Police broke up a major tiger poaching ring in northern India, arresting an alleged kingpin and 15 others, police and wildlife officials said Thursday.
In a rare success for India's embattled conservationists, police in the city of Allahabad raided a meeting Tuesday of suspected poachers, traders and couriers who were negotiating over three tiger pelts and skeletons, senior police official Arvind Chaturvedi said.
Conservationists say the killing of tigers for their pelts and body parts to supply the Chinese traditional medicine market is a main factor in the sharp decline in wild tigers in recent years.
There are no more than 1,500 tigers in India's reserves and jungles — down from about 3,600 just five years ago and an estimated 100,000 a century ago, according to the Indian government.
Police said they received a tip-off from conservation groups that Shabbir Hasan Qureshi, an alleged trader in banned animal parts, was taking part in the meeting.
"He was the biggest buyer of tiger parts in India and used to sell them off to the Chinese traditional medicinal market," said Belinda Wright, the director of the Wildlife Protection Society of India.
"The operation is a major breakthrough against wildlife crime," she said, adding that her group and several others had been monitoring Qureshi since he was linked to a police seizure of four tiger skins, 70 leopard pelts and 221 black buck skins in a village near Allahabad in 2000. Allahabad is about 360 miles southeast of New Delhi.
Chaturvedi said Qureshi was ready to pay $4,500 for each pelt and skeleton. That is a small fortune for impoverished villagers who trap the tigers, but almost nothing compared to the estimated $50,000 they would fetch on the Chinese black market.
Trade in endangered species, including tigers, is banned under the U.N. Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES.
But the high premium attached to tiger skins and the use of other tiger body parts in traditional Chinese medicines have created a thriving illegal trade.
Chaturvedi said the gang used women as couriers.
"These women are from a nomadic tribe known for hunting and poaching. They used to transport bones and skins from one place to another," he said.
Ramesh Ahluwalia, a senior forest official, said the tiger skins were fresh, indicating the tigers may have been killed as recently as one week ago.
"We are looking for the location where the tigers were killed or skinned. Once we locate this, it will come handy in prosecuting the poachers," he said.