Pallava Bagla in Periyar Tiger Reserve,
Thekkady, Kerala, India
for National Geographic News
April 21, 2003
As the dawn's light creeps into in the lush evergreen forests of
a Project Tiger reserve in southern India, a ragtag squad of six
unarmed ex-bandits donning camouflage uniforms, accompanied by Indian
Forest Department guards, is on the prowl for poachers.
As they move silently through the world-famous Periyar Tiger Reserve
in Thekkady, Kerala, India, they are on the look out for people
who make a living by illegal hunting and gathering— just as
they once did themselves
Called tribal trackers and guides, this small force of experts
now numbers about three dozen. They are all local tribes people
and former poachers— so no one knows better than them the
motivation and methods of those who plunder the sanctuary for animals
and plants. They know where and when to find the hunters of wild
elephants and the gatherers of sandalwood and cinnamon bark. They
are yesteryear's forest brigands who have turned protectors.
But protecting what they once looted is not all they do. These
community trackers have also found well-paid new jobs in ecotourism,
catering to this growing category of travel by offering their services
as expert guides leading small groups through the forests.
Employment of former poachers in these new roles came about through
a Kerala Forest Department program that was originally funded through
a U.S. $10 million grant from The World Bank. The program was part
of the Bank's eco-development project to conserve the rich bio-diversity
in the Periyar Tiger Reserve and other biodiversity hotspots in
As part of the project, the local forest administration had to ensure
"stake-holder involvement and people's participation,"
according to the World Bank's guidelines. The Periyar Tiger Reserve
is one of the seven sites in India where the eco-development Project
is being implemented.
Thieves Catch Thieves"
A few years ago, while interrogating some forest dwellers arrested
on charges of cinnamon bark smuggling, forest officials had the
idea that if they could seek cooperation and even assistance from
these scofflaws then the forests could be made a lot safer place
for wildlife. As Vinod Kumar Uniyal, field director at the Periyar
Tiger Reserve, Kerala, India puts it, the idea was to get "thieves
to catch the thieves."
And they have been successful. According to published reports there
has been a 90 percent drop in the number of cases reported for forest-related
offences since the program was introduced in Kerala.
The group of former poachers has reported more than 80 poaching
cases, making a significant contribution to protecting forest species.
The region is rich in biodiversity and also home to about 50 tigers,
hundreds of wild Indian elephants, Indian bison, leopards, and many
types of birds.
What made it attractive for the officials to embark on this experiment
was the fact that these "bandits" were not only familiar
with the modus operandi of smugglers and poachers but also knew
the undulating terrain like the back of their hands.
Now forest officials and a local tour operator have joined hands
in an enterprise wherein these local-community trackers assist tourists
in trekking through the dense undergrowth, boosting an eco-tourism
attraction called "Tiger Trail." S. Shivdas a local forest
official at the tiger reserve says, "There can be no better
With funding assured from The World Bank, the Kerala Forest Department
recruited 20 such poachers who wanted to return to life within the
bounds of law. This first contingent was convened into an "Eco-Development
Committee," to administer the protection activities assigned
to this group.
Most members of this group had been on the run from the law for
a long time, and some had even served jail terms extending up to
three years for having committed various forest-related offences.
But, as a concession, the forest department decided not to press
charges on pending criminal cases against them.
Jayan is a man who was on the run from the long reach of the law
for the better part of his life, but thanks to the new program has
now changed his stripes. "Life is much better after donning
the uniform since now we get a lot of respect from the community
as well," he says.
Some of the spectacular successes of this forest protection group
include the seizure of seven ivory tusks from the Periyar forests
in August 1998, and last year they caught red-handed a notorious
poacher with over 300 kilograms (660 pounds) of Gaur meat.
While many people in the developing world criticize the involvement
in local communities of a multilateral lending institution like
The World Bank, Michael F. Carter, an economist and country director,
India of the bank defends the institution's role. "The involvement
of the bank has a psychological effect since people feel there is
more rigorous oversight," he says.
Uniyal, field director at the Periyar Tiger Reserve, describes
the project as a "very successful experiment in social engineering."
The forest department, he says, has been able to create a "virtual
social fence" of local conservationists besides reducing the
alienation that had come about between the locals and forest department.