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Poachers turn protectors

                                                                                                 The Pioneer, New Delhi, 18th March, 2013

At a time when wildlife poaching continues to be the single largest threat to conservation, Simlipal Tiger Reserve (STR) in Odisha has scripted a landmark success story. Four dreaded poachers involved in numerous cases of killing of elephants in the past have now been “reformed” into protectors.

These poachers recently surrendered before forest officials with their weapons, and are set to be included in the protection squad of the tiger reserve. STR Field Director Anup Nayak said that the four tribals reside in the villages on the foothills of the reserve. The oldest of them, Dhanu Soren, from Anantpur village, was the most notorious. He was into poaching for the the past 20 years. These four poachers were involved in the killing of at least 18-20 jumbos, he added.

An expert shooter, Dhanu was also into training and inducting local youths for poaching. The other three surrendered poachers are: Chotray Marandi, Budhuray Hembram and Lakshman Marandi.

Their brazenness became a matter of serious concern when nearly 1,200-1,300 members from their gang took 59 forest personnel, including the STR Assistant Conservator, hostage in Upper Barakamra range in the core area of the forest in May last year. “We had decided to book Dhanu under National Security Act,” pointed out Nayak.

The “metamorphosis” of such dreaded poachers could happen with the efforts of Bhanumitra Acharya, Honorary Wildlife warden, STR. “Before taking an extreme step against them, we thought of trying to wean them from their illegal profession at least once,” said Acharya.

Coming to his help were the local village youths who are a part of the Simlipal Tiger Protection Force (STPF), constituted by Acharya way back in 2001.

It now boasts of a membership of above 1,013 members comprising village youths from the surrounding 1,200 villages. Acharya has also set up the Simlipal Special Force, with 20 village youths and ex-army men, who function as rapid action group during emergency.

“We tried to reach out to them through these villagers, knowing full well that it is very important to win the confidence and support of the local villagers in conservation”. A series of meetings followed and these poachers were finally convinced to give up their illegal profession.

“But this is only the first part of the success story,” said Nayak. The real test is to utilise their skills, network and modus operandi to nab other poachers, he added. The four surrendered poachers have been deployed as protection assistants by the forest department in its team of watchers.

Inspired by the success story, an organisation called Sangram working in STR, has embarked upon a new programme “Pratyavartan”. “It aims at motivating poachers and illegal fellers to quit their profession and earn livelihood by respectable means,” said Sanjukta Basa, who is also Honorary Wildlife Warden of STR.