What can we do about poachers?

August 23, 2018 | Categorized in: | By: Deborah Kilcollins

Please note that currently disastrous flooding in Kerala is causing massive damage and great loss of life. The blog is respectful of that and a means to reflect our solidarity with the people of Kerala. This is as important a time as any to reflect the stellar work being done in places such as Periyar National Park, a leading poacher rehabilitation initiative. Their work must and will continue when the waters subside, and we will continue to support them.

The problem of illegal animal poaching stretches across the globe – from the Florida’s marine turtles, to Africa’s elephants, to India’s tigers. Many agree that it will take major actions and out-of-the-box thinking to discover solutions that will help alleviate the growing threat to the animal populations of the world.

Down south towards the tip of India in the state of Kerala, Periyar National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary has developed a solution that is seeing some success. It seemed a simple approach – offer a deal that means the poacher gives up his hunting and poaching and starts working for the other side, protecting the animals.

In a recent article in the Christian Science Monitor, writer Feliz Franz wrote about a group of poachers who became protectors in Periyar. “For more than 20 years, they hunted the animals they now protect. Today, they work as tour guides and caretakers of the national park, thanks to an initiative by the local forest department. Once the problem, they’re now the solution: a root-cause approach that helped win Periyar a biodiversity award from the United Nations in 2012. This year marks the 20th anniversary of their appointments as forest officers.

Spread over an area of 925 sq. km/, 357 sq. mi, this is one of the 27 tiger reserves in India. It is also a major watershed area for two important rivers of Kerala, the Periyar and Pamba. The reserve is also home to more than 30 species of mammals as well as tiger and elephant. In 2008, 24 Bengal tigers were counted across the park. Other mammals include the gaur, sambar, wild pig, Indian giant squirrel, Travancore flying squirrel, jungle cat, sloth bear, Nilgiri tahr, lion-tailed macaque, Nilgiri langur, Salim Ali’s fruit bat, stripe-necked mongoose, and Nilgiri marten. About 266 species of birds can be seen in the park, including migrants.

Facing a growing number of armed poachers in need of money, the rangers understood that policing alone would not rid them of poachers in the Cardamon Hills. At the time, Periyar’s tourism industry was less developed, making opportunities for a good living scarce.

In 1998, a group of poachers were offered a deal. With the government’s approval, the forest department offered them a way out. All charges against them would be forgotten if they helped stop Periyar’s poaching problem.

A couple of years ago, Big Five CEO, Mahen Sanghrajka, was working with National Geographic Travel’s World Legacy Awards reviewing properties for an award. “CGH Earth properties started out with one of their major initiatives set towards preserving the local biodiversity of both flora and fauna. Aiming at the source, they started many programs to help educate the local tribes. Thanks to these and other mutually beneficial arrangements, incidents of encroachment, poaching and illegal logging have declined in Periyar,” Sanghrajka said.

After a century of decline, tiger numbers are on the rise. At least 3,890 tigers remain in the wild, according to the World Wildlife Fund. At Periyar, tigers have increased from 21 in 2001 to 48 currently. As welcome as this is, it is clearly not enough. Much more work is needed to protect this species, as there are no poachers-turned-protectors in the 26 other parks. More of these patrols need to be established as well as other measures taken to keep this incredible ecosystem and its inhabitants thriving.  Unfortunately, this invaluable project is slated to end once the officials retire.  We certainly hope this is not the case. We shall see.