The last thing that forest officials in tiger reserves across India want to hear is that a Bahelia gang is in town. The Bahelia community from Katni in Madhya Pradesh has gained significant notoriety for tiger poaching in the past decades and now have a status akin to gangsters.
Bahelia is one of the many tribes in India that the British colonial rulers painted as ‘criminal’ with one stroke.
“It is not just about the Bahelias, the Bawariyas or the Pardhis, there are many facets to the organised crime of international poaching now,” said one forest officer. More and more people are becoming part of the low-risk-high-profit poaching industry now.
The contours of wildlife crime have changed drastically over the past decades. What was largely poaching for meat and local markets has transformed into an organised network that services the appetite for wildlife products such as tiger skin, bear bile, rhino horn, etc. Unlike the economy, the demand for wildlife products has not shown any signs of a slowdown.
And more often than not, a few tribal communities have been historically associated with poaching and hunting.
According to The Tribes and Castes of the Central Provinces of India (Volume I) by R.V. Russell, the Bahelia are a caste of fowlers and hunters in northern India. The word Bahelia is derived from the Sanskrit vyādha – ‘one who pierces or wounds’ – hence a hunter. Pardhi is derived from the Marathi pāradh – hunting.
For more than a century these condemned tribes have tried to emerge from the stigma and look for other sources of income. Today, not all Pardhis are poachers.
So, how is a tiger poached in 2019? And how do we rehabilitate these ‘hunting’ tribes?
Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Karnataka are particularly vulnerable regions to poaching as the rebounding tiger populations attract poachers who rapidly transport body parts to nearby hubs of wildlife trade, several of which have existed in these three states for a long time.
These poachers, mostly from the three tribes, use the rapidly increasing rail and road networks, both adjacent to tiger reserves as well as within forest areas, which allows fast and relatively nondescript travel from the scene of the crime to the trade hub.
However, identifying the groups is not daunting because traditional hunting families have a signature style. They often travel with their extended families and are known to set up camps in open spaces or adjacent to small towns near tiger reserves. They usually set up temporary businesses selling knick-knacks before beginning to probe the forest. The costs of such roving family expeditions have repercussions for many more animals and not just the tiger, because they may be killed for meat or poached for their body parts.
Although evolving continuously, the modus operandi has retained elements of the generations-old hunting style. They first track the road that a tiger takes – if there are 3-4 approaches to a waterhole, a tiger will definitely have a preferred option. They conveniently lay a trap after studying the behaviour of the tiger. Usually, they prefer full moon nights to study the tiger. A jaw trap is laid and the tiger is caught.
In pain, the tiger can either roar or be quiet. However, what happens next is unbelievable, redefining the meaning of cruelty itself.
After the tiger is captured, it is attacked on the nose to anger it. The tiger bites the spear, and there is no damage to the skin. The spear lodges itself inside the throat of the tiger and it inevitably dies. If the tiger does not die on the first try, the spear is used again and again.
The trauma that a tiger endures cannot be compared to any modern torture method.
Professional poachers go to extreme lengths to ensure that the skin of the animal is not torn or damaged, with a specialist in tow whose main responsibility is to skin the animal with finesse.
The bright moonlight allows the tiger to be immediately skinned with tanning material. The head of the tiger is hidden under a rock. The body meat is buried or thrown in various directions away from the actual place of the kill to divert attention. If buried, the purpose is to collect the bones after the body decomposes in a few days.
Even more startling are the recent incidents of consuming the meat in addition to processing body parts of deceased tigers. A poacher who confessed to eating the reproductive organ of dead bears point to the increasing trend of consuming animal meat inside the forest right after a killing.
The skin and other parts are shifted to the carrier. The role of the poacher ends here. The carrier preferably takes a crowded train or the earliest bus to a nearby city such as Raipur, Delhi, Bhopal, Bengaluru and Lucknow where he meets a designated person, hands over the skin and goes back. Money is not exchanged because it is usually provided as an advance by the trader or through an immediate cash transfer upon delivery. If arrested, convictions are slow and rare. No one carries any proof of the crime. One tiger less in the country now.
The organised and well-oiled trade chain ensures that the process of disposing body parts is usually rapid with minimal chances of detection. The poachers make anywhere between Rs 20,000 to1 lakh, and the middlemen earn anywhere between Rs 10-70 lakhs. The customer in a foreign market pays upwards of Rs 1 crore, while customers within India are known to pay Rs 20-50 lakhs.
Poaching is no longer just the forte of traditional tribal groups such as the Pardhis and Bahelias, because newer recruits from mainstream communities easily become poachers in this low-risk and high-profit business.
There are several cases of villagers living around tiger reserves who opt for opportunistic poaching. In 2017, illegal fishermen had laid an electric wire trap for wild boars in Pench, but ended up entangling a tiger and burying its parts. These fishermen may not have been regular poachers but have contributed significantly to unnatural tiger deaths.
India’s open and porous borders aid international gangs who escape enforcement agencies on either side. The India-Nepal border and the northeast borders are used to feed the demands of consumers in China and other Southeast Asian countries.
With traditional methods of trapping and killing animals on the wane, traditional hunting communities are adopting newer technologies to kill wildlife in India. Electrocution, poisoning and shooting are some of these. Innovative techniques such as making explosive-laden meatballs are also being used in Karnataka.
Lack of convictions and lax punishment contribute to the growing audaciousness of poachers who often have sufficient family support as well as economic commitment from traders.
An emerging trend is the involvement of the upper-middle class and well-to-do individuals who poach for pleasure and meat. Several kinds of deer such as chital and sambar fall prey to this. Additionally, farmers whose primary intention is to save their crops also contribute to the unceasing death toll as they lay snares in farmlands adjoining forests.
This is how human-wildlife conflict and animal poaching converge.
Several governments and non-governmental agencies, such as the Mariamma Charitable Trust working in Bandipur Tiger Reserve, have taken a proactive stand in rapid disbursement of compensation in order to stem incidences of revenge killing.Poachers from these tribes can be rehabilitated too as the famous case study from Periyar Tiger Reserve, which started in the year 1998, showed.
A successful initiative was undertaken by Karnataka-run Jungle Lodges that trained poachers and fishermen involved in illegal fishing to act as guides (they were called gillies). A stable job was offered to rehabilitated poachers. The immediate and most reassuring result was on the health of the river systems –the endangered hump-backed Mahseer carp rebounded in the stretch of river protected by the reformed poachers.
We are seeing a renewed stress on rehabilitating nomadic tribes. There have been significant initiatives such as the one in Panna National Park, which has aimed at rehabilitating Pardhi children by providing them with education.
A combination of sustained education for the younger generation, better enforcement, greater inter-country and inter-state coordination, more support for the forest staff and exploring alternative livelihoods such as ecotourism will give India’s beleaguered wildlife with a fair chance at survival.
Kunal Sharma has more than 15 years of experience in the field of ecotourism, forestry and conservation. Pikit Hembrom has extensively worked in the field of conservation in Western Ghats, Central India and Chota Nagpur Plateau. Views are personal.