COIMBATORE – It was an ‘Operation Snake’ by forest officials that targeted unsuspecting tourists with an intention of extorting money and the police smelled a rat. And now a forest official behind the slithery racket has landed in jail and an assistant conservator of forests is absconding.
Over the last few years, two senior forest officials in western Tamil Nadu have been stealthily stashing red sand boa, an endangered species of snake, in the cars of tourists coming to Pollachi and Udumalpet near Coimbatore. They would then ‘‘trap’’ the tourists with the snakes and threaten them into paying up huge sums for letting them go. Smuggling and possession of the snake is an offence under the Wildlife Protection Act.
Several tourists are said to have quietly paid the money fearing harassment. But the lid was blown off the snake scam recently when a group of real estate agents from Wayanad in Kerala arrived in Pollachi to look up some property.
Police said Abubakker, Sundaram and Mohandas came to Sirumagai on July 26 and met a real estate broker, KS Jose, at Sirumugai for buying land in Pollachi. Jose is said to have taken them around Pollachi in a car. When the car reached Sultanpet, G Sivakumar, a lecturer in the forest college at Vaigai Dam, who was in uniform and assistant conservator of forests R Nedunchezian arrived on the scene. They stopped the car for a ‘‘routine inspection’’ and found a snake in the trunk of the vehicle. Sivakumar then allegedly asked the real estate agents to part with Rs 5 lakh or face imprisonment.
The three agents were then taken to Kurichikottai in Udumalpet and kept in safe custody in a bungalow. The next day, they were shifted to a lodge in Pollachi where the harassed agents paid Rs 50,000. Meanwhile, Abubakker called his relative, who is a police officer in Chennai, and informed him about their plight.
Immediately, the Pollachi police descended on the lodge and ‘‘freed’’ the three agents. During inquiry, the police found that the forest officials Sivakumar and Nedunchezian were setting up ‘‘fake traps’’ with the help of their associates Jose, R Yogaraj and D Sriram Kumaran. According to the police, Jose, Yogaraj and Sriram Kumaran used to ‘‘plant’’ snakes in vehicles and inform the forest officials.
Interestingly, Sivakumar was transferred out of the Udumalpet range only last year after hundreds of sandalwood trees were illegally cut down at Kuzhipatti, one of the last sandalwood havens of Tamil Nadu.