One man, a website, three states, over a thousand employees and businesses across the world — every bit of the plan to denude the coasts of peninsular India of its treasures was in place. For the last half a decade, a multi-crore nationwide racket collected sea shells, conch and precious coral and sold these globally. All these are banned and endangered sea animals under the Wildlife Protection Act 1972.
A special team from the Ministry of Environment and Forests took six months to unearth one of the biggest ever wildlife rackets in the country with its roots in Mumbai, Tamil Nadu and Goa and operations all over the world.
“The operation was more thrilling than a Bollywood potboiler,” claimed an investigating officer. It started as a routine raid in some shops in Colaba. Finally, the ministry team had a huge international gang on its hands, supported by local politicians and other strongmen, making crores of rupees from the racket.
The team was led by Mita Banerjee, regional deputy director, Western Region, MoEF, based in Mumbai. “When we started the raid we never realised that this racket will be of such a proportion. In Colaba, they do not sell these products in any shop openly and their clients are aware of it. They mainly operate through international agents and the telephone,” she said.
The main source for collection was Goa and the craftsmanship was done in Mumbai, but not before reaching Chennai, where the person heading the racket lived. “In Tamil Nadu, the stretch of operations was between Kanyakumari and Rameswaram. While investigating there, we got to know that a racket of a much bigger scale was operating in Goa,” she added.
Immediately, the operation shifted to Goa. “There we had a real difficulty in getting over political pressures because the operation was huge, spanning across the coastline. There were big operators but many of them got know about our raids right from Chennai. Everywhere, they burnt their products and we could not seize too much material. Thankfully, from the ashes and other hideouts, we found enough proof to make a case,” she added.
More than 100 shops were found in the coastal city and some of the owners foxed the officers. “They are extremely well-networked and most importantly, they all know that these items are banned. It is not by chance that they gather these shells. There are workshops where people further work on the material to sell them in the international market,” she said.
Moreover, the intriguing ‘don’ has always remained faceless — none of the people involved in racket ever knew him or even saw him. The ministry was reluctant to divulge his name because it would hamper the process of collecting further evidence.
“Though we did everything we could, we failed to arrest the main person who was operating from a website. The police’s cyber crime cell team also failed to get us details. So we checked out the probable selling points to get hold of him. When we got across to him finally, we failed to seize any material. He was about to flee when we discovered an old case against him and followed it up. That helped us book him for stealing underwater treasures,” Banerjee said.