November 1998


JODPUR, India; ANCHORAGE, Alaska; MINNEAPOLIS, Minnesota; DENVER, Colorado--A U.S. federal indictment issued on October 23 in Anchorage, Alaska, charged Jon S. "Buck" McNeely, producer and host of the nationally syndicated TV show "The Outdoorsman with Buck McNeely," with illegally using three aircraft to poach caribou.

Also charged were hunting guide James M. Fejes of Anchorage, Fejes' assistants Blaine A. Morgan and William M. Vollendorf, and hunting client Michael Doyle, of Minnesota.

The case was little noted by national media.

Neither was there much notice--or fuss --when in August U.S. Attorney Tom Monaghan of Omaha, Nebraska, rescinded fines of $250 apiece which had been paid by former Minnesota Vikings football coach Bud Grant and two companions after they were caught last March illegally hunting geese over a baited field. Monaghan accepted the claim of guide Barry Bales that he alone was responsible for the baiting.

Poaching is so frequent in the U.S. that of the 16.3 million Americans who hunt, according to National Sporting Goods Association and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service data, barely 14 million buy licenses. Ohio wardens, recording the activities of all hunters they see in the field, have discovered year after year that approximately 10% are violating a wildlife conservation law at the time.

Many of the biggest recent poaching busts have come only after the alleged offenders boasted of their deeds for years via both print and electronic media. Hunting guide Samuel Sickels, for instance, of Nucla, Colorado, recruited clients by sending them videos of his illegal kills, including one in which 20 people aboard 16 snowmobiles chased and killed a puma. Texas hunting writer Brandon Ray described poaching trophy bears and pumas with Sickels in at least three publications before turning government witness.

Sickels pleaded guilty on September 15 in St. George, Utah, to three of 38 charges filed against him in five jurisdictions for alleged wanton destruction of wildlife, illegal taking of wildlife, and unlawful use of wildlife for financial gain. Other charges are reportedly pending. Yet the Sickels prosecutions have still drawn less attention than Ray's tales of dispatching a near-record-sized puma by archery on one Sickels-guided hunt.

Bishnois bring charges

The Bishnois people of rural Rajasthan, protectors of wildlife since 1542, think poaching is out of hand in India, too, but unlike in the U.S., where illegal hunting is typically seen only as a theft of "game" from other hunters, the Bishnois see it as sacrilege.

On October 12, ten days of escalating Bishnois protest secured poaching charges against five of India's biggest film stars, including Salman Khan, described by Neelesh Miskra of Associated Press as "the heart throb of Indian women for almost a decade...a Sylvester Stallone-type macho romantic who fights for love in gutwrenching action sequences."

Khan was held without bail for allegedly shooting two blackbucks and a chinkara. Both are deer-like members of the antelope family.

Also arrested, as alleged accomplices, but released on bail, were Saif Ali Khan, and the actresses Sonali Bendre, Neelam Kothari, and Tabu, who does not use a surname.

Warrants were later issued for another four alleged accomplices, believed to have promoted hunting guised as wildlife observation tours.

"All were involved," Rajasthan forestry official Alka Kala said, "but the judge found it was Salman who pulled the trigger."

More than 100 witnesses testified against the film stars, including the stars' cook and the driver of a vehicle which made a fast getaway with one dead blackbuck, while Bishnois confiscated and buried the remains of the other blackbuck and the chinkara.

"The police have also recovered photographs of the hunting expedition which were allegedly taken from a camera owned by Salman Khan, found in his hotel room," Prakash Bhandari of The Times of India wrote.

Salman Khan was eventually charged with three separate crimes: allegedly poaching two chinkaras who were eaten by a film crew on September 26-27; allegedly killing the two blackbucks on October 1; and allegedly possessing illegal firearms.

Additional charges were brought against Salman Khan's father, screenwriter Salim Khan, after a police search of the family farm in Panvel discovered a blackbuck, two chinkaras, and a peacock who were allegedly held captive without the proper permits. The police were embarrassed, however, when the blackbuck died from an overdose of tranquilizer while in their custody.

The Delhi-based Wildlife Protection Society of India was reportedly pursuing a related case against a sixth entertainment figure, comedian Satish Shah, for allegedly bootlegging the weapons to Mumbai, where they were recovered by police.

Bishnois lawyer

"We are trying to find a Bishnoi lawyer to represent us," Ashok Kumar of the Wildlife Protection Society told Radhika Sachdev of The Times of India.

"According to Kumar," Sachdev wrote, "the conviction rate for wildlife offenses is poor because forest officers who investigate these cases are often unable to build watertight cases against influential poachers."

Two handicaps to successful prosecutions are that present conservation policies allocate only $13.50 per case for legal fees, and another $13.50 for informants. Madhya Pradesh chief conservator of forests has asked that these amounts be multiplied tenfold. The low fees reportedly encourage bribes, though Indian media rarely directly identify instances where bribery is suspected.

Sachdev did indicate doubts about one case in which "a film star was charged a few years ago in Karnataka state for killing a leopard at the Dendeli National Park. He was acquitted because of lack of evidence."

Indian minister for social justice and empowerment Maneka Gandhi described a still more flagrant series of invocations of the "influential persons act," in which, while serving as minister of forests in a previous government, she sought prosecution of a film star for allegedly shooting birds at Sultanpur. Instead, he was released on a promise of good behavior--but was arrested later for allegedly shooting two panthers at Madumalai in Tamal Nadu. Charges are now pending, Maneka said. However, some wildlife officials apparently tried to exonerate the film star by claiming the panthers actually died of overeating. A veterinarian was suspended for filing an inaccurate report, Maneka told Kalpana Jain of The Times of India, but no action resulted against his superiors.

On October 15, The Times of India revealed that in August 1998 authorities accused Salman Khan, members of a film crew, and "some Army and Air Force officers" of shooting chinkaras, hyenas, and foxes near Bhirandiyara village in the vicinity of the Kutch Desert Sanctuary. The complaint apparently moved from one bureaucrat's desk to another for more than two months without action being taken.


The Khan case encouraged other crackdowns against alleged poachers--whose alleged offenses, routine in the U.S., seemed to shock and surprise the Indian public.

In Vadadara, Ahmedabad, for instance, seven people were arrested on October 10, including five Rajpipla Sindhiwada residents who allegedly bought two fawns from a pair of butchers, and the butchers themselves, who are believed to have poached the fawns' mothers in the Surpaneshwar Sanctuary.

In Khadaripur village, Kolar, four alleged deer poachers were arrested by forestry officials on October 25, in reportedly the first such case ever brought before the local court.

In Mumbai, the animal welfare group Ahimsa announced a "Hunt the Poachers" campaign. Ahimsa reportedly asked that the Film Producers and Directors Association, the Indian Film Federation, and film director Sooraj Barjatiya, Salman Khan's most recent employer, "boycott the film personalities involved in the poaching incident."

Media also seized the opportunity to expose poaching in Madya Pradesh, Bijar, and Orissa, where the Wildlife Society of Orissa demanded that a special prosecutor be appointed to bring offenders to justice.

WSO secretary Biswjit Mohanty told Kalpana Jain of The Times of India that "Although 24 leopard skins and seven crocodile skins were seized during the past three years, and an ivory poacher was arrested in 1991, none of the accused have yet been charged."

Central government minister for environment and forests Suresh P. Prabhu told Jain that an interministerial bureau to deal with wildlife crimes is soon to be formed.

Bishnois vs. WWF

The Khan case drew notoriety comparable to that of the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky affair in the U.S., not only because of the prominence of the accused but also because it directly pits traditional Indian values, as upheld by some of the poorest of the poor, against decadent modernity represented by some of the richest of the rich.

A further tension is that the Khan surname tends to indicate descent from the Islamic rulers who conquered and dominated Rajasthan for more than 700 years with frequent bloody displays of hunting prowess and animal sacrifice. The Bishnois assumed their roles as protectors of wildlife in nonviolent resistance to the excesses they saw after the consolidation of the Mogul Empire in 1526.

The Hindu, however, which is the leading Hindu newspaper in India, on October 16 prominently identified Salman Khan--despite his surname--as a Hindu.

The fundamental issue for the future of Indian wildlife is the conflict the Khan case exemplifies between the "sustainable development" visions of the World Wildlife Fund, which have dominated conservation in India and Africa since WWF was founded in 1961, and the lifestyle of the Bishnois, strict vegetarians who have practiced their own form of sustainable coexistence with wildlife for more than 500 years.

WWF might not welcome the notoriety associated with the Khan case, yet there is no doubt who his friends are. "Salman Khan and [fellow actor and suspect] Saif Ali Khan reportedly took shelter at the Umaid Bhaven Palace of the erstwhile Maharaja of Jodhpur, Gaj Singh," wrote Radika Sachdev of The Times of India. "The former Maharja," Sachdev noted, "is the chairman of the World Wildlife Fund-India's Rajasthan committee."

The World Wildlife Fund-India's 1999 calendar depicted Salman Khan and 11 other stars uttering greetings with environmental themes. Salman Khan's greeting urged people to bicycle or walk.

WWF-India state director M.S. Kothari said the calendar would be withdrawn, and would omit Khan in future printings.

But WWF disciple and former Karanatka state chief conservator of forests S. Parameswarappa unabashedly told M. Gautham Machaiah of The Times of India that the government should deal with poaching by following the WWF prescription of legalizing sport hunting, as most nations have, and selling permits to hunt rare species to the highest bidders. The receipts, he argued, could be used to propagate wildlife and fight poaching.

Legal hunting is the foundation of the WWF "sustainable development" strategy. Begun by British trophy hunter Peter Scott, with substantial help from hunting pals Prince Philip of England and Prince Bernhardt of The Netherlands, WWF initially promoted only "conservation," to make sure "game" species remained plentifully available to hunters after former British colonies gained independence. The watchwords became "sustainable development" instead in the early 1980s, as the idea that true conservation should include protection from hunting as well as poaching gained momentum. The economic ideology of the U.S. presidential administration of Ronald Reagan and then British prime minister Margaret Thatcher suggested to the WWF strategists that anti-hunting views might best be countered with the argument that wildlife should "pay for itself," as if animals--like humans--should enjoy security only upon payment of some form of tax.

Balking only at legalizing hunting, India embraced "sustainable development," in theory, shortly after the 1984 assassination of prime minister Indira Gandhi. Villagers in ever-growing numbers were allowed to make economic use of wildlife reserves, as in Africa, both squeezing the habitat and escalating conflicts between animals and humans.

Not coincidentally, the confluence--also as in Africa--brought sharply increased poaching, and growing demands for hunting to deal with alleged "surplus" wildlife. The numbers of leopards and tigers left in India are believed to be near the recorded lows. Yet fatal leopard and tiger attacks on humans are reportedly up.

"Due to a decline in the number of wild herbivores, both because of rampant poaching and ecological degradation, the big cats turn to humans, who make the easiest targets," Wildlife Institute of India scientist Sathya Kumar told R.P. Nailwal of The Times of India last June.

Officials told Times of India reporter Law Kumar Mishra that 2,500 blackbucks were poached at the Karera National Park near Bhopal alone during 1996 and 1997. Officially, the blackbuck population was down to 1,600 by June 1998; unofficially, the count was as low as 200. The problem, Mishra wrote, was twofold: "Farmers are encouraging killing of blackbucks as their farms are being damaged by wildlife," and, "Villagers, apprehending their displacement due to the expansion of the national park, have apparently started a campaign to liquidate the population of blackbucks to prevent the authorities from acquiring their farms. They invited poachers from Jhansi and Gwalior to kill blackbucks."

The conflicts, in short, are similar to those that have suburban residents and farmers throughout much of the U.S. clamoring for more deer and goose hunting, to remove perceived public nuisances, and have resulted in poachers who see themselves as defending their property rights illegally killing many of the wolves who were recently reintroduced to the vicinities of Yellowstone National Park and Apache National Forest, in Arizona. The difference is that in the U.S., the burgeoning deer and goose populations have resulted from 40 years of vigorous effort by wildlife management agencies to propagate the species preferred by hunters, undertaken after their major wild predators were themselves hunted to the verge of extinction.

The WWF-influenced Wildlife Advisory Board of Rajasthan, a branch of the Rajasthan Forest Department, predictably responded to the reports of declining blackbuck, spotted deer, sambhar, and chinkara populations by suggesting "partial privatization of wilderness," to encourage game farming. Some of the animals would be released into sanctuaries, to feed wild carnivores, while the operations would presumably pay for themselves through the sale of meat and--yes--hunting permits.

Floating the proposal via The Times of India was Wildlife Advisory Board member Harsh Vardhan, the honorary secretary of WWF-Rajasthan.

"Vardhan also expressed his concern over the loss of traditional knowledge and expertise in the villages in hunting, trapping, and snaring," said the anonymous Times of India account, hinting that Vardhan perhaps sees poaching as well as wildlife as an aspect of India worth preserving.

5,000 march

As Khan informally appealed his prosecution to Gopinath Munde, a prominent member of the Indian government, 5,000 Bishoi marched in Mumbai on November 4 to keep the case alive.

Valmik Thapar, executive director of the Ranthambore Foundation, described the Bishnois in his 1997 book Land of the Tiger as "members of a sect which believes in complete nonviolence to all living organisms. They are the primary reason," Thapar wrote, "that desert wildlife still exists on the subcontinent. The women of the community have been known to breastfeed black buck fawns and save insect life," as is documented by photographs published recently by the Animal Welfare Board of India, "while many of the men have died in their efforts to counter armed poaching gangs," including a youth who was killed in one celebrated 1996 case when he tried to stop two armed poachers by himself. No one has been charged with the murder.

An average of eight Rajasthan forestry personnel per year are killed and 30 are crippled for life in confrontations with poachers, according to Nature Club of Rajasthan founder Suraj Ziddi. Many and perhaps most are Bishnois.

"Bishnoi is an offshoot of Jainism," Thapar continued, "which teaches that all nature's creations have a right to life. This belief reached its apotheosis in 1778 when 294 men and 69 women laid down their lives to protect the khejri tree. A senior officer of Jodhpur state arrived to cut down the trees, which were needed for burning lime. The first to challenge him was a woman, who hugged one of the trees and was promptly decapitated. Her three daughters followed suit and were also axed. Many others followed. This mass slaughter led to a royal order that prohibited the cutting of any tree in a Bishnoi village."

Concluded Thapar, "It is remarkable how desert wildlife thrives around Bishnoi settlements," which are typically located in habitat so harsh that it has resisted almost all other humans.