Sources said poaching inside the Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP) could be the tip of the iceberg, and the police believe the gang sold animal skin to an international gang, which smuggles it out of the country via Nepal.
Unit 11 busted the gang, operating with impunity in the forest for at least two months. The accused, booked under the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972, are Alok Khaire (27), Prashant Patel (25), Tushar Bagwe (29) and Abhishek Rane (26). They were produced before a holiday court on Tuesday and remanded to police custody till February 20.
Joint commissioner of police (crime) Himanshu Roy said, “Prima facie, they have admitted they killed few animals, including leopards. But they are now putting the entire blame on the main accused, Pankaj Patel.“
The police have launched a manhunt for Pankaj, the elder brother of Prashant, who was arrested along with the others when they tried to sell a leopard skin outside the park gate.
The police on Tuesday carried out searches at the residences of the accused to find out if they had hidden any skin or remains of animals. The accused, while selling the skin to a person sent by the police, had claimed that they could arrange for any animal or its skin. They claimed that they could get the skin of deer, rabbits, tigers and monitor lizards.
The police have also questioned security guards posted in the forest. Senior inspector Raghunath Dalvi said they have told senior forest officers to check the census of leopards.
The accused admitted that they had laid traps for leopards at places they would frequent to quench their thirst and then shoot them. After that they would peel off the skin and scatter away the remains or bury it to avoid suspicion.