JALDAPARA NATIONAL PARK, India — Poachers killed a rhino in Jaldapara National Park, in India’s West Bengal state, in February this year, but by March 10 there was some good news for conservationists here. Eight poachers from the surrounding villages surrendered to the forest management, pledging to give up poaching and work instead for rhino and forest conservation.
In the presence of at least 150 villagers and senior forest officials, the men laid down their snares, ammunition and homemade weapons. They were poor, mostly illiterate, and came from tribal communities. The oldest among them was 35, the youngest a 14-year-old schoolboy.
“They have admitted [to] being involved in various poaching activities in the past: being misled and used by various groups now and then, that tempted them with quick and easy money,” said Sribash Roy, a member of the Joint Forest Management Committee (JFMC) from Nutanpara village in Jaldapara’s East Range. These committees, comprising local villagers, work with the forest department to manage the use and protection of woodlands.
Roy attributed the change of heart among the former poachers to the opportunity these young men were being given for a way out and a way forward — a process in which the JFMC plays a critical role. The committee will keep the men under observation for a year, monitoring whether they keep their promises to stop poaching and help protect the forest. Those who succeed will have their charges written off by the forest department.
The lowest-paid but most exposed link in a chain of commerce that stretches from small villages in rural India to wildlife black markets in East Asia, village youths who join poaching gangs risk their lives and freedom, often for very little monetary gain. According to Roy, poachers take great risks to support their often impoverished families, and are frequently cheated by the trafficking masterminds and traders. He said the key to stopping this is to offer an alternative source of livelihood.
In addition to working to reform poachers, JFMCs also play a role in preventing poaching. “The forest department may not be able to match the sophisticated weapons used by … rhino poachers, but the JFMC members are the eyes and ears of our forest protection,” said Ujjwal Ghosh, chief conservator of forest wildlife for the state’s North Bengal region.
There are currently 64 JFMCs in Jaldapara, with a combined 20,000 members. The size of each committee depends of the population of the village, and 40 percent of park tourism revenue is earmarked to support them.
The funds go toward various community development projects chosen by the committee members. Past projects have ranged from building roads and digging wells, to chipping in for school fees or weddings for young people in need.
The aim is to support villagers and prevent them from turning to wildlife trafficking to earn money, said Bimal Debnath, assistant divisional forest officer at Jaldapara.
The park management also recruits village youths as tour guides. “Since they are well aware [of] the forest landscape, [a] little initial support helps them to earn their livelihood,” Debnath said. There are 65 such tourist guides from the local villages.
Alomati Karzee, from Khawchandpara village in Jaldapara’s West Range, is the park’s only female tour guide. During safaris, she said, she occasionally comes across people whose behavior raises red flags: they repeatedly ask about minor details of the forest or show excessive interest in areas with a rhino presence. “We try to remain watchful of the movement of such tourists,” she said. Known former poachers also receive extra scrutiny. “We have suffered a lot in the past, due to unnecessary raids and arrests in our homes because of them, which we cannot go through again,” Karzee said.
Some reformed poachers have been able to find work in tourism. One is employed at a resort in Umacharanpur village, in the west of the park. After serving nearly two years in prison in connection with rhino poaching, he was cleared by the forest department to go to work. “We gave him a full-time job in the resort. Among other duties which he performs well, he is an expert on apprising the tourists on the do’s and don’ts of forest behavior and keeps a perfect eye on suspects,” said resort manager Bachhu Das.
Some of the rehabilitated poachers turn out to be the best informers, said Jaldapara divisional forest officer Kumar Vimal. With their inside knowledge, they can provide valuable leads on various gangs and their operations.
The park is vulnerable on multiple fronts. It borders Bhutan, and is crisscrossed by the Torsa River, a railway line and three highways. There are also 13 tea plantations within the park’s boundaries, making it easy for poachers to enter the park undetected and target the 200-plus rhinos sheltering there.
Poachers killed three rhinos in 2014 and four in 2015. In 2016 and 2017, there were no recorded instances of poaching, but in February this year another rhino was killed by poachers.
To combat this threat, the park administration is constantly upgrading the capacity of its rangers. It conducts regular boat patrols, and this April acquired eight new elephants for use in bush patrols, bringing its retinue to 59. Patrols are tracked and logged, and GPS-enabled smartphones feed data to the park’s central monitoring system.
Rangers also record sightings of individual rhinos, and maintain an album with their photos and names. For example, the largest and strongest bull in the park is named Dara Singh, after a legendary professional wrestler and actor. (The same rhino in December last year gored to death a forest ranger, Uttam Sarkar, 58.) If an unusual amount of time passes without a sighting, guards go on high alert until the rhino is found.
During particularly crucial times — like moonlit nights when high visibility makes poaching easier, or in the run up to festivals when villagers are likely to need more cash than usual — JFMC members join the forest guards on foot patrols.
The park management also holds joint anti-poaching operations with local police and the border patrol. Conducted once a month if personnel are available, these exercises are intended to serve as deterrents to any would-be poachers, said Avvaru Ravindranath, superintendent of police for Alipurduar district, in which Jaldapara is located. Police also monitor the registers of homestays in the vicinity of the forest, he said.
When deterrence fails, the authorities join forces to move against poaching suspects. Since 2015, the park management has conducted 25 raids in connection with rhino poaching. Six cases were lodged against offenders, leading to 27 arrests and the recovery of firearms and rhino parts.
These arrests have so far yielded 11 convictions in four cases; other cases are still pending or have been dropped for lack of evidence. Improving the conviction rate requires interstate coordination in monitoring and intelligence sharing, since poaching incidents are often masterminded by syndicates that operate in both Assam and West Bengal states, said Vimal, the divisional forest officer.
Vimal also advocated more stringent punishment for wildlife crimes. Convicted poachers typically receive a sentence of just a few years, which he said is not enough of a deterrent, given the size of the potential profits.
The forest service’s Debnath said the best way to protect Jaldapara’s wildlife over the long run is to improve conditions for the people working in and living around the park. He called for “respectable salary and working conditions” for forest guards and other front-line staff. With better pay, regular hours and responsibilities, and better training and facilities, these grassroots sentinels will be better able to combat poaching.
Debnath also favored offering economic support for villagers in and around the park. Impoverished, hungry and with few livelihood options, local communities continue to be heavily dependent on forest resources — and vulnerable to the lure of quick cash from poachers. “Families that are slightly better off with regular source of income seldom disturb the forest,” Debnath said. “Hence, if forests and rhinos are to be protected, the economic conditions of the local communities need to be strengthened.”