Saturday, November 21, 2009

Undercover operation in India

Calcutta sounds like a fable in a song, but in reality, it is where John, my colleague and successor, was murdered. He was on the job for only three days when he got his throat slashed. As an undercover investigator targeting the illegal wildlife trade, especially in tiger parts, his real name was unknown, even to me, nor mine to him. We were just John and James to each other. All I know is that he was Chinese American, while his predecessor James - real name Anthony Marr - is Chinese Canadian, and how sincere he was in helping to save the Bengal tiger from being poached out of existence, while its habitat continues to dwindle due to human pressure.

It would have been me who got killed had I not been called to the Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh - the "Tiger State" - to investigate a dreadful wave of poaching which wiped out10 of their 40 tigers in 12 months. What John and I were after was the identities of the trading party/ies, the location/s of the loot, and the routes and means by which it was transported to its destination, usually China. Once these were uncovered, we would inform police, who would then go and make arrests and seizures. How we did it is confidential. Suffice to say that we were both posing as Chinese buyers. During my stint into enclaves where lone policemen dared not tread, accompanied by middlemen who would sell their mothers for a rhino horn, I've been shown sacks of tiger bone and rolls of tiger skin, just as I did in the villages surrounding the tiger reserves. I would then agonize on just how much more pressure the remaining tigers - less than 2000 in India - could take.

Since I cannot get into details in these operations, let me tell you a story which illustrates something different altogether - cast discrimination. The safe-house I was given to stay at for the two-week operation was on the 4th floor of a wood-frame building. My room was in the center of the building and windowless. There was a front room inhabited by my "servants", a middle-aged couple of the Untouchable cast, which opened out to the street, where the temperature, even in March, was a humid 115F+. I was already sweating profusely when I was being led up the 4 flights of rickety stairs by the "woman servant". But when I was led into the front room, I was staggered. It was like a hotter oven inside an already sizzling one, easily 125F, no less. "How the hell am I gonna stand 2 weeks of this?!" But as soon as I entered my room, aaaaahhhh, a cool little oasis, 70F, no more. And then, I saw the air-condtioner mounted in the wall between the two rooms, cool air into mine, hot air into theirs. I invited them to come into my room to cool off, but they humbly declined. Apparently, mine was not a realm permitted to Untouchables. I tried in the first night to keep my door open so that some cool air to reach them, but they quietly closed it for my privacy. Good people in a rotten system.

Good people in a rotten system. I'm sure we all can relate to it.

Anthony Marr, founder and president
Heal Our Planet Earth (HOPE)

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