Gun-trotting Indian timber mafia loots Bhutan forests

Mafia across the Manas Smuggled timber felled by the mafia seized by Indian Forest Officials (Photo courtesy: Chirang Forest Division, Assam,India)

An investigation by The Bhutanese has found that well armed timber mafia from India and local tribes in collusion with corrupt law enforcement officials there are engaged in large scale illegal logging and smuggling of trees from southern Bhutan.An understaffed Bhutanese forest rangers team has been unable to catch most of the gun-trotting men. Few arrests happen, mainly on the Indian side.


Manas Range

“We have seized more than 37 truckloads of timber and 231 hand carts of timber coming from Bhutan during the last month itself, and of the apprehended eight people one of them was armed,” said an Indian Divisional Forest Officer who mans the, Brahmananda Patiri, range just across Manas.

He said that just in 2011 more than 121 people were apprehended coming back from Bhutan with smuggled timber in large quantities. The divisional forest officer said they were all punished under the Indian Forest Act of the Assam Forest Manual, but under the Indian Penal Code only section 279 only theft is imposed.

The Bhutanese side of the border is heavily forested compared to the less forested areas on the Indian side.

In 2011, 14 vehicles with Bhutanese registration numbers were caught carrying smuggled timber by the West Bengal forest officials. This however according to forest officials from both sides of the border is only the tip of the iceberg.

The Indian range office opposite Manas claimed that they were getting around one case a day of timber smuggled from Bhutan. This over a period of time could deplete Bhutan’s diverse forests in the south.

The timber mafia profiting from Bhutan’s forests off late been also engaged in armed conflict with Indian forest rangers who have more patrols and are better staffed than Bhutanese rangers.

The first attack according to Indian forest officers took place just across the border in the range office opposite Manas on January 21. Their office was ransacked and three rangers were injured. The Indian forest officer said the attack had been carried in response to their raids on timber smuggled from Bhutan where they had detained the timber mafia’s men.

Another incident occurred on February 28 at around 6:30 pm when a patrol came across armed timber smugglers and had to open fire to chase them away. 30 handcarts of timber were seized.

In an elaborate system, these gangs come into Bhutan and smuggle trees from parks like Manas to markets in Bangladesh and India where it is sold for a profit fuelling the cycle. The gangs mainly operate in Bhutan as the Indian side is less forested and more heavily guarded.

Another Indian forest officer who mans the same range across Manas told The Bhutanese  “the timber mafia is also escorted by the local Indian police who protect them in return for payment.”

A Bhutanese forest ranger on the condition of anonymity confirmed said “those who are caught smuggling confess that the payment to the Indian police ranges from anywhere between Rs 200 to Rs 500 for a one time trip and the rate differs for each police station.”

The Indian forest official said , “There are times when the forestry official cannot do anything because the police sometimes escort the smuggled timbers to reach certain destination.”

According to the Park Manager of the Royal Manas Park, Tenzin Wangchuk, there are more than 100 points for timber smugglers to enter Bhutan. For instance, though the guard post is at Kanamakra, the distance between the post and Manas is a two-day trek.

“We have at the most ten rangers patrolling and it is risky for them. They are not able to stay overnight most of the times and ambush illegal operations,” he said.

Further he also said that the bottleneck in addressing this issue is weak law enforcement across the border.

Forest officers on the Bhutanese side said that there is an urgent need for more rangers to curb activities like timber smuggling but that the Royal Civil Service Commission did not accept their request

It has been found that the people felling the timber are locals but the masterminds and the armed elements are the gang members.

Almost all species of trees like Sidha, Legerstremia perviflora, Tita chap Michelia champaka, Lali, Laidor, Prali, Oxi and sal etc are smuggled.

The timber mafia is a mix of criminals from communities like Bangladeshi immigrants, local Assamese people and also the Raj Bansi tribal people.

An Indian forest officer said that they are planning to do joint patrolling with Bhutan and that the Royal Manas National park counterparts also wanted a fixed outpost  during winter months.


Gelephu Range

In the Gelephu range area illegal felling of timber is rampant in areas under Umling Range like Kukulung, Kanamakra, Koylamyla.  Despite knowing about such activities, the foresters are able to catch only 15 to 20 percent of the offenders. In December alone two offenders were fine at Badamkhola on the Bhutanese side. The timber illegally felled here are normally hardwood.

As per the data with the Royal Manas Park Range Office in Gelephu, there was one poaching case, 2 fishing case and 15 cases of felling. Out of it, six cases involved Bhutanese and 12 were foreign nationals. A total of Nu 237,980 was collected as fine, another Nu 148, 623 as compensation and Nu 94, 866.5 as royalty. Fifteen cases were detected at the Umling range, two in Manas Range and one in Gomphu range. While the officially recorded cases might seem too small; a case for an instance would involve felling of 30 to 40 trees.



Meanwhile in Tading, Samtse, illegal logging is done by the Tota tribe from across the border. The local villagers in Tading said the absence of an outpost for rangers coupled with swollen rivers in summer, allow the Tota people to openly resort to illegal logging in Bhutan. The Kaileshwardangra area where such incidences occur becomes inaccessible during peak monsoon season.  “The miscreants usually use vehicle tyre tubes to float across the river into those areas during such periods,” said the Chief Forest Officer of the Samtse Divisional Forest Office, Kaka Tshering.

Here the trees that felled are of mixed hardwood category and they fell any tree that is available in the area.


Border Coordination Meeting

The issue of illegal logging has been brought up at the Border District Coordination Meeting between Bhutan and India which is held Bi-annually.

“The issue of illegal timber felling is discussed at the yearly coordination meeting and still we have not been able to control it entirely,” said Tenzin Wangchuk.

According to a forester, the issue of the Indian Police being involved is not brought out during the meeting as it might offend them. However, he said that they share information of such collusion with each other unofficially.

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