From Poachers to Protectors: Periyar Tiger Reserve’s Peculiar Guardians of the Jungle
Some 20 years ago, Kerala’s Periyar Tiger Reserve (PTR) was constantly troubled by the poachers and smugglers. Forest officials were unable to catch the culprits as they knew every nook and corner of the 777 sq. km. sanctuary like the back of their hands. Poaching incidents were on an average 60 every year and yet the poachers escaped the grips of law every time.
However, in 1997, forest department personnel caught a 23-member team of wildlife poachers and sandalwood smugglers. Fueled to make a change and financially supported by the World Bank’s India Eco-development Project, the local forest department thought of an initiative.
Desperate to stop these activities in the reserve, the forest officials offered to drop cases against them in exchange for their services in protecting the reserve. As they were familiar with the depths of the forest and could identify fellow poachers, this team became a valuable asset to the forest department.
Each one of them had three to 10 criminal cases against them. All they wanted to do was to lead a respectful life. At first, the offer seemed like a trap but gradually they saw the opportunity in it and accepted to join the forest department.
All the group members were initially subjected to a three-month-long training programme. They were taught the importance of wildlife conservation during this time. And thus was formed Vidiyal Vanapathukappu Sangam, India’s first participatory forest management project comprising solely of former poachers and sandalwood smugglers. In 2018, this project marked its 20 years of conservation in PTR.
The local society and authorities looked at these people as if they were born criminals or as if they belong to a race of criminals. Loss of livelihood and criminal stigma attached to their clan by the officials over the years forced them to engage in illegal activities. But when offered with decent jobs which ensured a stable monthly income, they laid down the arms. They now work for 26 days and receive Rs 22,000 per month.
This peculiar association between the former criminals and the authorities won Periyar the Biodiversity Award by the UN in 2012. However, the best indicator of the project’s success is the acceptance that society has accorded to these reformed criminals.
They helped crack over 230 cases of poaching and smuggling in PTR in just three years. Inside the reserve, they are also working as tourist guides and elephant safari providers. They also engage in night-time patrolling and special anti-poacher activities. In the famous Thekkadi Lake in PTR, they manage all the bamboo rafting activities.
Periyar Tiger Foundation, an NGO, is providing them with raincoats, sleeping bags, uniforms and umbrellas to appreciate them for their services.
At first many people, even high-ranked officials also cringed at this partnership between the former poachers and the local forest department, but the example they created by dedicating themselves towards wildlife conservation set a trend.
Many other reserves followed their example as well. In Parambikulam Tiger Reserve in Kerala, Anamalai Tiger Reserve in Tamil Nadu, local tribals have since become part of the Social Tiger Protection Force.
Addressing the root causes helped the transformation of poachers into protectors of the PTR.