Sanjay Gandhi National Park poaching case: Now, a gunman spotted in cameras!

Updated: Jan 15, 2019, 17:29 IST | Ranjeet Jadhav

Investigations into poaching case following the recovery of snares have revealed that a gunman was on the prowl inside the protected area in city's green lung - Sanjay Gandhi National Park

Sanjay Gandhi National Park poaching case: Now, a gunman spotted in cameras!
The police and forest officials caught the accused Sushant Dashrath Bhawar (in blue and white T-shirt) on Saturday and took custody of him from Thane

The city's wildlife is not safe anywhere, not even in the protected ranges of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP), it turns out. The authorities were shocked when the camera traps they installed to study wild cat behaviour ended up capturing an entirely different beast - a poacher boldly walking in the forest with a big air gun slung on his shoulder.

Already shaken by the recent incidents of poaching of a leopard and sambar, forest officials acted swiftly and arrested the gunman.

Since last January, researchers have been working with Forest Department to study the movement of wild cats through camera traps installed in various areas of SGNP. It was these camera traps that were the undoing of the poacher, later identified as Sushant Dashrath Bhawar.

In mid-December, one of two cameras installed in the Yeoor Range captured an image of Bhawar trekking through the core forest area of the Yeoor Range, unabashedly carrying a large air gun. Range Forest Officer Rajendra Pawar was immediately informed about the sighting, and he, in turn, alerted the park director.

After poachers recently killed a leopard and sambar in the nearby Film City, and confessed to feasting on a sambar fawn inside SGNP, the Forest Department is gunning for hunters. Already, eight people have been arrested in the Film City case.

Sources said the accused lives near the Yeoor range. Despite being a core protected area in SGNP, the range has porous boundaries, with broken fences that allow trespassers to enter the park. file pic
Sources said the accused lives near the Yeoor range. Despite being a core protected area in SGNP, the range has porous boundaries, with broken fences that allow trespassers to enter the park. file pic

Challenging probe
At such a time, the camera image of Bhawar was taken as yet more evidence of rampant poaching inside the park. According to sources, a secret hunt was launched for him, and the authorities kept it under wraps even from the staff. Sources from the SGNP said that finding Bhawar was not easy, and was only possible because of nearly a month of joint efforts by them and the Thane Crime Branch.

For one, the camera had only captured the suspect's side profile, which wasn't enough for identification. In the hope of catching the poacher in the act, the investigators decided to keep a camera active at the same location. "The camera trap was installed again around 3 pm on December 20. But on December 24, when the volunteers and Forest Department guard reached the spot around 9 am, they were shocked to see that the camera had been stolen," said sources.

Second time unlucky
A theft complaint was registered with the Vartak Nagar police. Through their informers, the Vartak Nagar police and Thane crime branch were able to trace the camera thief on Saturday. It was only after they detained him that they recognised him as the same poacher in the camera image.

During interrogation, the accused confessed that he was the man carrying the gun in the image, and that he had stolen the camera to cover his tracks. "On Monday evening, the accused was transferred to the custody of SGNP, where we will interrogate him. We suspect that he may be involved in several poaching incidents in and around Mumbai," said a Forest Department official.

"The camera trap shows the accused carrying a large gun, which was later revealed to be an air gun. He might have used it to kill small wild animals," said sources. The authorities suspect that three more people may be involved in the case, and sources said that more suspects will be detained or even arrested as the matter progresses.

Meanwhile, this case is yet more evidence that technology like camera trapping is not just a great way to study animals, but can also help maintain vigilance against poaching and other suspicious activity in the forest.

Also Read: SGNP's weapon against poachers: Phone records, gun permit database

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