Text by Rajesh Ramesh, Photographs by Rathnavel Pandian
Is it fair to criminalise local tribal people for hunting to feed their families? Can we afford to lose our rapidly declining biodiversity? The author, who is the Youth Action Co-Ordinator with the Trust for Environment Monitoring and Action Initiating (EMAI), suggests that greater sensitivity and transparency on the part of wildlife law enforcement officials, and a multi-disciplinary approach that takes into consideration socio-economic, cultural and ecological imperatives are vital.
On an early Monday morning, a friend and I went out birding near Sriperumbudur, 46 km. from Chennai. Crossing the Chembarambakkam lake around 6:25 a.m., we looked up to see a Black-shouldered Kite, our first bird of the morning. Encouraged, we waded deeper into the swamp to discover munias, warblers, prinias and more. Suddenly, we heard the unmistakable sound of a gunshot reverberating from the edge of the lake! Through our cameras and binoculars we spotted several people moving about furtively – and then there it was again – a low booming sound of a rifle that dispatched many birds feeding in the shallow, crustacean-rich swamp to their end.
Incensed, we made calls to senior birding friends and the Chief Conservator of Forests in the Forest Department, and at around 8 a.m., help arrived in the form of two pot-bellied men astride a rickety TVS 50 bike. My friend continued photographing and tracking the poachers as I went out to meet the Forest Department officials wearing civilian clothes. Convoluted discussions ensued on which route should be taken to approach the hunters, and finally one of the officials decided to walk across the swampy area on foot, while the other officer and I took the longer route around the lake, through a village, over a bumpy mud-track, where the two-wheeler finally refused to budge another inch!
We approached the poachers by pretending to be buyers of exotic bird meat. They were local Narikurava tribals, and were suspicious of us. While some made good their escape, four men with some egrets and cormorants in a bag (three of them still alive!) stayed and engaged us in conversation. When the official began to take a more than casual interest in the guns they carried, the hunters realised they were in trouble. One of them initially hesitated to hand over the rifle, but was eventually convinced when he understood the consequences of ignoring an official’s request. At this point all four panicked and fell to our feet proclaiming their innocence, stating that they hunted only for food and had no other way to feed their families.
As we waited for more officials to arrive, the pleading turned into silent tears. I felt hollow where my heart was supposed to be and a tear rolled down my own face. Their haul totalled 41 birds including 19 cormorants, a snipe, a Common Coot, a Purple Swamphen, six Whiskered Terns, two Purple Herons, two Pond Herons, four Cattle Egrets and two Little Egrets. All this, from what is considered a shrinking biodiversity site.
The Narikurava poachers plead for mercy from potential customers who turned out to be undercover forest officers.
Soon several officers arrived and congratulated us on our so-called brave feat of capturing the poachers. The incident was reported to the nearest magistrate court at Sriperumbudur and the hunters were taken in for questioning. Later, we were asked to accompany some of the officers to the post-mortem proceedings of the 38 dead birds at the Vandalur Zoo. Individual reports were typed at a snail’s pace with constant murmurs among officials to reduce the numbers. The officers were unable to identify any of the birds. Not one! Despite our insistence, some of the species were wrongly reported.
Our respect for the officials hit rock bottom when we were asked not to report the happenings anywhere! Why not? It was a commendable job, wasn’t it? On returning from the post-mortem proceedings, we realised that the Narikuravas were to be taken to Vellore jail for a 15-day remand aka judicial custody. A silent ride back home saw us in deep introspection. Who were the Narikuravas? Why did they hunt? What would have happened if the top official was not notified in the first place? What had we done? Were the birds more important than these poverty-stricken people? Why did the officers play nice with us? How does it all link up? Ironically, the way I personally perceived poachers, the system, its flaws, accountability and, most importantly, the big picture, was already changing.
The Narikuravas claim to have descended from the Khond people of Odisha. They are adept at hunting anything from capricious quails to jaunty jackals. During the British Raj, they hunted using bow and arrows, catapults and, sometimes, the silambams. The British introduced them to guns, presented so the burra sahebs could be stocked with wild fowl for their tables. Some of those rifles are still in use. Being nomads, they moved from forest to forest, but between the Criminal Tribes Act, 1871, and the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, their hunting habits came to a legal end and they ended up migrating to cities. Here they eked out a living crafting bead necklaces and handmade knick-knacks for sale in local markets and on roadsides. Some took loans to start scrap metal businesses, but these failed and they returned to poaching birds and animals for a living. “Customers call and ask for specific birds, which we deliver to them dead or alive,” said one of the Narikuravas.
On some days, they undertake ceremonial hunts and consume the meat they obtain. The drama that unfolded on September 3, 2012, was one such day.
The haul that was seized from the Narikurava tribals included 41 birds (10 different species).
Many NGOs have tried to ‘reform’ the Narikuravas, to no avail. Some suggest they should be given controlled hunting permits enabling them to make a sustainable living while protecting wildlife. But where there is regulation, there is corruption. The Narikuravas are not even enlisted as Scheduled Tribes, which places them below Dalits. “Saami, we were driven out of our forest homes, we were driven out of our huts in the cities. Where else can we go? We are family men. Our wives and children need us. We hunt to survive.”
In this modern consumerist world where corruption and corporate dominance rule, there is little work these people can be offered. They are not part of any vote bank either. They are at the bottom of the heap, marginalised, written off as criminals by the Forest Department, wildlife experts and conservationists.
I admit to not having ready answers, particularly to those who say that the Narikuravas are now being enlisted to kill elephants and tigers by the illegal wildlife syndicates. Frankly, they neither need freebies nor taunts. They require to have their dignity restored, which will only be possible if we find ways to put their knowledge to work to protect what others induce them to harm. This much is clear. Their knowledge of the forest, medicinal plants, music and traditions are arcane treasures worth preserving, just as carefully as any other cultural heritage of value.
As a birdwatcher myself, the adrenaline that courses through my veins on spotting a bird is something that is better experienced than described. For an expert birdwatcher, a minute call, a quiver of the bushes, a faint rustle of leaves is all that is needed to spot and identify an avian. Such is the knowledge and passion among this breed of men and women that they barely leave any room for thought for the plight of the “evil” poachers who upset the balance of the ecosystem by wiping out key species by hunting. They don’t see why these ecosystems should be disturbed in the name of survival. “Are there no other ways of earning a livelihood?” asks an expert bird spotter. “Their tears and pleadings are just drama. They will mint money when they sell their booty.”
Undoubtedly, wildlife enthusiasts, photographers, binocular and scope-wielding birders and naturalists have helped countless creatures, often by reporting poaching incidents and conducting raids, sometimes even risking their lives in encounters in deep forest areas. Ditto for the officers and field staff of the various state Forest Departments. However, while people like us help them arrest a few anonymous poachers, the truth is the vast bulk of officials actually cannot even identify, leave alone understand what this or that species of bird in the poachers’ bag means to ecosystems.
This is not to question wildlife protection at all. We need to save what little remains of our wildlife and habitats. But something about the system is faulty. It’s simply not working.
On conditions of anonymity, one official in the know said to us: “When lower officials get hold of Narikuravas, they seldom even report it. After seizing all the game, weapons and money, they coerce the tribals to pay hefty sums of money under the table and then release them. It’s a vicious cycle.”
Outside the Sriperumbudur magistrate court, officials surround the Narikuravas prior to questioning.
A concerned anti-corruption activist and industrialist added that if more people were to flow into cities from villages, it would lead to an implosive spiral of doom. “Slum dwellers and coastal village folk, who have become victim to the city’s expansion plans, are sent to live in tightly-packed camps with little or no work opportunities, education facilities and other basic amenities.”
My interest in the issue saw me interact with a friend belonging to a long lineage of privileged hunters. In his words: “If you think you achieved a lot by capturing them, here’s the deal – they’ll be eating happily wherever they are and when they come out, it’s back to square one. You cannot change them. It’s their life. They are amazing hunters, their vision is brilliant. But the only compassion they know is for their own kith and kin. All meat is food for them. Arrest them the way you did and you punish their families, not them. Instead, why not take the issue to a higher level? Get media to do in-depth reporting. Fight hunting per se if you will, but don’t stop at tokenism.”
My purpose of writing this piece for Sanctuary Asia was a consequence of my realisation that there are no absolutes, no ‘rights’ and ‘wrongs’ when it comes to survival. Having said that, I believe that hunting, be it for the pot, or the wildlife trade, must be stopped. I was moved at the plight of these beautiful people and felt the urge to communicate their dilemma. Hopefully, the powers that be, in government and out of it, will see the wisdom in approaching the problem in ways that solve the problem, not merely enable the corrupt or apathetic system to exploit them, while the depletion of our wildlife continues apace. People like Romulus Whitaker managed to do this with the Irulas who now, have welfare cooperatives of their own as have tribal conservancies in the Northeast, with collective bargaining power.
To sweep the Narikuruvas under a symbolic carpet is a sham, not a solution.
The author would like to acknowledge the contribution of Dr. Murugavel, who heads operations at EMAI, for inspiring students such as himself to lead initiatives.