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.
“I was almost caught once but managed to escape. A police man had once apprehended me at a railway station and questioned me for quite some time but couldn’t get any information out of me! They searched my belongings in vain trying to find something suspicious but of course nothing turned up. They never even bothered to check the bundles which were in the hands of the children with me. Now had they looked in there, there would have been enough ‘evidence’ to put me away for a long long time,” Dale Singh said to me with a huge grin on his face. “Kalka mata’s (a mythical Hindu goddess who rides a tiger) blessings were there with me that day. Without the goddesses hand on our head we would have never walked off unscathed.”
Dale Singh belongs to the Bawaria tribe from Kalka in Haryana and this was not the first time he had entered a forest to hunt a Pattawala (tiger) or a chuggawala (leopard). He had roamed the country trapping animals in multiple states including Assam, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan... he couldn’t even remember the exact locations anymore. This was his first trip to South India and he had never been caught by the authorities with an animal article in his possession till date. Intrigued by what this man is really capable of, I pressed him to tell me more about his hunting trip. And so he began.
“The other guy you people have arrested as the suspect in this case is a regular when it comes to poaching. He was arrested by the police a few months ago as well, in another location, and that’s when his wife went from our base and posted his bail after borrowing money from a middleman in the trade. Just a few days later he was back in our settlement and as far as we could guess, he had jumped bail and was on the run. A few weeks ago, the financier came to meet him and demanded the money his wife had borrowed which he had no way of returning since he was practically broke. So the middle man asked him to get some tiger skins in lieu of the money. The financier promised him all the logistical support that could possibly be needed and he agreed to it. Why wouldn’t he? He was in dire need of money anyway. None of us manage to make enough with the scrap deals that we strike for a cover up living.” Dale Singh paused at that time to stare hard at the ground and for a fleeting moment I saw him just as a poor man trying to make ends meet and survive. Of course just how far their cunning could stretch became clear very soon!“Meetings happened with the financier and the other guy, with me present for one of them in which the financier came armed with four new leg traps for him to inspect. He selected three. The financier described a place far away from our area where we could hunt for tigers and leopards. We sat and made plans for our poaching trip and three others from our community decided to join us for the trip. We were given the address, the routes which should be ideally followed by us and specific descriptions of dam to watch out for. Turns out the financier had visited the place barely a year back with another person and had found an ample population of tigers and leopards which could easily be hunted in the area. Each of us was given 3000-4000 INR for our expenses,” Dale Singh said taking a swig from the last of his bidi.
“The others in the gang made a move for the target area with a few women, children and the leg traps safely tucked away in their cloth bundles. They boarded the train from Delhi and got down at a railway station about 150 km away from the destination and further made their way by bus. After arriving, they proceeded to select a location to set up their base camp. Meanwhile, the women and children positioned themselves on to the streets in and around the city, begging and selling plastic flowers,” stated Singh. Watching Dale Singh following a mosquito with his eyes, I couldn’t help marvel at the level of the planning of this gang.
The other suspect had also given the officials a statement, at the station, about what had happened which didn’t seem to vary much from Dale Singh’s version. He also confirmed that they travelled by train, got down in the city and took busses to this small town. In his statement, while the women and children were setting up camp, these two carried plastic flowers and as a precautionary measure, never carried the leg traps the first two days while surveying the dam area. All the descriptions given by their handler seemed to be exact and they found everything just like he had said they would.Our food arrived at that moment and a forest guard helped Dale Singh wash his hands and face. After we all had rice in front of us on big teak leaves, I sat down next to Dale Singh and continued our conversation.“They scouted the areas and observed the movement of the forest staff to finalise a suitable time to enter the forest. They entered it through the right flank of the dam after three days, avoiding the eyes of the forest guards and villagers, well prepared for one of the final trips to the forest. Sugar mixed with tea powder, curry powder, masala, rice, wheat flour, batteries, flashlights, blankets, salt, oil... they even had khaki shirts of exactly the same colour what the forest guards wear. The women and children continued their sale of plastic flowers on the streets to provide a cover to what’s actually happening,” the poacher commented while gulping down his food. “By this time I had reached as well with the other guy and we met up with the others. You know before we left for the forest on the final day, we even performed a special puja (prayer) of the Kalka Mata, who protects us from the various dangers of the forest. Our people who stay back at the camp continue the daily prayers until we return to ensure that the divine protection remains with us and we’re blessed with enough booty,” he said with a mouthful of rice. Silently eating my meal, I didn’t say out aloud what I was thinking- Why would a goddess, whose vehicle is a tiger, bless a man who is planning to take her divine vehicle away?! Dale Singh kept talking without any prodding necessary.
He told me how they walked right into the core area of the tiger reserve through the river bed and set up their camp under boulders, approximately 15 kilometres inside the forest. Once their camp had been set, they started checking the animal paths to select the right spots to set the traps looking for a tiger’s regular path, territory markings on the ground and trees, access to water holes etc. Finally after two days, they selected three spots which they deemed to be the most frequented by the big cats and as the first step they dug holes in the ground to set up the chains which secure the traps on the ground. Each hole was approximately two feet deep and would take about an hour to dig and fix the iron chain. While two of them would dig, the other would be on guard watching out for forest guards, tribal honey collectors and of course tigers and elephants!Nights were spent under the boulder which provided shelter from the rain and protection from the elephants and other animals. They cooked food only in the evening and scouted the selected locations to confirm the presence of tigers and they had struck gold. There were fresh pug marks and scratch marks on the ground and in the places where they had hidden the chains. They were now ready to deal the final strike. The plan was to set the traps in all three locations in one day to get three animals in just that much time! This way they could get out of the forest without spending much time after the first kill. “This is where my role majorly came in. I’m known for skills as a hunter and a skinner, which is why they needed someone like me with them on the trip in the first place. All the traps were set in the three locations, a little distance from each other so that three tigers could be easily trapped. Two of them were placed on paths leading to a small water hole on top of the hill which was the only source of water in the area. The third was placed near the river bed, right next to a tree which bore witness to the assaults of a big tiger,” Singh said as he settled himself more comfortably on the ground, content after a full meal.
I had long ago learned that there are very few lengths to which poachers won’t go to get their kill but I was still amazed at the kind of planning concocted here! This was a gang of unassuming men who are illiterate to the boot, managing to easily travel hundreds of kilometres, into unknown territory, setting up camps inside the forest and almost succeeding in poaching three tigers! They had no guns, just a few necessities. Looking at the vast trove of knowledge they were on tracking tigers and leopards, I wondered how much of a difference these people could make, with their skill set if they ever choose to use it for the right side of the law and conservation. Was it just a matter of luck that they were caught in the humdrum of survival or was it just their destiny and luck favoured them as far as getting their booty?Either which way they were definitely running out of it...Dale Singh then proceeded to show us how the traps had been set. It was completely hidden in the path of the animals camouflaged by dry leaves and grass, skilfully covered. He gave us a live demonstration about how he had done it and when he was done all one could see was a little twig a few inches from the site. Singh told us that the twig was left on purpose and that a tiger or a leopard will inadvertently place their paw on the trap in a bid to avoid stepping on the twig! Singh told us that after they had put the traps, an elephant came and stomped on one and instead of getting caught, the side lever of the trap was damaged. They tried to repair it with their tools but just couldn’t and had no option but to come out of the forest to get it done. Their rations were also running out and so far, in the two days that had gone by, they had not caught a single animal. They dismantled the traps and hid them in different locations before going back to their base camp.
This time they were spotted by the staff who were on high alert. They were detained and questioned but they stuck to the story about being poor people who belong to a nomadic tribe and sell plastic flowers for a living. While their personal belongings were examined, nothing unusual came out of it, till part of the jaw trap fell out the blanket. The piece of iron by itself looked harmless but the range officer recognised it for what it was, emailed the photo to experts in the field and confirmed his suspicions. It was now clear to the forest department that they were experienced poachers and that there were traps set in the jungle. They were instructed to get all information out of them. They tried and tried but Dale Singh and his gang, being the masters of disguise that they were stuck to their story and even produced an affidavit which ‘proved’ their identity as a law-abiding nomad with no cases pending against him. Hours of questioning, by various officers finally resulted in Dale Singh being the first to spill the beans. But the department still couldn’t be sure if he or the other two who had also subsequently confessed their crimes could be trusted. That’s when it was decided- they will lead the team to the heart of the jungle and retrieve all the traps, without resorting to any tricks. “We don’t set traps near patrolling routes,” said Dale Singh, as he continued to tell us the rest of the tale. “The staff could easily detect the traps and we may get caught while digging the ground or setting up the traps. We only set it up in paths mostly used by the big cats, which are away from the forest staff’s patrolling route. There are exclusive tiger paths which are often avoided by other animals and we search for such paths to ensure that we don’t catch anything other than a tiger.”The knowledge displayed by the man sitting in front of me was astounding to quite a large degree and once again I couldn’t help but wonder at the use of these by anyone on the right side of the law. Even mere survival in a forest filled with tigers, elephants and leopards without any man made devices of ‘safety’ is quite a feat!“We usually wait for the animal to be trapped and completely exhausted before we move closer to it, since by that time the shock will have drained it of most of its energy,” said the hunter with a bit of a smirk of his face. He pulled out one of the iron spear heads from the hiding place and fixed it in the tip of a bamboo stick which one of the guards was carrying. “We stab the tiger after that right in the mouth and leave it bleeding. This stops it from making any noise and it dies faster as well. The best part is, the skin is not damaged in the process which ensures that we get high price for it in the market,” said Dale Singh with now blatant pride glowing across his face, with not a single hint of remorse of any sort. The spark in his eyes while showing the hypothetical lethal jab clearly indicated how proud he was of his clan’s skills and their abilities to kill a tiger with such ease. I could barely control the anger bubbling inside me to do the same to the man sitting in front of me, for he was nothing but a ruthless killer to me in that moment.
Once the animal is dead, they usually remove the skin within half an hour and hide the body well far away from the patrolling routes so that they can come back to later collect the bones which just means more money for them. The skin is dried in shade after coating it with salt and other herbs. It’s the flower selling ladies who then become the transporters for the skin and often hide it under their loose clothes while they travel. They apparently deliberately keep themselves so filthy that no one wants to touch them to avoid frisking during their travel. They almost always travel by train and after arriving at their destination, wait for the middlemen to come and collect the goods which are taken to the international borders to be sold at exorbitant rates. “Our plan was to get at least three animals in this trip and we were sure we would be able to, since we had determined that there were three tigers in the areas we had set up the traps,” Singh said ruefully. “What is one to do... we were just simply unlucky this time.”
“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...
The south Indian states of Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu have been reported as major sources of ivory and large cat skins, which are sold in the international market. Widespread poaching and illegal trade threaten the long term survival of predators as well as prey species in this region. There are reports of local hunters using country-made guns and snares to poach animals, and trading animals body parts through established gangs with a network of agents and carriers. Since 2009, WTI has assisted the state Forest Departments in cracking down on seizures of body parts and the arrest of suspects for legal action.
Anti snare patrolling is an effective method of combing the fringe area of the forest where human interference is high. A snare is simply a wire cable stretched between two trees or stones, which tightens around the neck or the limb of wild animals leaving them to die.
In south India, several small teams of two or three people combed the entire boundary of Bandipur National park and Nagarhole Tiger Reserve, covering some 11 ranges. All snares and evidences of snares were geotagged with their location before handing over to the forest department. Anti-snare walks conducted with frontline staff in south India resulted in the removal of more than 600 snares from various locations in 2012.
Encouraged by these results, WTI proposes to increase the frequency of foot patrols and actively equip and train frontline forest staff to combat wildlife criminals in our mission to protect tigers and other wild animals and their habitats.
Every year, countless animals lose their lives to snares and traps laid by poachers. Once caught in them, these silent killers condemn the animal to a slow painful death. Poachers prefer to use weapons like these rather than guns as they are cheap and quick to prepare and can be dismantled into component parts and transported without raising suspicion. Moreover, they do not draw attention to themself as discharging a gun would do.
These snares are then planted on animal trails OUTSIDE protected areas where patrolling is minimal and chance human encounters rare. Snares have long been used to trap ungulates which are the prey species of large cats like the tiger and leopard. Depletion of prey stock results in the big cat resorting to cattle killing and bringing down upon it the wrath of villagers ready to avenge their loss. Besides this, cast iron jaw traps and large snares made of fencing wire are used by poachers to specifically trap and kill the large cats.
If this rampant killing is not checked in time, India's tigers are poised to lose the race against extinction.
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