Vipers, eagles and leopards on the streets: How to train your enforcement unit

Sonam Wnagdi is checking the seized phones for further contacts and checking Call Data Records.

Editor’s note: Jose Louies, Wildlife Trust of India’s Assistant Manager, Enforcement Assistance and Law filed this report about this recent illegal wildlife crime enforcement training in Bhutan.

“You two stay at the border check post opposite the gate through which people walk in and keep an eye out for the suspects. If you see anyone suspicious, check the photo that is shared with the group now. Once you spot the suspect, alert the other teams without any delay”. 

Mr. Sonam Wangdi, Sr. Forest Officer, was crisp and clear with the instructions. The two Forest Protection and Surveillance Unit members were about to leave for the field operation to nab a suspect who planned to smuggle wildlife goods from India to Bhutan.

They had an official alert issued with a photograph on it, a briefing by their unit head and everyone looked serious. There was, though, the excited sense of embarking on a covert operation in the air.

We were in Bhutan. It was the day before World Wildlife Day and IFAW-WTI was preparing a team of Bhutanese Forest officials to counter wildlife criminals across the border.

An exercise disguised as a real field operation was presented to the participants in a closed room, backed with carefully forged paperwork convincing them that this was not a mock exercise but was for real.

What followed for the next two days was what exactly a lot of wildlife law enforcement officials across the world do when they encounter traffickers operating across country borders. Surveillance is carried out for hours on foot on the streets, suspects who lead to other suspects are followed, false leads eliminated and targets pinpointed before coming up a plan to move in once every piece of the puzzle is fallen in place.

The objective given to the Enforcement Team was clear “Detain the suspect and his associates on Bhutanese soil with enough evidence and illegal wildlife goods in their possession”.

Instructions were given to them not to use firearms or excessive force as the suspect was of high value in nature and not armed (as per prior intelligence received).

A team of twelve forest officials (code named Eagles) were on the mission between Phunsholing and Jaigaon, which are towns bordering Bhutan and India.

Thousands of people, both Indian and Bhutanese citizens, move between the two countries every day and on both sides as the twin towns are the business hubs of the area. People carry vegetables and groceries in both directions without much checking carried out by police or customs.

This mutual trust between both countries is often exploited by wildlife smugglers. It met the aim of the exercise perfectly – to train the officials to deal with such situations.

The middleman is waiting for the buyers to come and take the article inside BhutanThe smugglers (code named Vipers) were led by an IFAW-WTI team member who is one of their most experienced personnel and has participated in a number of covert operations that have resulted in the arrest of many suspects and recovery of contraband.

He was playing at being a criminal for a change and the stage was set for tough competition.  Two of his most trusted informers acted as his aides in the operation.

“Target spotted near the HDFC ATM @ Jaigaon Main Road” was the first message from a team who had been on foot for an hour in the crowded streets of the border town. The rain started making it difficult to deal with the constant flow of people and it was hard to spot a specific person and keep one’s eyes focused on him.

This was exactly the way the training was planned, to allow the team to split and make their own plans. Once the target was spotted, the objective was to then follow him and build intelligence about the suspect and his associates.

The trainers kept an eye on both teams – the Vipers and the Eagles to ensure that the operation played out as scripted and no untoward incidents occurred.

The exercise went on till late that evening and by the end of the day, we had a tired team who had walked almost the whole length and breadth of the twin cities. The rain had added to their trouble in the field, and following three suspects to their hotel rooms was not as easy as they had thought.

The good news was that they had managed to collect bona fide information about the suspects.

~~~

Day two began with a quick team briefing at breakfast and the team made their plans in the closed room, even shutting their trainers out as they wanted a plan of their own. It was so serious that the trainers had to secretly ensure that none of the team members were carrying firearms into the field.

This was a team of men who already spend years in the field tracking criminals and for them this was just another day at work. The only difference was this time they were up against someone who had spent years tracking wildlife traffickers and had seen many different smuggling methods which his team was now adopting.

The Eagles were methodical this time; they took positions at strategic locations and were so deeply undercover that even the trainers who were on the lookout for them could not locate them in the crowd easily. 

The exercise was real to both sides and there was a healthy competition to succeed. Neither wanted to fail, and we could see that innate determination to win when we saw participants hiring taxis and using motorcycles to carry out surveillance. All the while Mr. Karma gently reminded the team that they should use force only if necessary, to capture the suspects.

On the other hand, I had to keep reminding the smugglers that they should not use any extraordinary methods and tricks to avoid detection. I even had to ask to be visible to ensure that the exercise does not result in complete mayhem. For a town bordering two countries, there were other enforcement agencies too that were on the lookout for criminals.

The exercise came to an end, when the Eagles managed to capture the Vipers in front of the Post Office, about 1.5 kilometres well within the borders of Bhutan. They had managed to give the border surveillance team a slip but one of them was spotted by a backup team member who informed his counterparts.

All three suspects were taken to the basement of the hotel where the participants’ team was staying and a detailed interrogation followed.

The investigators separated the suspects, carried out a thorough check of their belongings, seized all the mobile phones and started checking numbers they dialled. The collection of evidence and documentation of the crimes began the right way. It was late in the afternoon when the investigating team decided to break for lunch.

The cover was blown when the suspects were offered lunch along with the trainers and trainees. A couple of the trainees were quite stunned to see the suspects enjoying their lunch with everyone else. 

“I recognised the person in the photo as I have seen him with you when we met in Delhi. But I kept that secret to myself as I did not want to be a spoil sport. At the same time, being aware of the skill set of the person pitched against us made me want to capture the Vipers even more.

When one of my team members asked me if this was all part of a training exercise, I had to assure him it was real and that we had to be on our toes. Enforcement requires training like this. Test people on the field, not in class rooms where answers are scribbled on paper” said Sonam Wangdi who was clearly pleased.

 

A review of exercise followed lunch and it was good to see the hunters and the hunted sitting across the table discussing what happened during the two days in the field when they were pitched against each other. The learning occurred without a trainer or presentation as every participant came up with his version of what he had seen, done and where he was right and where he went wrong.

The suspects on the other hand explained the tactics they had applied to ensure that they crossed the border which was under the eagle eyes of the investigators. 

The class room exercises and theory sessions were conducted on the following days where intelligence gathering, field operations etc. were discussed with the team. 

Each participant was given a pair of combat shoes as field gear support from IFAW-WTI team.

During the training, the IFAW-WTI team also initiated the testing of a mobile application that was developed to help the identification of species which are traded in Bhutan. The app had already been tested by the IFAW-WTI team but this was the first time when it was used to handle real time data with a team of enforcement officials.

“The concept and the interface of the app are good and I am sure this will be a useful tool in the field of wildlife crime management. We will test the app within our team by loading some data into the app and use it for real-time communication. Once this is over, we will initiate the necessary official formalities to include this in our system...“ said Mr. Karma Tenzin, Head of the Enforcement Unit.

 

“I was not sure about crossing the border as they were all around me and felt that I was always on the crosshairs every moment that I walked around the street. I could see one of them at every corner and turn.

That’s when we thought about keeping them busy trailing me and use the backup to smuggle the goods through the border” said the lead Viper who finally revealed his strategy when we were travelling back to the airport.

“I hope you don’t ever want to be a smuggler?”  

I think my question was more of a compliment. 

--JL

Learn more about IFAW efforts to combat illegal wildlife trade on our campaign page.

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