Schemes meant to save lives may be “gamed” for profit
PILIBHIT, India; MADISON, Wisconsin; KALAMAZOO, Michigan––As many as seven alleged murders in the Pilibhit Tiger Reserve of northern India, near the border of Nepal, may help to spotlight a fatal flaw in schemes to pay compensation for wildlife depredation, already evident in the U.S. states of Wisconsin and Michigan.
Wildlife advocates have historically favored compensation schemes over programs such as the predator extermination campaigns conducted by USDA Wildlife Services.
Compensation may help endangered predators
USDA Wildlife Services killed 2.7 million animals in 2016 on behalf of other public agencies and ranchers who lease land from the federal government. Along with 826,000 red-winged blackbirds, 85,000 pigeons, 56,840 feral pigs, and thousands of other animals killed chiefly for crop depredation or as perceived nuisances, USDA Wildlife Services killed nearly 77,000 coyotes, 965 bobcats, and 415 wolves for allegedly killing––or menacing––livestock.
The toll on predators might be far higher without programs that compensate ranchers for claimed livestock losses to wolves, grizzly bears, and other species protected as either “endangered” or “threatened” under the federal Endangered Species Act.
Remote sites with few witnesses
But when the amount of compensation offered for losses to “endangered” or “threatened” predators approaches or exceeds the average market value of the animals for whom compensation is paid, unscrupulous individuals become tempted to “game” the system.
Compensation schemes typically require the persons claiming compensation payments to take various measures to avoid predation losses. But predation typically occurs in remote locations with few witnesses. Compensation claimants may try to get away with selectively protecting animals of above average market value, while leaving animals of anticipated less-than-market value at risk––or even deliberately putting them at risk, then trying to hide the evidence of having done so.
Older women valued less than livestock
This is what appears to have happened recently near the Pilibhit Tiger Reserve, with the twist that the apparent victims were not cattle, sheep, or goats, but rather older women, in a region where widows in particular have historically often been valued less than livestock.
Reported Keshav Agarwal on July 4, 2017 for the Times of India News Network, “Authorities suspect local families are sending older members into the forest as tiger prey, and then relocating their bodies to fields,” to claim compensation for the deaths amounting to about $12,380 each in U.S. dollars––equivalent to more than 10 years’ wages for the typical resident.
“Villagers are not entitled to compensation if their kin die in the reserve,” Agarwal explained. Therefore the racket involves both transporting the victims into the tiger reserve, into proximity to tigers, and then creating purported attack sites near the villages where the victims lived.
Seven deaths in five months
“There have been a string of recent fatal tiger attacks on the elderly,” Agarwal recounted, “with seven deaths reported in the proximity of the Mala forest range alone since February 16, 2017.”
Compensation was apparently paid for some of the deaths, but when the alleged attacks continued to occur in proximity to each other, at an unprecedented pace, Wildlife Crime Control Bureau detective Kalim Athar came to suspect foul play.
“Athar examined tiger attacks in the vicinity of Pilibhit Tiger Reserve, looked into individual cases, the location of the bodies, and the accounts of locals,” Agarwal wrote. “His report was been submitted to the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau brass.”
Said Athar, “Bureau authorities have decided to refer the matter to the National Tiger Conservation Authority for further action.”
Not murder but suicide?
The most recent fatal tiger attack, Agarwal indicated, may have been the most suspicious of all.
“On July 1, 2017,” Agarwal narrated, “it was alleged that a 55-year-old woman had been killed by a tiger in her field. But conservator of forests V.K. Singh inspected the site, and dismissed the claim. Instead, he said it was evident from the woman’s clothes, found elsewhere, and from tractor treads leading into and out of a forest nearby, that she died about a mile inside the forest, and her body was relocated.”
Villagers told Agarwal, however, that the deaths were not murders but suicides, insisting that “Family elders were willing participants,” to try to help their families out of poverty.
Compensation would not be paid for either murder-by-tiger or suicide-by-tiger, but the suicide claim might be advanced by suspects to try to avoid facing murder charges.
$2,500 per hunting dog lost to wolves
The alleged murders in the Pilibhit Tiger Reserve to defraud the Indian national tiger conservation program compensation scheme came to light soon after the Wisconsin state legislature moved to perpetuate a program that pays hunters up to $2,500 per hunting dog claimed as lost to wolves, or for veterinary expenses incurred as result of conflict between hunting dogs and wolves. The Wisconsin legislature also moved to expedite the payouts.
Wisconsin hunters claimed losses of 41 dogs to the estimated 925 to 952 wolves in the state in 2016, collecting compensation of $104,767.91.
This was nearly twice the previous record payout of $56,000 collected by owners of hunting dogs in 2013.
“Legal dog fighting”
“Under a budget provision approved by the Joint Finance Committee on May 31, 2017,” explained Associated Press writer Steven Verburg, “the Department of Natural Resources would write a check as soon as it had confirmation a dog was killed by a wolf. Current policy is to wait until the start of a new calendar year.”
Despite widespread suspicion, especially among wildlife advocates who view subsidizing hunting with dogs who may conflict with wolves as “legal dog fighting,” as Madison Cap Times op-ed writer Paul Collins put it on June 19, 2017, no Wisconsin claimant of compensation for loss of a hunting dog has been charged with fraud––at least not yet.
Compensation case prosecuted
But in Michigan, Ontonagon County farmer John Koski in May 2014 was fined $1,867 “in fines, legal costs and reimbursement for expenses related to taxpayer-provided ‘guard donkeys’ intended to ward away wolves,” reported John Barnes of the Kalamazoo Gazette, in a plea-bargained settlement in which “Koski pleaded no contest to one misdemeanor count of abandoning or cruelty to an animal, reduced from several counts.
“Two donkeys allegedly died in Koski’s custody and a third allegedly had to be removed for neglect, according to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources,” Barnes continued.
Cost taxpayers more than $200,000
“Koski has had more cattle killed and attacked than any other farmer in Michigan due to wolves, more than 100,” Barnes summarized of the case. “Critics accuse him of poor animal husbandry, leaving dead cattle afield, drawing wolves. More than $200,000 in state and federal taxpayer aid were spent to investigate wolf attacks, reimburse his losses, and on efforts to reduce them, records show.”
Koski’s claims about wolf predation in 2013 helped the Michigan Department of Natural Resources to orchestrate the first wolf hunt in the state since 1973. The 1,200 licensed participants reported killing 22 wolves.
“Since 2010, Koski has had 96 cattle killed in verified wolf attacks on his Matchwood farm in Ontonagon County,” Barnes reported in 2012.
“That’s more than half of the 158 cattle killed or injured in the entire Upper Peninsula for the period used to establish Michigan’s wolf hunt. Koski collected nearly $33,000 in cattle-loss compensation from the state for that same period, more than all other farmers combined,” Barnes wrote.
How many other claimants of compensation for losses to wildlife are getting away with murder?