Fugitive tiger poacher tracked to his lair

Sariska National Park, in the north-western state of Rajasthan, became the focus of international alarm after it emerged this year that the last tiger had gone. Environmentalists are warning that India's tiger population may be far lower than the authorities admit, and the tiger may be on the verge of extinction.

Officially, the world's tiger population is between 5,000 and 7,000, with India accounting for 60 per cent. But environmentalists say the real number is closer to 3,000, with much of the Indian population destroyed by poaching that has been covered up by corrupt forestry officials.

Chand has long been considered a kingpin of the illegal skins trade. He is wanted in nine Indian states in at least 57 cases of poaching and smuggling of animal skins.

He was sentenced to five years in prison in 2004, but was released on bail three months later and promptly disappeared.

"We have enough evidence to link Sansar Chand to the tiger poaching cases in Sariska," the director of India's Central Bureau of Investigation, U S Mishra, said earlier this month. During the last two years, all 10 of Sariska's tigers disappeared.

It was the Sariska debacle that finally forced the Indian government to take seriously repeated warnings from conservationists that the country's tiger population was in grave peril from poachers and that the country's tiger conservation scheme, Project Tiger, vaunted around the world as a model, was in fact breaking down.

Now that Chand has been linked to this case, there is little chance of him escaping so easily a second time. His grandfather was what is known in India as a "tribal" - a member of one of the aboriginal groups, many of whom still live highly traditional lives in India's jungles. Hunting was the family business.

The contraband trade in skins, particularly tiger skins, is extremely lucrative - one skin can fetch £10,000 - and it propelled Chand into the lifestyle of a wealthy gangster. He routinely made court appearances in cheap clothing in an effort to convince judges he was hard up, but when he was interviewed on Indian television he appeared in designer clothing.

His childhood was poor: his father could not afford to keep his sons in school, and Chand started poaching big game at an early age. By 1974, at the age of 16, he was in custody in a case involving tiger and leopard skins, and 676 other wild animal skins.

It has remained a family business: a brother, uncle and brother-in-law have all been named in poaching and skin-smuggling cases. Chand's first wife and son are both on trial in Rajasthan for wildlife crimes.

Indian police say the manhunt for Chand lasted several months. Undercover police disguised as milkmen and tea sellers kept a vigil outside his home in Delhi, and officers even posed as air-conditioning repairmen in an effort to get inside.

But it turned out that Chand had gone to ground in a different neighbourhood, a sleepy residential area where he rented a flat.

Police finally managed to track him down because they knew he read newspapers from his native Rajasthan, for which there is little demand in the capital. Because of the papers' scarcity, police were able to question newsagents and find their man.

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