Predators of the TIGER TRAIL

Sansar Chand's conviction might shake the underworld poacher's empire. But what about the Barbarian  Bawariyas?
Akash Bisht Delhi

In a historic judgment a Delhi court awarded six years imprisonment - the maximum term mandated by the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act - to notorious wildlife trader Sansar Chand, also known as the Veerappan of north India. The case dates back to 1995 when he was caught red-handed with a leopard skin. This judgment has brought cheer to many conservationists who hope it can dissuade people from entering and pursuing the banned trade. 

Chand is considered responsible for the complete wipe-out of the big cat from the Sariska Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan. According to wildlife law enforcers, around 250 tigers have fallen prey to Chand's vicious demand for tiger parts. 

Poachers killed 832 tigers from 1994 to 2007, says a Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI) report. The killings have not stopped and, indeed, the crime continues to be committed in an increasingly professional and organised manner.

It is alleged that some nomadic hunting tribes form a crucial cog in the wheel of this organised crime. A large number of tigers have been eliminated to feed the demand across the border for their parts. This growing demand makes poaching a lucrative business. Even as the lure of making a quick buck ensnares many new recruits to the poacher's vocation, traditional poachers bank upon their ancestral wisdom and expertise to hunt down every tiger they can. 

Traditionally, members of the Pardhi, Mongya, Kanjar, Banjara, Baheliya, Nat and Bawariya tribes have been involved in poaching. Baheliyas have been active in central India and the Kanjars in Uttarakhand and the Terai region. There have also been reports of Nepali poachers crossing over into the Indian forests near the border.

However, it is the Bawariya tribe that is held responsible for most of the killings of the big cats in north India. To avoid suspicion, poachers from this tribe employ new tactics such as using women as carriers of the banned wildlife parts. Reportedly, the Bawariyas and other tribes involved in poaching have now set their sights on south India and even the Northeast. 

"Locals in the Valmiki Tiger Reserve in Bihar are not involved in poaching as they have been living with the animal for centuries. It's the outsiders, especially poachers from Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, who are responsible for the tiger disappearances here," says Sanjay Jaiswal, MP, West Champaran, Bihar.

"The Modus Operandiof the tribes involved in poaching has not changed over centuries. The cycle of poaching begins only after a middleman places a demand. Then, these groups get active and dispatch their members to different parts of the country to make a kill," reveals Tito Joseph of WPSI. 

Sources told Hardnews that sometimes, especially in the case of the Bawariyas, it is the tribal panchayats that decide who goes where and how many they would kill. "To save money they prefer trains. Earlier, they moved in large numbers but with increasing vigilance, the average size of the groups has come down drastically," informs Ramesh K Pandey, an IFS officer, who had apprehended several Bawariya poachers during his stint at the Katerniaghat Wildlife Sanctuary, UP. 

Bawariyas travel with minimalist baggage and are known to camouflage their trade by selling plastic flowers, clay sculptures, herbal medicines et al. "Some even resort to rag-picking and begging while getting familiar with the landscape and taking locals into confidence. The locals later provide them information about tiger presence in the nearby forests," says Joseph. 

On reaching their chosen destination, the poachers touch base with their local contacts - some of them established by their forefathers - who help them identify strategic locations for setting up their deras (temporary camps with makeshift huts made of plastic sheets, often blue). To facilitate easy movement into the forests, even while avoiding confrontation with forest officials, the deras are usually located 20-30 kms outside the forest area. 

"Bawariyas also remain in close contact with other nomadic tribes who provide them intelligence about the movement of animals and forest guards. Linkages of Bawariyas and local poachers from tribes like the Kanjars and the Ghiaras, with Narain (brother of Sansar Chand) have recently come to light," informs Pandey.

 In better protected reserves like the Corbett National Park, Bawariyas prefer to move in smaller groups and erect a single tent made of empty fertiliser bags. "They carry a tawa, a thali and a lota. The tawa is used for cooking vegetables like potatoes, onions and tomatoes, and for making chapattis; the thali is used for kneading dough and eating; and the lota serves several purposes. To cook their meals, they make a makeshift chulha by placing two bricks. They even use fake names to hide their identities," says Pandey.

In towns with railways stations, they stay at railway yards, making it difficult for enforcement agencies to recognise them among the hundreds that throng these places. Also, they prefer to settle in the bordering areas of forest divisions, districts or states so that they can easily move across the border when their cover is blown.

"These poachers are highly motivated and no other criminal I have seen can match their conviction," claims Pandey.

In a typical Bawariya household, most members are closely related to the trade. And as the household is always on the move, the children are seldom enrolled in schools. Despite their illiteracy, Bawariyas carry diaries with phone numbers of middlemen and traders. They keep small brass statues of Hindu gods and celebrate some Hindu festivals, but they also follow the Bawariya norm of cattle sacrifice after a successful hunt.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: OCTOBER 2010