Author’s Note: The episode narrated below is based on a real incident. The location and some specifics of the occurrence have been withheld on request.
“It will take at least ten more minutes to reach the spot where the traps are hidden,” Dale Singh said to the forest guard.
Fifteen kilometres inside one of the tiger reserves, where tigers, leopards, elephants freely roam, I was part of a search party out on a mission to recover tiger traps hidden by a four-member gang of tiger poachers, who had been detained by the forest department earlier in the day. Dale Singh was a member of the gang, leading the way for us, with his hand chained to the forest guard, taking us down the same path he had taken with his gang a few days ago to set the traps to hunt tigers. These traps were deadly jaw traps, capable of crushing a tiger’s limb once caught in it, with no way to pull out usually leaving it to die a slow painful death.
Having been on the track for a few hours now, we decided to take a break. Dale Singh was granted his unrelenting request of a bidi (a local unfiltered rolled cigarette) and he sat on a boulder nervously smoking it, his eyes flitting from one person to another.
We started talking about one of the other suspects, Jagdish, who had tried to pull a Houdini, slipping his hand through the cuffs and trying to run away. His mistake was underestimating the width of the Elephant Proof Trench. Re-captured within minutes, he was promptly blindfolded, hand-cuffed, very carefully, and taken away. A silence descended upon us, after the last guffaw had died down at Jagdish’s audacity.
“Hope we don’t have surprises in the form of poachers waiting to ambush us at the trap spot,” said one of the search party members, breaking the silence and echoing the thought running through my head at that very moment. It was a rule of thumb – never trust a tiger hunter, especially a nervous, detained one leading you deep inside the forest.
All the four suspects belong to one of the most notorious tiger poaching gangs currently present in India. They are traditional tiger hunters who cater to the illegal market in the country, which is further linked to the international market. They move across the country in various disguises, mostly adorning the facade of street vendors, setting up camps near tiger reserves. Once the camp is set up, the men break off into small groups and infiltrate tiger habitats. These poachers are renowned for their extraordinary tracking skills, and the ease with which they locate tiger tracks and place the deadly jaw traps bang in the path of the tigers. The operation may take them any amount of time, and these hunters determined as they are stay put inside the forest, till they get what they came for – a tiger. Once they manage to trap their prized possession, they spear it in the mouth, swiftly kill it and remove the skin. The body is usually buried within the forest and they come back in a few days to recover the bones, which are also in high demand in various illegal markets.
We decided to cut the break short and go back to locating the traps and the suspect’s camp site. We had barely walked a few kilometres in, through the dry river bed, when Dale Singh stopped suddenly and pointed to two large boulders, after scanning the right side of the river. “We camped here for two days, between those boulders,” he said. “The leg trap and utensils are hidden on the left side of the boulders.” When we looked from the river bed, we couldn’t spot anything unusual around the boulders. With a tree growing on one side, the top boulder was resting innocently on the bottom one, with no sign of a camp anywhere. We decided it was prudent to divide the search party into two, to have a backup in case of any trouble. Dale Singh led the way as we climbed up to the boulders and it was only when we reached could we see the remains of the camp. There were remains of a fire place, with a couple of match boxes scattered around, battery covers and a few pieces of papers strewn about. Nothing sufficient to indicate that four people had camped here day and night for at least a couple of days.
Dale Singh nonchalantly asked us if he should get the utensils and trap out. If I didn’t know any better, I would’ve thought he was quite enjoying himself playing the all important tour guide showing us the ruins of a battle well valiantly and proudly fought.
Throwing him a look, I pulled out my camera to record every minute after that. I needed to make sure I never forgot what was happening here. Dale sat on the ground, leaned towards the edge of the boulder and removed some dry leaves and a small stone covered under that. There was small opening underneath it and, like a warped Mary Poppins, started pulling things out of it. By the time he was halfway through, there in front of us sat a steel vessel, a frying pan, a few spoons, wheat flour, salt, masala powder packets, amongst many other packets and pouches. Needless to say we were stunned. One of the guards blurted while scratching his head, “Looks like he kept everything here, except for this wife and children!”
Finally Dale Singh pulled out the tiger trap, which was neatly covered in a plastic bag. A perfectly manufactured piece, with a high quality finishing, it was the signatory jaw trap of the tigers hunters of central and north India. Jaw traps like these are manufactured by specialised blacksmiths who only supply these high quality products to the hunting communities.
Taking another smoking break Dale Singh quietly sat, puffing away watching us without much concern on his face. The nervousness had replaced his demeanour with a complacency that seemed to indicate his acceptance of this day as just a stroke of bad luck.We had now been on the track for more than six hours and we were tired, walking on an empty stomach and less than three hours of sleep. We decided to take a break, after informing the base camp about the tiger trap and sending them an urgent request for some food and water!
With that out of the way, I turned my attention to the tiger poacher. I knew this was a rare situation. Who knew when it I would get to sit with another tiger poacher, caught red handed with his weapons inside a forest and seemingly willing to talk! I had to break the ice and get him to open up.
“So, game over, boss?” I asked Dale Singh in a low voice, as I sat next to him. Dale Singh stared at me for a few seconds, with his deep grey eyes and then a faint smile broke on his face. Far from being scared, he seemed partly amused.
“It was simply my bad luck that I got caught. Otherwise, we would have gone back with what we came for and no one would have even caught a whiff.” With every syllable, the smile on his face grew broader and more arrogant. He was mocking me and the entire system.
Flicking an insect off his knee, he casually asked me if I could get him some water and more bidis. A guard indulged him and shared his water bottle and bidi with him. Dale smoked in silence for a while, staring into the distance. He brazenly then asked for his chain to be loosened, so that he can sit comfortably on the sand bank. Though his request was granted, the team was alert in case he decided to make a run for it.
With a sigh, he turned his head towards me and started talking...
Two-year-old Philip Dev has lost much of his baby Mohawk hairdo, but none of his wide-eyed wonder at the world around him and remains as inquisitive as ever. Philip’s tusks have finally emerged and have grown to about 5-6 cm. The fibroid on the knee still remains, but is not affecting him in any way and the vets are keeping a close watch on it. Philip spends almost all of his time with the other elephants at the centre - Rani, Jaklabanda, Tora and Lakhimi - spend their days in the CWRC grounds, playing with each other, bathing in the playpond, feeding on grasses and multigrain supplements, and of course, jostling each other during their bottle feeds.
The monsoons have set in across northeast India and dark grey skies are the norm now. In preparation for this weather, the calves have been de-wormed and extra attention is being paid to their food intake and defecation cycles. Also, since Philip did have a case of toenail infection some months earlier, care is being taken so that the infection does not recur with all the dampness in the air.
The elephant calves’ nursery has a newly laid floor and walls freshly painted with odourless paint. The earlier floor had cracked and chipped causing small pools of water to accumulate. This made it difficult to keep the floor clean and dry. The calves were temporarily shifted to another area while the maintenance work was in progress. Once they were moved back into the cheerful renovated nursery, the calves heartily approved of the change, rushing around to explore every corner.
Last August, CWRC celebrated 10 years of functioning. Since inception, nearly 2000 animals have come to the centre and most of them just required temporary care before being released. But some of the animals were young orphans, and so began IFAW-WTI’s quest to hand raise and rehabilitate them back to the wild. A very large part of the credit for the many success stories goes to the keepers who selflessly look after the young ones, sometimes for years in the case of elephants and rhino calves, and then bid them goodbye and goodluck as they return to the forests, knowing that they may never see them again. This report is also an acknowledgement of their contribution to the rehabilitation programme and gratitude for their dedication.
Let’s start with Bhadreshwar Das. Bhadreshwar joined the centre during its early days and has watched it grow to its current stature. When the very badly injured newborn Philip was brought in to CWRC in 2011, he was looked after by Bhadeshwar. Philip was so weak and traumatized that he was not able to stand for three days. During this time, Bhadreshwar was with him round the clock - changing dressings on his wounds, persuading him to drink milk, and generally comforting him. Bhadreshwar was in charge of Philip for the crucial first six months of his life at CWRC and instrumental in bringing him back from the brink. He is also very good with handraising rhino calves.
Tarun Gogoi – the first animal keeper in CWRC. From darting to administering medicine, to feeding animals, to coming up with new ideas for enclosure enrichment – Tarun does it all. One of the more observant of the keepers, he is so attuned to animals in his care that he is able to predict their behaviour.
Prashanta Das – is also called Bhini Bhaiyya. Nursing injured animals is his forte. He is also observant and especially good with taking care of small birds. With his talent for carpentry, he loves to make small nest boxes and perches out of scrap wood lying around and that keeps the birds very happy. There was an incident that a vet recently related where she was sitting in the administration room of the centre labouring over some accounts that had to be submitted urgently, when Bhini Bhaiyya burst into the room calling out to her, “Madamji, jaldi chalo!” (Madame, come quickly). When she asked him what the matter was, he happily replied, “Rhino baby ghaas kha raha hai, pehli baar!” (The rhino baby is eating grass for the first time.) Not just Bhini Bhaiyya, all of the keepers watch over their young charges carefully and are so very proud when a milestone is crossed.
Hemanta Das - He is one of the youngest keepers. Very enthusiastic and always ready for action – a very desirable trait during flood season. In fact, during last year’s floods, Hemanta took care of a very aggressive rhino and managed to calm it.
Lakhiram Das – Though our resident snake expert, Lakhiram gave us all many anxious days three years ago when he got himself bitten by a poisonous common krait outside his home and ended up in Intensive Care. It took him weeks to recover, but he was back at work as soon as he could. Lakhiram is a man of monosyllabic responses and tough looks and one would scarcely imagine a softer side to him. But he has been seen crooning baby talk to the very young animals in his care when he thought no one was watching.
Raju Kutumb is a comparatively new keeper and has spent a significant amount of time on night duty in winter. He is a very compassionate man and a perfect nanny to the baby animals. Every night, when he would come to the centre, the first thing he would do is go on his rounds of all the animals’ night shelters making sure that there was enough water and fresh grass, the young animals were well-wrapped in their blankets, and heaters were in place wherever required. This job would take him the better part of an hour and has to repeated 3-4 times through the night, depending on circumstances. A painstaking task indeed, but never once has Raju been known to take shortcuts with it.
Hareshwar Das – Also one of the youngest keepers, Hareshwar has a particular liking for rhinos and will always volunteer to look after any rhino coming to the centre.
Last, but definitely not least, is Mahadeo – the driver of the Mobile Veterinary Service ambulance stationed at CWRC. He is one of the earliest members of the team and has witnessed and oftentimes participated in all kinds of rescue operations. Even though he is not involved in the day-to-day care of the animals, he still inquires about their well-being, especially the ones that he remembers as being in a bad shape when he brought it in.
The keepers are all emotionally very attached to the charges as well as the centre. During the recent 10 year celebrations, the keepers had been asked to share their experiences in CWRC. Bhini Bhaiyya brought out the feeding bottle and teats that had been used to feed the first elephant calf to ever have been handraised at the centre. He has been preserving all the bottles and teats and even remembers which animal was fed out of which bottle. Some of the keepers were highly tickled by the fact that they have cleaned up more after their charges than after their own children.
Philip, Rani, Jaklabanda, Tora, Lakhimi, and all the other animals at CWRC owe a large part of their wellbeing to these hardworking men. We thank them for their selfless service and we thank you, our donor, for helping IFAW-WTI sustain this wonderful initiative.
“I was walking back to the field camp, when a tiger decided to take the same path as me. It looked me straight in the eye and kept moving in my direction. Needless to say, the sight of the 120-odd kg weighing carnivore making a beeline towards us was enough to make me quite nervous. Muttering Bhagwan bharose (in God I trust) to myself, I kept my stride steady and tried not to show any fear. The tiger came close... and then just trotted off into the bushes,” Leelabai reminisced. Smiling, more at my dazed expression than anything else, she said, “The tiger must have seen the uniform and understood that it’s the malik (owner) out for a walk.”
Leelabai is not a celebrated ‘wildlifer’ or photographer, nor has she published any research papers or been a part of any conglomeration of conservationists. She has spent the last nineteen years of her life living in the forest, armed with nothing but a stick and sheer raw pluck and courage, guarding the forest as part of the forest department. Our paths would probably never have crossed had IFAW-WTI not conducted a Crime Prevention Training for the frontline forest staff at Kanha National Park, Madhya Pradesh.
Fondly called amma (mother) by her colleagues, including many officers, Leelabai will be turning 60 this December and it’ll be time for her to retire from the forest department. Looking at this brazen lady, all of us from WTI were more than just curious about her life as a forest guard, a position which in this day and age is still, unfortunately, male-dominated. Being my usual inquisitive self, I started my onslaught of questions.
What made you join the department? ... I got this job as a forest guard in 1985, after my husband was killed by some poachers. I was left all alone with four children- two boys and two girls. The department offered me the job as a means to make ends meet and I decided to take it up.
What’s your daily routine like? ... We go patrolling, at least around 10 km every day inside the forest. There isn’t an animal that we don’t come across... whether it is a tiger or a gaur, we see them all! What do you think about the tiger? ... Oh... what do I think? (Laughs) You tell me what I should be thinking about when a majestic animal like the tiger crosses my path! Simply put, it’s the pride of our forests. After all, you’re sitting in the land of the tiger and people come from all across the world to see a tiger here! So yes, I feel very proud about our tigers. Why do you think we should save the tigers? ... Well, there are a lot of big reasons as I’m sure you already know but keeping those aside for the moment, honestly, the tiger gives us a lot of employment. It’s responsible for all the tourists coming to our small town who stay in the hotels, hire vehicles and visit the park. All these things just mean more jobs and services we can get paid for.
(Bowled over by the frankness of her answers and her matter of fact tone, I persisted in my quest to know more about this fascinating lady) But other than just income, why should we save the tigers? ... The tiger is the top animal in the forest, is it not? When we save the tiger, we save other animals and the entire forest itself! If we want the future generations to see these magnificent creatures, then the burden is on us to save them. I know I want my grandchildren to see tigers in the forest; they are the pride of our nation! Where else can you see tigers in the wild like you do here? The whole world comes to my jungles to see them! Have you ever caught a poacher yourself? ... What do you think, kid? That I’ve been in this position for so long but haven’t done anything? As a forest guard, I’ve been part of quite a few seizures and seen them detaining a lot of suspects. Once, in fact, during my patrolling with two casual workers we came across a father-son duo, who were jungle fowl hunters who were setting traps in the forest. As soon as they saw us they tried to run away but we caught them easily. I gave two tight slaps to the kid and asked him why he’s spoiling his life by getting into this murky business and leading a life of crime. We went back, collected all the traps and handed them to the senior officials later. So many incidents like these have happened; it’s hard for me to recall all of them. It’s all a normal part of our life here.
So what would you want to say to the new generation of forest guards? ... I would just say that I have done what I could do and the onus is now on them to continue saving our forests from the poachers and the thieves. And make sure that you experience the magic of the forest, when you walk in it every day. Only then will you fall in love with it and there is no returning from that kind of intense, ethereal love. Got any plans for your post-retirement life? ... I haven’t given it much thought so nothing as such as of now. What I do know is that after nineteen long years, I’m finally going to take a break and spend some time with my grandchildren. But I know that I’m going to miss the forests.
Leelabai sat and talked with us for another 10-15 minutes. She told me she quite liked the training, especially the way it was conducted. It was the first time she had seen a tiger trap, during the mock field exercise and was very upset by the fact that a tiger can be killed using such simple equipment. She did wistfully say that she wanted to do more as a forest guard but that it was time for the youngsters to come and take over from her now. Leelabai ventured on to the topics that had been covered in the previous day’s training and how everyone had sat and discussed them at the end of the day. Smiling reassuringly at me, she was confident that trainings like these will help the forest staff to learn more and help perform their duties better. “You should conduct regular refresher trainings, since we rarely get such opportunities. But it sure is good to see senior officials taking care of capacity building issues,” Leelabai added.
With that last statement, she quietly got up and went to attend the rest of the workshop, leaving me to sit there alone with multiple thoughts reeling in my head after this conversation. Leelabai is symbolic of those hundreds of unknown and unheard of ‘glorified’ protectors of our forests and the wildlife in them. It’s not just a job for them but literally living in the middle of the jungles, they risk their lives every day for the cause. It’s not an easy life, patrolling for kilometres on end, living in minimalist field camps to survive, braving the harsh varying Indian weather all year round, battling against all odds to act as the first line of defence for our wildlife. Leelabai will probably never get a lifetime achievement award or actually be recognised as a conservationist by the modern capitalist and utilitarian world. Her fate, in all probability will be like that of many before her- to forever disappear into the government files as a retired forest employee, becoming nothing more than just another statistic, living on her pension as a simple retired grandparent in a small town with all her years of forest experience and wisdom kept to herself. People who will visit Kanha to see tigers will never know or understand the sacrifices made, the lives spent and the blood and the sweat shed in these very jungles to save the National Animal of India. Here’s hoping that her story and her contributions are now known to the world and will inspire more people to join forces save wildlife.