National Geographic News: NATIONALGEOGRAPHIC.COM/NEWS
 

 

Poachers Track Poachers in India Wilderness Project

Pallava Bagla in Periyar Tiger Reserve, Thekkady, Kerala, India
for National Geographic News
April 21, 2003
 
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."

With funding assured from The World Bank, the Kerala Forest Department recruited 20 such poachers who wanted to return to life within the bounds of law. This first contingent was convened into an "Eco-Development Committee," to administer the protection activities assigned to this group.

Most members of this group had been on the run from the law for a long time, and some had even served jail terms extending up to three years for having committed various forest-related offences. But, as a concession, the forest department decided not to press charges on pending criminal cases against them.

Jayan is a man who was on the run from the long reach of the law for the better part of his life, but thanks to the new program has now changed his stripes. "Life is much better after donning the uniform since now we get a lot of respect from the community as well," he says.

Some of the spectacular successes of this forest protection group include the seizure of seven ivory tusks from the Periyar forests in August 1998, and last year they caught red-handed a notorious poacher with over 300 kilograms (660 pounds) of Gaur meat.

While many people in the developing world criticize the involvement in local communities of a multilateral lending institution like The World Bank, Michael F. Carter, an economist and country director, India of the bank defends the institution's role. "The involvement of the bank has a psychological effect since people feel there is more rigorous oversight," he says.

Uniyal, field director at the Periyar Tiger Reserve, describes the project as a "very successful experiment in social engineering." The forest department, he says, has been able to create a "virtual social fence" of local conservationists besides reducing the alienation that had come about between the locals and forest department.
 

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.