accounts.
Today, it’s listed as the biggest case in the history of elephant poaching in India. “We started from nowhere but built a clear case through team work. A hundred-odd officials were involved,” recalls Kumar. “In the process, we profiled a massive network operating in India and abroad.”
investigation has unearthed so far
But after the initial hurrahs, he was under pressure to go slow. The investigation continued, sometimes, with “active opposition” from the Kerala forest force chief, Dr B.S. Corrie, alleges Kumar. “He tried to demoralise officers by making false accusations of rights violations. Unfortunately, he took the stand that our investigations were headed in the wrong direction. This, despite the team cracking the case in record time,” he says. When contacted, Corrie denied the allegations, and said his office was “doing its best to speedily conclude the probe”.
Despite all the hurdles, the IFS officer says “his only regret is not arresting Aykkaramattom Vasu. If we had got him alive, a lot more details of the network would have come out”. Vasu, the kingpin, was found mysteriously dead on July 21, 2015, an apparent suicide, at a farmhouse in Dodamarg in Sindhudurg district of Maharashtra where he was hiding.
Vasu aka ‘Vadattupara Veerappan’ as he sometimes figures in the forest crime records, took to poaching at an early age. His attention turned to elephants in the late ’90s after a local ivory artefacts dealer put him in touch with one Aji Bright. “He was ruthless, known for his sharpshooting skills. Vasu was also the pointsperson for ivory dealers. Our investigations revealed that he was offered advances for operations, money was even wire-transferred to his accounts,” says K. Vijayanand, Divisional Forest Officer (DFO), Malayatoor division, Ernakulam district. Kunjumon himself attests to the gang’s bloody nature. “Once we were returning from the forest and we saw an elephant calf, less than six months old. It had very small tusks but Aandikunju (the Vasu gang’s No. 2) shot the calf for fun. When I objected, it led to an argument and he roughed me up. I couldn’t sleep for days after as the calf’s screams haunted me,” he says. (The calf was to come back to haunt Kunjumon later too, when he was arrested for its killing.)
Vasu’s village and the remote tribal hamlet, Kuttampuzha, once a favourite camping site of celebrated ornithologist, the late Salim Ali, has itself gained a dubious reputation of sorts. The sleepy village bordering the Idamalayar forest is on the list of most dangerous places for wildlife and elephants, according to Wildlife Census, 2012. Around 14 people from Kuttampuzha have been arrested since August 2015 in some 18 elephant poaching cases. Shantry Tom, Range Officer, Karimbani, says several gangs from the village started operating in the nearby forests. “They found that elephant poaching was highly lucrative after seeing the Vasu gang in action. His lifestyle changed after he teamed up with Bright’s network.” Forest officials say a pair of tusks (average weight 20 kg) sold in the local market for around Rs 7 lakh. By the time it reached Thiruvananthapuram and Delhi, it was Rs 35 lakh.
The network operated on many levels. “People like Vasu supply the tusks to agents like Aji Bright, who procure material for artefact manufacturers like Preston Silva in Thiruvananthapuram. Silva, in turn, supplied to ivory dealers like Umesh Agarwal and exporters like Eagle Rajan. Poachers only knew the next link, though Vasu was an exception,” says DFO Vijayanand.
The investigation team tracked the bank details of Bright (September 2013 to June 2015), which revealed he had received Rs 19.31 lakh during the period. Amounts were credited from places as far as Delhi, Bengaluru, Mysuru and Trichy. The transaction details trapped the ivory traders in the investigation net. Agarwal’s arrest, in particular, from Laxmi Nagar in Delhi, yielded a rich haul of information. Not only was 415 kg of ivory recovered from his city godown in Jaffrabad, he provided the links that helped piece together the poaching network in South India.
But it was when Kumar started targeting the ivory dealers that the investigation ran into trouble. “There was a move to freeze the probe, and some members of the team were transferred out. Top officials in the state department were not happy with the raids and arrests in Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata. Kumar was under tremendous pressure. Finally, he applied for central deputation and moved to Bengaluru,” a senior forest official, who preferred to stay anonymous, said in Kochi.
The investigation was also stymied by the strange refusal of the CBI to take over. The Kerala government had wanted the agency to probe the international ivory trade network operating in the Western Ghats and the mysterious suicide of Vasu. Though it had a clear case, the bureau turned down the request, citing shortage of manpower. “A CBI investigation could have exposed the international syndicate and nailed them. But unfortunately the agency showed no interest,” says a senior bureaucrat in Kerala. In between, the Kerala Human Rights Commission too got into the act, filing a case against forest officials. The investigation still continues in spurts. As recently as October 4, a member of Vasu’s gang was arrested.
Dr P.S. Easa, Elephant Task Force member and Senior Director, Wildlife Trust of India, says the way forward is for the forest department to have an exclusive cell to investigate cases of poaching. “If elephants are not safe in Kerala’s forests, no animal is,” he says. Incidentally, some of the initial faces in the investigation, range officer Sunil Kumar and Kunjumon, also had tumultuous years. Sunil and five other officers have rejoined duty after a six-month suspension for dereliction of duty. Kunjumon marks time waiting for his day in court. Justice served, in some sense.