Czech nationals say forest dept tricked them

Czech nationals say forest dept tricked them

Darjeeling, West Bengal: Two Czech nationals — Petr Svacha and Emil Kucera — found guilty of collecting endangered insects at a local court, claim they were tricked by the forest department.

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“There have been cheats (sic) and lies from their side (the forest department), but at the beginning we didn’t realize that," said Svacha, an entomologist — specialist in insect biology — who was arrested from a hotel outside Singalila National Park on 22 June with his companion Kucera, who describes himself as a forester and an amateur entomologist.

Svacha and Kucera were charged under India’s wildlife protection and biodiversity acts and tried at the chief judicial magistrate’s court in Darjeeling. The court found Svacha, a scientist at the Institute of Entomology, Academy of Sciences, Czech Republic, a “victim of circumstances" and let him off with a fine of Rs20,000.

His associate wasn’t as lucky. Kucera, who claims to supply specimens to scientists free of cost, got three years in jail and a fine of Rs60,000. While Svacha is awaiting the release of his passport, Kucera has decided to appeal against the verdict.

Activists say in India there is a flourishing illegal trade in insects, which typically end up inside key chains and paperweights.

“Since 1995, 24 cases of insect poaching have been registered all over India, and 12 of them were in West Bengal," Tito Joseph had earlier told Mint. Joseph manages a crime database at the Wildlife Protection Society of India.

The number of unreported cases would be many times that number, and Joseph said the situation is particularly bad in the eastern Himalayas — West Bengal, Sikkim and the Northeast — and Kerala.

Meanwhile, both Czechs claim their only mistake was that they didn’t seek permission of the state biodiversity board before collecting samples. “This was my first visit to India, and the last time Emil was here was in 2002 when the biodiversity Act was still not in place," said Svacha. “But, of course, it was our fault that we didn’t know about the existence of the law."

Dismissing charges that they were collecting insects to peddle to collectors, Svacha said, “Some insects, mainly big or colourful or attractive, can be sold to collectors because they can be mounted on walls. If you saw our material... you would see... no such species."

“Both Petr’s specimens and mine were killed using such substances as formaldehyde and ethyl acetate, both of which are toxic and would render the specimens unfit for human consumption and hence, all this talk of supplying to China for medicines is (also) rubbish," said Kucera.

The duo claimed they were tricked into putting their signatures on blank sheets, which were eventually turned into lists of specimens seized from them. And the contents of those lists, when eventually produced in court, were also not true, they claimed.

“After we reached the forest office here some time after midnight, we were asked to sign 20 blank A4 papers reportedly for the purpose of labelling our seized material," Svacha claimed. “Of course, we were naïve and soon it became clear that the matter isn’t protection of forests or biodiversity but they wanted to have a big case and publicity."

What sealed the Czechs’ fate was the discovery of two protected species — a butterfly called Delias Sanaca and a beetle called Amara Brucei — in their possession. “The Singalila range officer, Arvinden Lepcha, testified to this in court but we never collected them," Svacha claimed.

A letter written to the divisional forest officer of Darjeeling by the Zoological Survey of India’s office in Kolkata, which examined the specimens seized from the Czech scientists, doesn’t mention Delias Sanaca.

And Amara Brucei, according to Svacha, is not found in north Bengal. “It is a Tibetan species and occurs on high plateaus above 4,500 metres."

Repeated attempts to contact forester Lepcha failed as his office said he was on field duty. But assistant wildlife warden Utpal Kumar Nag, who was involved with the probe, denied having obtained Svacha and Kucera’s signatures on blank sheets.

“We have said what we had to in court and will say so again if the need arises," Nag said, declining to comment further.