Currently, it has only 11 inspectors, 16 constables for the entire country
India is a key source for global wildlife trafficking, a $25-billion trade
Last year, 25 tigers and 15 rhinos were poached in India, besides countless other wild animals. This January alone, nine tigers and two rhinos have been killed. While the slaughter took place, the prime agency tasked to crack down on wildlife crime lay toothless, with just 11 inspectors for the entire country.
Such is the state of the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau, set up in 2007 under the environment ministry to curb organised wildlife crime. The WCCB has a sanctioned strength of only 109 personnel - a small number given India's country's size - yet is understaffed by 40%.
And successive governments have failed to beef it up even as poaching has shown no signs of abating. They have also refused to give it legal powers to carry out sophisticated surveillance.
As a result, the agency has gradually retreated from its large mandate to smaller roles of collecting information and conducting training activities.
The WCCB has a massive responsibility, at least on paper. It's meant to gather intelligence from across the country on organised wildlife crime. Besides maintaining a nationwide databank of such crimes, it shares the information with state police forces and coordinates action with them.
In fact, when it comes to dealing with wildlife crime, the WCCB is the coordinating agency for various state and central government departments.
It monitors trans-border movement of illegal animal parts. It's also tasked with implementing the international anti-poaching treaties India has signed, like the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora or CITES.
And then it has to help sensitise local police officials about wildlife crime and help build capacities to deal with it.
The WCCB's big mandate was a result of the "tiger crisis" of a decade ago, especially the wiping out of the entire tiger population of Sariska sanctuary in 2005.
It had become clear then that poaching wasn't a sporadic or local event, but part of international criminal networks, not unlike illicit drug and arms trade. But wildlife crime was dealt mainly by local police, who were reluctant to follow cases where the trail led to other states or outside India.
Clearly, a specialised national-level agency was needed, with officials from across departments such as police, forest and customs.
In its initial years, thanks to its expansive mandate, the WCCB managed to reign in poaching. It teamed up with the CBI to conduct simultaneous raids across the country and got police across states to work together to crack down on poaching networks.
In subsequent years, however, the bureau has struggled to perform, largely due to manpower shortage. It currently has just two inspectors, nine wildlife inspectors and 16 constables. Among senior staff, half the positions of deputy director and assistant director are vacant. The bureau does not even have a public prosecutor.
The WCCB has one deputy director position reserved for a senior officer from the customs department, of the rank of additional commissioner. This is so since most animal parts from India are trafficked to other countries. But this position has never been occupied. In June 2015, the WCCB wrote to the chief commissioner of customs to fill up the post, but to no avail.
In fact, the entire bureau appears to be headless. The position of the assistant director for border units and "exit point coordination" is also lying vacant.
"The vacancy of a customs official is a big issue. An official of the rank of additional commissioner would play an important role in coordinating with customs officials at cargo hubs at airports," said Tito Joseph of the Wildlife Protection Society of India, which often shares tip-offs about wildlife crime with the WCCB.
In fact, the bureau's rules are such that most of its positions can only be occupied by officials from other departments. They are meant to serve on deputation for four years. Only a handful can be directly recruited.
A senior official in the bureau Catch spoke to blamed this "deputation rule" for the vacancies. He pointed out that most of the positions that are recruited directly are occupied. Indeed, 28 of the 44 current vacancies are "deputation positions".
The few who do join leave as soon as their deputation ends, and the bureau is back to searching for interested candidates.
This is a double whammy -- along with personnel, the WCCB also loses networks and contacts of the outgoing officers.
"When an inspector who has served for four years goes away, a lot of information and sources suddenly get blocked. There is no system to retain the intelligence and institutional memory," said Ramesh Pandey, an Indian Forest Service officer who is credited with spearheading the bureau's major breakthroughs in 2009-11.
Pandey himself had to leave in 2012 after a four-year deputation, to join the Ministry of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises.
"If the WCCB is to take up intelligence gathering as its main role, then it should have such a system. It could try retaining officers of a certain level, like other intelligence agencies do," Pandey said.
Then, there's the issue of legal authority. While poachers extensively use mobile phones and GPS, the WCCB has no power to access their records directly. They need to write to state police to carry out such surveillance.
"Such work requires real time information. It's of no use if the information comes after a week," said a former WCCB officer. He added that the bureau has written to the home ministry in the past asking for these powers, but in vain.
"After tigers numbers went up, the government turned its attention to other issues even though wildlife crime is still thriving," the officer said.
To redress its personnel shortage, the WCCB recently sent a proposal to the finance ministry to increase its sanctioned strength from 109.
What comes of this proposal remains to be seen. But if the government is serious about curbing wildlife, it can't afford to neglect the WCCB anymore.
Internationally, wildlife crime is understood to be organised crime on a par with illicit arms and drug trade. It's estimated to be worth about $25 billion globally.
"The scale of wildlife trafficking is tremendous and India is a major supply source for the world. But while a body was created to battle wildlife crime, the government has left it understaffed and unempowered," said a former member of the National Board of Wildlife.
"India's wildlife is at tremendous risk."