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Unusual suspects in leopard skin racket:

The Times of India, Navi Mumbai, 10 May 2013

The recently unearthed leopard skin racket has unmasked shockingly commonplace accused — a real estate agent, an engineer, a student of computer animation, a college clerk and an electrician at a mall, among others.

Last week, Panvel forest officials had arrested two men from Khopoli for trying to sell a leopard skin for Rs 5 lakh. This week, six more arrests were made. Most of the eight accused reportedly told the forest officials they got into the racket to make easy money.

"This is one of the major wildlife rackets we have busted this year. It shows how a highly protected species such as the leopard is first trapped and killed in the forest, and then its skin is illegally sold for huge profit,`` said Anil Parab, range forest officer (RFO) at Panvel.

The first two persons arrested last week with the eight-foot-long skin of an adult male leopard were Khopoli`s Sudhakar Meshram (26) and Rajendra Ahire (47). While Meshram is an unemployed youth who did odd jobs, Ahire is a college clerk.

Meshram allegedly bought the leopard skin from one Nilesh Borkar (26) in Gadchiroli by paying around Rs 1 lakh. Borkar reportedly worked as an agent for the poachers. Ahire chipped in money for the purchase. Meshram then travelled all the way to Khopoli, in a state transport bus, with the skin in a regular travel bag.

At Khopoli, Meshram and Ahire got in touch with real estate agent Shraddha Bhapkar (25) and asked her to scout for a customer for the skin; they put a price tag of around Rs 20 lakh.

"Shraddha had started networking for the leopard skin and had also roped in a computer animation student Karan Bedekar (24), an engineer Pramod Dhavan (34), and also an electrician at a mall Kareem Ghulam Shaikh (30) to look for a suitable client,`` said a forest official.

The name of the eighth accused is Illya Raja Santanam (22). More arrests are likely as the investigation progresses.

Meanwhile, a team of forest officials from the Panvel range have left for the Chandrapur forest division to find the main perpetrators of this trade. "We are also getting assistance from forest officials in Gadchiroli, which is a part of the Chandrapur division, in our investigation. Our mission is to stop the brazen killing of our wild animals by such gangs,`` said Parab.

This is not the first time regular citizens have been arrested for trading in leopard skins. Last July, two state government employees were held for a similar crime. Forest department officials had seized the skin and arrested the accused, both of whom worked as peons at the charity commissioner`s office in Gadchiroli. They dabbled in the illegal trade even as they continued with their salaried jobs.

In December 2012, forest officials seized a few metal traps used to trap wild animals such as leopards in Gadchiroli, which is reportedly a hub of illegal wildlife activities in the state.