An undercover sting to capture a tiger skin dealer
To guard personal identities, some names have been changed and event sequences suitably modified. No statements in this blog have legal validity in any courts of law. –The Eds.
“You look like a criminal character from a movie,” my regular, trusted driver said after he picked me up for a four-hour road trip to our destination. I hope he’s right. My look is not an accident. It’s the result of a conscious effort over the last three months to gather evidence against a suspected wildlife trafficker who is selling ivory and tiger skins.
“When you deal with a criminal, you need to think, smell and behave like one,” my guru, Ashok Kumar, used to tell me. Here, everything is a forgery, a carefully crafted identity based on pure lies and a fictitious background. My team and I are not amateurs and neither is the suspect. He is a seasoned criminal with a couple of drug trafficking cases pending against him in the court, well connected with some politicians, and living in a multi-story bungalow in the middle of the city. He, too, has his own team.
You may be imagining what an exciting job it is to live a life under assumed identities, travel around and catch wildlife criminals.
The reality is far from that. We call it the “Dirty job in conservation” – the kind of job where, to succeed, you need to have nine lives, like a cat. A number of dedicated people do this, and because it is done undercover and silently, very few people talk about it.
We reached the meeting place where we picked up Mr. Sajeesh, a senior forest authority official who will be my partner today. We’ve known each other since 2008 and have worked together in the past. Quick discussions followed. Our contact had already confirmed that the suspect was carrying the tiger skin in his car but they had talked about switching the car midway. A secretly taken photo shared over WhatsApp confirmed the intel. Sajeesh and I change cars as well.
12:45 am. My phone rings for the first time. It’s a mobile unit used only for this operation. It’s the suspect: “We are on the way. I hope you have the cash with you. We come to the temple at 7th mile in one hour. Your man is with me. He has seen and examined the stuff. Don’t waste time.” I understood the suspect’s warning about the hostage who is with him – “my man.”
“My man “is one of the many faceless informants who take part in these risky games. Most of them have criminal backgrounds, and either money or rivalry or some other compulsion leads them to share intelligence on illegal wildlife traders. They are our most important assets in identifying and catching wildlife criminals. And these informants are at great risk – a seasoned criminal will not forgive a traitor.
The stage was set for the meeting at the temple. We dispatched a reconnaissance team on motorcycle to have a look at what preparations awaited us on the temple road. Surely, there will be a couple of the suspect’s watchdogs – or fielders – there before we reach it.
In an undercover operation like this, a small strike team goes in posing as buyers and while they engage the suspects, the backup team closes in.
Success depends on a combination of mind games, nerves, discipline and bravado.
Three of us in an unmarked car with a fake number plate take to the highway. There is a black, hard-case valise in the back seat, secured to the seat with a steel chain just to show that the money is in there. There is a pistol under the driver’s seat, carefully inserted in a secret pocket.
“We have company near the temple, in a tea shop.” The suspect’s watchdogs are there. It is 2:30 pm.
The suspect calls soon after. “The temple grounds are crowded. Let’s meet at the tea shop about two kilometers before the temple.” The change in location was expected, but we are not sure what the traffickers have waiting for us.
The tea shop is small and non-descript.
The road in front of it is straight for almost a kilometer. There are not many people there. We park under a tree and the driver goes to buy a cup of tea. Sajeesh sees two men – the trafficker’s watchdogs -- in an old car about twenty meters away from us. One climbs out, lights a cigarette and smokes it while casually looking at us. A near perfect set up, for sure.
I call the suspect’s number. “Where the heck are you? We can’t hang around with so much cash with us. You changed the location of the meet at the last moment and now I’m a bit suspicious about why you asked us to come here, to this small tea shop. I hope you’re not planning anything funny. I’ve also done my backup work. You know, in our business, trust is the main thing. It’s all about trust, my dear.” I showed him my concern and my confidence at the same time over the phone.
The trafficking suspect had been suspicious about me from the day we met. My contact later told me he said, “That outsider fellow is really shady. He behaves as if he owns half the town and I don’t like when someone tells me to follow his instructions,”
Time passes. No sign of the suspect. His phone is switched off. I call the contact’s phone: also off. I think they may have gotten spooked and taken off. We wait for a few more minutes. The watchdogs’ car is still there. I’m sure they’ve updated the suspect. What’s going on? Are they planning to surprise us and snatch the suitcase from the car? Our backup team is about a kilometer behind us on the temple road.
Finally, the suspect, with his son driving, arrives in a different car.
He does not look like a seasoned criminal. He speaks in broken English and Hindi. I pretend I don’t understand what he is saying. His son takes over as negotiator.
“Show me the money. I want to examine it.” His demand is straightforward.
“I can’t do that. I have not seen the skin. You promised me something else and now you’re changing your plans. I don’t agree with this. Show me the product.”
I have to play it this way because there is no 7,500,000 rupees (about US$110,000) in the black valise. All we have is bundles of newspaper cut into the shape of bills and one small bundle of real notes in between. Just 25,000 rupees, all crisp, new 1,000 notes.
“You are trying to fool me …” The father speaks. I can see the cunning in his eyes. It’s the moment when my cover could get blown and the operation ended.
“Look, we don’t cheat and I don’t deal with people who don’t trust me,” I say, as I walk to our car. Sajeesh speaks to the suspect and comes to me with a request: Can I show his son some money from the valise, so they will know we are not trying to pass fake currency?
“Fake currency?” I act offended and let loose a string of curse words, then call the man to my car. I pull out a key from the glove box, ask him to stand by the door and go to the back seat. I know he can see the valise secured with the steel chain. I make sure he watches as I open the padlock and let him look inside the stuffed case. I randomly pull some notes from a bundle and hold the bunch of crisp notes carelessly in my hand, right in front of his.
“Take it. Go and check it as much as you want, if you think I cheat you. It’s all yours. I am not interested in dealing with untrustworthy fellows like you.”
The father-son duo is taken aback by my behavior. But the crispy new notes work their magic.
“Wait here,” the suspect says when he returns, “we are getting the stuff. Sorry for the trouble. We are dealing for the first time and I can’t trust a newcomer. Don’t worry about your safety; my boys are already here.” He waves at the watchdogs’ car. “It’s our people. This area is mine and you are safe here.”
“What the hell is this?” I yell. I am scared for sure. “You’re violating our agreement.”
I tell our driver to start the car. “Keep those few rupees as your tip,” I say out the car window as we move onto the main road.
As we drive away, my phone rings. It’s the suspect. I rain a mouthful of curses at him -- accuse him of trying to steal my money. When I stop swearing, he apologizes.
I’m sure he’s thinking about losing that valise full of mint-fresh cash because of his mistake of pushing too hard. He’s got tiger skins but no cash.
One of our team members, watching from the tea shop, updates us over WhatsApp: “Just before their cars left, they moved a large box from one to the other -- a green cardboard box.”
“Looks like they are coming back for the deal,” Sajeesh says.
I see the suspect’s parked vehicle coming out onto the road with three occupants. It pulls ahead of us. Another comes up from behind. We are sandwiched in between, stopped on the road side. We wait for their next move.
The suspect gets out of the lead car and comes back to ours, smiling. “You don’t worry a bit, our boys are here to guard us from forest officials and cops. I have to make sure all goes well. The tiger skin is in my car. Come over and have a look at it and I will take the money from your car. Please unlock the suitcase from the chain.” He is taking command of the deal.
We agree to drive ahead a bit, to where the road starts a climb to a deserted patch. I need to spread out the skin inside the suspect’s vehicle and check it for any defects before I take it with me.
I know we are on the trafficker’s turf. There are at least five of them in two cars and only three of us on the scene.
It is now 6:02 pm and it’s dark.
We pull over again, just before the small temple. We alert our strike team who are about one kilometer ahead. The valise is unlocked and on the seat. Sajeesh and I walk to the suspect’s car to see the tiger skin. He and his son are already outside their vehicle.
The pelt is there alright, neatly folded in a microwave oven pack with an intact cover. No one would suspect anything at first glance. We confirm the skin is genuine then we pull it out a bit so we can examine the claws, as a seasoned trader would.
“Do it faster. I am going to your car to check the money in the valise.” The suspect goes to our car to retrieve his money.
The situation is tense. Time is running out. Our strike team is not yet here. The suspect’s son is standing nearby and his watchdogs are about 200 meters behind us – watching closely. Sajeesh and I are in his car with a tiger skin.
As the suspect gets into our car to check the valise, I know it’s time to act.
“We are from the forest department,” Sajeesh growls, “You are under arrest. Keep quiet and cooperate.” When he sees the pistol Sajeesh is brandishing, he is absolutely stunned.
It’s all over in five minutes. The strike team joins us and rounds up the suspect and his watchdogs. One escapes.
We sit down for a talk with the suspect and his son. He confesses that he got the tiger skin from a poacher with whom he has dealt before. They wanted to sell the skin for a huge sum of money. A couple of people besides us wanted to buy it, but our offer was highest. Also, when he met me – the outsider, the non- native buyer – he was convinced we were not from law enforcement.
But he was wrong. He had fallen into a carefully and painstakingly crafted trap which took six months to set. Another trafficker in illegal wildlife brought to justice, thanks to IFAW-WTI and the India Forest Service.
Soon after, I go to a salon, get a decent haircut, shave off my beard, bathe luxuriously and change into my regular clothes. I store the mobile phone, the old clothes and the other accessories of my undercover identity in a box. I am going home after one month, with gifts in hand for my kids, just like any other father returning from a long business trip.
I am sure that, soon, the phone will beep and another informer will tell me about another trafficking suspect – and another sting will begin again.