A New Dawn How These Kerala Poachers Turned Protectors

Over the past 20 years, a group of former poachers has successfully prevented any poaching or smuggling in the Periyar Tiger Reserve, and the nearby Marayoor Sandalwood Reserve
Periyar Tiger Reserve. Photo Credits Shutterstock.com
Periyar Tiger Reserve. Photo Credits Shutterstock.com
In the early 2000s, when a gang of 25 poachers led by Aruvi surrendered before the Cheetah squad&mdashformed specially to catch them&mdashthey probably did not imagine that one day they would turn guardians of the very woods they stole from. However, the unique Vidiyal Pathukaapu initiative led by the forest guards of the Periyar Tiger Reserve (PTR) in Thekkady, Kerala, made it possible.
&ldquoAruvi and his team operated from villages in Tamil Nadu, including KG Patti, Varusanadu, and Lower Gudalur, which were located within a 15-km reach of Periyar Tiger Reserve,&rdquo said former range officer Raju K. Francis (currently Divisional Forest Officer Vigilance, Ernakulam). &ldquoThey posed a severe challenge to forest management in Periyar, and other forest regions of Kerala&rsquos hilly Idukki district. Their favourite was Marayoor, the lone sandalwood reserve of Kerala.&rdquo In those days, the Theni district of Tamil Nadu constituted traditional hunters and poachers.
However, for two decades now, the 17-member Vidiyal Pathukaapu has waged war against the scourge of poaching and smuggling, that once threatened to ravage the untouched depths of the PTR and the adjacent Marayoor Sandalwood Reserve. Now, the forest echoes with the sounds of thriving wildlife, unmarred by the footsteps of poachers. With every passing year, the jungle has flourished, and the once-endangered tigers of Periyar have found a new lease on life.
The Vidiyal Pathukaapu&rsquos mission has not been without challenges, but, working hand in hand with the Forest Department, they have apprehended over 230 gangs of poachers who would have destroyed the precious ecosystem of the region.
Advocates Of Tourism
On the edge of the breathtaking Thekkady lake, surrounded by lush green forests, one can hear the sound of water gently lapping against the banks, and the rustle of leaves as a breeze blows through the trees. In the distance, a group of people are setting up bamboo rafts on the banks of the lake. These are the ex-poachers who now offer rafting services to tourists who want to experience the beauty of Thekkady lake, while supporting conservation efforts. The raft glides smoothly over the water, and every turn reveals new wonders of this scenic place.
The experience doesn&rsquot end here. After the bamboo raft ride, the same group of reformed poachers offers elephant safaris and local tours, taking you on a journey through the heart of the forest and the neighbouring villages. You can ride on bullock carts and enjoy the local cuisine while discovering the rich culture and traditions of the area.
In this way, the Vidiyal Pathukaapu function not only as the protectors of the forest, but also as tourism promoters bringing visitors to the area and raising awareness about conservation.
Rooting Out
When Aruvi was arrested along with an accomplice, Francis asked him why he continued to engage in the plunder of the forest despite several criminal cases against him. The answer, which Aruvi gave, was simple and provoking &ldquoWe are engaging in illegal activities out of compulsion. Over the years, the livelihood crisis and the criminal stigma the officials have attached to our clan are forcing us to continue such illegal activities. We are ready to lay down our arms if the Forest Department is ready to provide us with jobs to ensure a stable monthly income.&rdquo
Hearing this, Francis and his then boss Pramod G Krishnan, a chief conservator of the Forest Department, began finding suitable models that could be adapted to ensure rehabilitation for Aruvi and the rest of his team. But no successful forest management scheme was prevalent anywhere across the country at that time involving the former poachers and timber smugglers. But the two officials were not ready to give up.
After numerous rounds of consultations with senior officials and forest experts, they finally created a rehabilitation project&mdashVidiyal Pathukaapu&mdashthat would facilitate the surrender of Aruvi and his entire clan. The Tamil word Vidiyal stands for a "new dawn."
&ldquoThe project indeed heralded a new dawn in our lives that steered us away from illegal activities and long jail terms. Twenty years have passed since Vidiyal Pathukaapu was formed. Now we are doing respectable jobs and have managed to shake off the stigma of being criminals,&rdquo said M. Nallamayan, a reformed poacher.
&ldquoThough Aruvi was expelled from the team later because he continued to engage in timber smuggling, Vidyal Pathukaapu has evolved as a commendable success,&rdquo said Francis. &ldquoThe Periyar model that ensured steady monthly income to the involved families and made them part of the conservation efforts and eco-tourism activities, was later replicated in many tiger reserves and sanctuaries.&rdquo
&ldquoThe number of Vidiyal Pathukaapu team members had reduced from 23 to 17 in recent years after six people left. But the will and determination of the existing team has ensured that no poaching and timber smuggling is happening in PTR and nearby forests,&rdquo said Francis.
Pramod elaborated that the project would not re-admit anyone who engages in criminal activity later. Aruvi remains an outsider to Vidiyal Pathukaapu despite his repeated attempts to tender an apology and return to it.
&ldquoWe have proved a point. As far as reforms are concerned, prison is not a necessity. All these 17 people and their families helped us capture the remaining forest plunderers. They know the geography of the forests thoroughly ensuring foolproof combing operations,&rdquo he added.
The Journey So Far 
Reformed poacher Nallamayan, who used to hunt tigers, langurs, and gaurs, also specialized in smuggling timber like sandalwood and rosewood. Each of the 17 members of the Vidiyal Pathukaapu team faced three to 12 court cases at the time of their surrender.
The group was not ready to cooperate initially as they remained skeptical about the real intentions of the forest officials. Most of them found it difficult to believe that the Forest Department would drop the pending cases against them.
&ldquoWe thought the Forest Department was trapping us by giving us false hope. But a few rounds of talks laid these apprehensions to rest. They even managed to stall objections raised by certain senior forest officials who wanted our arrest and incarceration,&rdquo added Nallamayan.
After surrender, the group members were made to go through a three-month long training program where they were taught the importance of conservation. Now a close-knit entity, the Vidiyal team has a robust intelligence network spread in both Idukki and Theni districts, helping to gather information on poachers and smugglers.
They work 26 days a month for a gross salary of Rs 22,000. The Periyar Tiger Foundation operates eco-tourism in PTR and provides them raincoats, sleeping bags, uniforms, and umbrellas.
&ldquoAfter getting a steady monthly income, they started sending their children to schools. Now there are postgraduates among the children of this group. Education is helping their new generation avoid poaching,&rdquo said Francis.

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