for National Geographic News
As the dawn's light creeps into in the lush evergreen forests of a Project Tiger reserve in southern India, a ragtag squad of six unarmed ex-bandits donning camouflage uniforms, accompanied by Indian Forest Department guards, is on the prowl for poachers.
As they move silently through the world-famous Periyar Tiger Reserve in Thekkady, Kerala, India, they are on the look out for people who make a living by illegal hunting and gathering just as they once did themselves
Called tribal trackers and guides, this small force of experts now numbers about three dozen. They are all local tribes people and former poachers so no one knows better than them the motivation and methods of those who plunder the sanctuary for animals and plants. They know where and when to find the hunters of wild elephants and the gatherers of sandalwood and cinnamon bark. They are yesteryear's forest brigands who have turned protectors.
But protecting what they once looted is not all they do. These community trackers have also found well-paid new jobs in ecotourism, catering to this growing category of travel by offering their services as expert guides leading small groups through the forests.
Employment of former poachers in these new roles came about through a Kerala Forest Department program that was originally funded through a U.S. $10 million grant from The World Bank. The program was part of the Bank's eco-development project to conserve the rich bio-diversity in the Periyar Tiger Reserve and other biodiversity hotspots in India.
As part of the project, the local forest administration had to ensure "stake-holder involvement and people's participation," according to the World Bank's guidelines. The Periyar Tiger Reserve is one of the seven sites in India where the eco-development Project is being implemented.
Thieves Catch Thieves"
A few years ago, while interrogating some forest dwellers arrested on charges of cinnamon bark smuggling, forest officials had the idea that if they could seek cooperation and even assistance from these scofflaws then the forests could be made a lot safer place for wildlife. As Vinod Kumar Uniyal, field director at the Periyar Tiger Reserve, Kerala, India puts it, the idea was to get "thieves to catch the thieves."
And they have been successful. According to published reports there has been a 90 percent drop in the number of cases reported for forest-related offences since the program was introduced in Kerala.
The group of former poachers has reported more than 80 poaching cases, making a significant contribution to protecting forest species. The region is rich in biodiversity and also home to about 50 tigers, hundreds of wild Indian elephants, Indian bison, leopards, and many types of birds.
What made it attractive for the officials to embark on this experiment was the fact that these "bandits" were not only familiar with the modus operandi of smugglers and poachers but also knew the undulating terrain like the back of their hands.
Now forest officials and a local tour operator have joined hands in an enterprise wherein these local-community trackers assist tourists in trekking through the dense undergrowth, boosting an eco-tourism attraction called "Tiger Trail." S. Shivdas a local forest official at the tiger reserve says, "There can be no better forest guides."
SOURCES AND RELATED WEB SITES