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...
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