On the trail of red sanders smuggling in India

Smuggler Mohammad Ali Abu Bakar Shaikh and his aides followed a complex modus operandi to buy illegal red sanders at a cost of Rs 200 a kg from the forests of Andhra, TN and Karnataka, transport it to Mumbai and finally ship it off to Dubai, where it was sold for more than Rs 4,000 a kg to buyers in Japan and China; Vinay Dalvi traces the journey...

High-value consignment
Red sanders (Pterocarpus santalinu) is a timber tree species that is found in Southern India and was declared endangered by the Government of India in the year 2000 and later added to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.

Representation pic
Representation pic

After the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI) busted a major red sanders smuggling racket with the seizure of a 23-tonne consignment valued at Rs 9 crore last week, it gave the name of the alleged kingpin, Mohammad Ali Abu Bakar Shaikh, to the Crime Branch, which arrested him on Saturday.

Crime Branch sources told mid-day that Shaikh, who is a known smuggler and has been carrying out several illegal activities on the sea, was in touch with illegal suppliers of red sanders in Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. The Crime Branch is now searching for Shaikh’s aides, who helped him transport the wood from the jungles to Mumbai and on to Dubai.

“Shaikh and his aides were carrying out smuggling of the word and, after studying his activities, we carried out a mid-sea operation with the help of the Coast Guard and intercepted the consignment,” said P K Dash, Additional Director General, DRI (Mumbai zone).

Cost price: Rs 200. Selling price: Rs 4,000
Crime Branch officials said that Red Sandalwood is in great demand in China and Japan. “During interrogations, we have learnt that Shaikh’s aide Firoz used to handle the Karnataka and Dubai part he would strike deals with dealers in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh as well as purchasers in Dubai. The transport part was taken care by another aide, Noor,” said a Crime Branch official.

The police have learnt that the wood is in demand in countries like China and Japan for its medicinal value and for use in furniture and nuclear reactors. “Shaikh had already sent some consignments to Dubai before.

The purchasers would sell the wood to people in Japan and China, where they get Rs 40-50 lakh per tonne, which is Rs 4,000-Rs 5,000 per kg,” said the crime branch official. Last week, however, the DRI and the Coast Guard got a tip-off about a 23-tonne red sanders consignment, costing around Rs 9 crore, and intercepted it mid-sea.

Hunt is on
The DRI handed over the case to the Mumbai Crime Branch, which arrested Shaikh, who is an infamous smuggler and is reported to have worked with Dawood Ibrahim.

Shaikh has been conducting smuggling operations for years and is also known for stealing diesel and being part of the oil mafia. “His gangs also steal diesel. The ship M V Ganga Sagar, after unloading the red sanders was going to bring back smuggled perfumes and cigarettes.

Teams are now going to Andhra Pradesh to arrest a few other people. We are on the lookout for the owners of both boats M V Ganga Sagar and Al Marwan and are also looking for five people who were the middlemen and helped bring the rare wood to Mumbai,” said the Crime Branch official.

In the jungle
“The red sanders was brought from the Kadapa and Chittor districts of Andhra Pradesh and from places in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu by different people. Poor tribals staying near the dense forests bring the rare wood to local dealers after cutting trees and they are given either R2,000 daily or paid R200-R500 per kg,” said a Crime Branch official.

The wood was transported from Andhra Pradesh to Mumbai on huge trailers and trucks. The dealers would load the wood onto the vehicles and then cover it either with seasonal vegetables and fruits like coconuts and bananas, or marble slabs.

Mumbai landing
The wood was taken to Navi Mumbai, where Shaikh already has a big container yard in Uran. As a major transporter, Shaikh also reportedly owns around 20 trailers. From Navi Mumbai, the wood was brought to Mumbai and loaded onto the dhow, M V Ganga Sagar, from a small jetty in Sewri.

Mid-sea transfer
The M V Ganga Sagar, which is a controversial boat and had been seized by the police earlier as
well in connection with its use in smuggling operations, was supposed to travel around 72 miles south west of Mumbai, where it was supposed to meet another dhow, Al Marwan, which was travelling from Veraval in Gujarat to Dubai and was carrying 100 metric tonnes of Maize. “They were planning to throw some maize in the water, put the red sandalwood in its place and then cover it with Maize,” said the officer.

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