17 of them are now protecting the Tiger Reserve, winning respect for their skills and dedication, in a unique initiative that benefits all
“When you enter a forest to hunt, you cannot be loud. If you want to take an elephant down, you must hide at a blind spot where the herd cannot spot you,” explains M. Nallamayan, a former poacher and now gamekeeper at the Periyar Tiger Reserve (PTR), Kerala.
He goes on: “I would light a beedi to identify the direction of the wind so that we could approach the herd from a different direction. You see, the elephant has a sharp sense of smell and could crush me at first sight. I would hide, aim and shoot at the animal in the back of its head or near the temples. The elephant would die and my team would begin the process of removing the tusk.”
Mr. Nallamayan’s shift from poaching to protecting wildlife at the PTR comes with an interesting bag of stories about brutality against animals, including tigers, sambar deer, langurs and gaurs, and the smuggling of valuable timber like sandalwood and rosewood across south Indian States. He, along with 17 other well-known poachers from Lower Gudalur in Theni district, with at least three cases to each of their names, have now pledged to work towards protecting species, providing information on potential smuggling, and taking tourists on treks.
“We spent most of our years in the dark, hiding from officials and animals. Now, we are in the light for our dedicated service. We are called Vidiyal — a new dawn,” says K. Kamatchi, group leader of this NGO.
Vidiyal was formed in 2004 when Arivu, a poacher from Mr. Nallamayan’s group, was caught by the Kerala Forest Department. “When Raju K. Francis, Range Officer, Thekkady, who caught Arivu in possession of truckloads of sandalwood, enquired why we returned despite the avalanche of cases, he said that they were not given any respectable jobs because they were branded as criminals. That is when Mr. Raju offered us jobs,” says Mr. Nallamayan.
Although the group was initially skeptical of the Kerala Forest Department’s offer to drop all charges against them, the poachers say they wanted to leave their murky past behind.
Moment of change
“We went to PTR, apologised, handed over our guns and our tools,” says V. Mahamayan, another member of the group. After the first round of talks and trust building, officials from the Kerala Department contacted a senior official from the Tamil Nadu Forest Department for permission to recruit.
“We do not want to name the TN official who told Mr. Raju that we all belonged to generations of poachers and were good for nothing. He implied that the caste we belonged to were known for indulging in thievery and that we could never be changed. This hurt us deeply and spurred us to truly transform. We wanted to prove to that officer and everyone else who suspected us that we could lead respectable lives,” says Mr. Mahamayan.
The group of 23 agreed to take part in a 3-month training course. “This is where we learnt about the importance of conservation. I will now proudly call myself a conservationist because I have seen a sharp spike in the elephant population here,” he says.
Though the number of Vidiyal members have come down to 17, the group is closely knit and helps PTR officials gain access to the movement of poachers and smugglers in other parts of the State through their network. Mr. Kamatchi and Mr. Mahamayan say that have helped solve over 200 cases and captured several notorious poachers based on their intelligence and existing network from areas such as K.G. Patti, Varusanadu and Gudalur — areas known to be hubs for poaching. This includes the recent seizure of elephant tusks from Meghamalai in the Theni district.
At the Reserve, they work 26 days a month and are paid a salary of ₹16,350 a month. The members of the Eco-Development Committees here are provided with raincoats, sleeping bags, uniforms and umbrellas as well. They travel at total of 13 km from their house in Lower Gudalur to PTR. They go on treks along the border of the reserve, patrol at night-time and take part in special anti-poacher camps. They also help guide tourists and take part in the bamboo-rafting activity.
Vipin Das P. K., Assistant Field Director, PTR, says, “They have excellent skill sets. The park is a safe space, which the Vidiyal group now takes ownership over. They can manoeuvre out of any forest at night time, too, and have a repository of practical information on protection.” He adds that the Department is now planning to provide them pensions as well.
Mr. Kamatchi says that his wife and children would never know of his movements when he used to poach. “They would be worried sick about my return as I would sometimes stay in the forest for 40 days – living solely on forest produce. This has changed. My family now has a respectable standing in society. My children have been to school and college with help from the loans provided to PTR employees. We also have health insurance. Life is a lot more secure now,” he says.