Poor enforcement, weak laws make poaching an easy game
On the night of October 1, 1998, when Salman Khan went hunting blackbucks, he was explicitly warned not to do so in the Bishnoi area because only a few have managed to get away from them. Yet Khan and his co-stars Saif Ali Khan, Tabu, Sonali Bendre and Neelam, along with local contacts, went ahead and shot two blackbucks. Poonam Chand, a resident of Kankani village, Jodhpur district, heard
the gunshots at around 1.30 am on October 2. He came out of his house, only to see Khan's Maruti Gypsy moving away slowly. The vehicle came back but when the occupants spotted Chand they sped away. However, Chand had enough time to note the Gypsy's number.
A forest ranger¤ Bhawarlal Bishnoi¤ the first forest official to reach the spot¤ recounts that Chand and other villagers came to inform him that two blackbucks had been killed. He added that the actors used to visit Kankani to have tea and the villagers recognised them easily.
That Khan had earlier shot chinkaras in Ghoda Farm and Bhavad in the same area was not known. The registration number of the Gypsy played a big role in identifying Khan's involvement in all the poaching incidents. The regional transport office in Jodhpur informed investigators on October 6, 1998, that the vehicle was owned by one Arun Kumar Yadav, who revealed Khan had killed two chinkaras before going out on the blackbuck expedition.
Khan was sent to prison on October 12. He is facing three charges of poaching under various sections of the Wildlife (Protection) Act (WPA), 1972, and the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC). Two of them are for killing the chinkaras and one in the blackbuck case. He is also facing three cases under the Indian Arms Act, 1959 for using unlicensed weapons and filing false affidavits about losing his arms licences.
Khan has already been found guilty of poaching in the two chinkara cases. On February 16, 2006, the metropolitan judicial magistrate of Jodhpur, sentenced him to a year in prison for killing a chinkara at Bhavad. In the second case involving killing a chinkara at Ghoda Farm, the same court awarded Khan a jail term of five years and a fine of Rs 25,000 on April 10, 2006. The district sessions court upheld the second judgment on August 24, 2007. Currently, Khan is out on bail, granted by the Rajasthan High Court, in that case. The district court is hearing a plea for an increase in the sentence in the other.
The third case involving the blackbucks has been stuck at the high court, where the prosecution has filed a revision petition after the sessions court removed some charges against Khan.
Witnesses turning hostile or absconding is a big problem. In the chinkara cases, Dinesh Gawra, who held the searchlight when Khan shot a chinkara, absconded. Kanwara and Rupa Ram said in court that they had not seen a Gypsy, and Pukh Raj said the vehicle he saw was not the one Khan was using. Others said the police recorded incorrect testimony. An investigating official said the cross-examination of the witnesses, held in 2001, was farcical because they denied everything they had told investigators.
Harish Dulani was the Gypsy driver. His testimony, on January 24 and March 20, 2002, was clinching evidence. Dulani had testified that on September 28, 1998, Khan shot a chinkara from the Gypsy and then slit its throat. Although the defence was given a chance to cross-examine on March 20, 2002, it refused. After his testimony, Dulani disappeared. He did not reply to court summons and when a warrant was issued against him, he could not be traced. In fact, before his testimony on January 24, Dulani had given the court a written statement saying Khan and his associates were threatening him.
Dulani is still untraceable. However, in April 2006, days before Khan was sent to jail in the Ghoda Farm case, he reportedly gave an interview to a television channel, saying he had not seen Khan. A case has been registered against Dulani for perjury since he had issued a statement in October 1998 before the district magistrate identifying Khan and others as being part of the hunting party. However, in 2002, when all the accused were produced in court he only identified Khan. Even though a case of perjury has been registered, Dulani's testimony has been taken on record.
The Ghoda Farm and Bhavad cases were backed by circumstantial evidence and Dulani's testimony. For the April 10 judgment (in the Ghoda Farm case), the court considered Khan's presence where the chinkara was killed on September 28 with arms in an open-top vehicle; presence of chinkara blood and hair in the vehicle; recovery of ammunition; depositions of witnesses who procured the hunting weapons; and the knife surrendered by Khan's brother, with which he allegedly slit the chinkara's throat.
Forest officials in Jodhpur allege Dulani and others succumbed to money or muscle. Inducements were also allegedly offered to Lalit Boda, a forest official, and Ashok Patani of the Rajasthan Police, the two main investigators. Whatever be the truth of these allegations, the integrity of these two officers are beyond question. Curiously, the first post-mortem report said the blackbucks died of overeating. The state veterinarian who examined the carcass was suspended and a new team confirmed the animals had been shot.
The Bishnois hold the key to the blackbuck case. "It is hard to find witnesses to a wildlife crime. In the blackbuck case we have two eyewitnesses,' says Mahendra Singh Kachhawa, special public prosecutor. Ballistic and post-mortem reports make the case stronger than the chinkara cases, he adds.