It was an ambitious initiative very few believed in. But Raju K Francis and his senior officer Pramod G Krishnan in Kerala’s Forest Department apparently believed in the dictum, “Change is the only constant.”
They rolled out their initiative, ignoring the several Doubting Thomases. Twenty-five years down the line, the initiative proved its efficiency in inducting poachers — who once lived in crevices and caves deep in the forests — into the mainstream society.
The initiative launched in the Periyar Tiger Reserve (PTR) was India’s first participatory forest management project.
Conservationist and law and order officers initially frowned upon the project, named in Tamil as Vidiyal Vanapathukappu Sangam — which roughly translates to “group to usher in a new dawn in forest protection”.
The project was unique, and built ground-up around realities. It intended to reform poachers and smugglers, by providing them a decent livelihood by appointing them as forest watchers and guides.
The initiative did wonders as years passed by. Those who had once plundered natural resources became their guardians.
Over the past 25 years, the 17-member squad ensured zero cases of poaching or smuggling in the PTR and the adjacent Marayoor Sandalwood Reserve.
Additionally, the team also helped the Forest Department in arresting more than 230 gangs, making PTR the country’s first well-conserved forest region.
This week, Periyar topped the list of tiger reserves in the country by scoring a Management Effective Evaluation (MEE) score of 94 percent. PTR stood out on output services, and facilities for visitors.
The PTR’s success in community-based forest management is not limited to arresting forest crimes alone.
The collective of reformed poachers has been offering cost-effective and safe bamboo rafting for tourists visiting the magnificent Thekkady lake in Periyar. They also help visitors as forest guides, besides providing elephant safaris.
Also read: PM Modi urges foreign countries to help protect wildlife
The tale of Aruvi
The PTR’s success story is not complete without narrating the tale of Aruvi, once an elusive forest brigand.
Former range forest officer Raju K Francis captured Aruvi from a cave in the Theni district of Tamil Nadu.
The local gangs had then frequented the cave to hide sandalwood stolen from the Marayoor reserve.
Aruvi had then led a 23-member gang of poachers and sandalwood smugglers who operated from Tamil Nadu villages, KG Patti, Varusanadu and Lower Gudalur — all within a 15-km radius of the PTR.
Many forest fringe villages in Theni were then inhabited by traditional hunters and poachers. They posed a severe challenge to managing forests. Their favourite hangout was Marayoor, the lone sandalwood reserve in Kerala.
Unlike forest officials, these gangs knew every nook and corner of the forests. And they remained elusive for the forest guards.
When Aruvi was arrested along with an accomplice, Francis sought the reason for his involvement in the crime despite cases against him pending in different courts.
“We 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,” Aruvi’s words got Francis thinking.
“We are ready to surrender if the Forest Department provides us with jobs and a stable monthly income,” Francis quoted the poacher as saying in 1994.
Also read: Man who spotted tiger’s carcass dies by suicide
A new dawn
Francis discussed Aruvi’s words with his boss, Pramod G Krishnan, then the divisional forest officer at Periyar. They considered multiple options for rehabilitating Aruvi and his gang.
There were no models before them. But the two officers continued their search for a suitable mechanism.
After numerous rounds of consultations with senior officials and forest experts, Francis and Krishnan, and the Cheetah squad they managed, devised a rehabilitation package that led to the surrender Aruvi’s entire gang.
And Vidiyal Vanapathukappu Sangam was born in 2004, 10 years after Aruvi’s arrest. Vidiyal in Tamil means a new dawn.
“It’s true. The project heralded a new dawn for us. We were till then into illegal activities, and often serving long jail terms,” M Nallayamayan, a member of Vidiyal, said.
“Vidiyal gave our lives a new meaning and purpose. We are doing respectable jobs now and not getting treated as criminals,” he added.
What happened to Aruvi? Francis, now a senior forest officer in Thiruvananthapuram, explained: “He was expelled a few years later after he was found smuggling timber.”
“The Periyar model was later adopted by several tiger reserves and sanctuaries. “The number of team members have come down to 17 from 23. But the team is effectively protecting the forests,” Francis said.
Also read: Pristine Gavi to soon become Kerala’s 3rd tiger reserve
Vidiyal, the short film
Commemorating the silver jubilee of the project, the Kerala Forest Department produced a short-film, Vidiyal. Francis Raju directed the film which had former poachers and tribal watchers portraying Aruvi and his gang members.
Will Aruvi be readmitted to Vidiyal? Krishnan replied in the negative. The project will not redraft anyone expelled for engaging in criminal activities.
“We have proved a point. As far as reforms are concerned, prison is not a necessity. All these 17 persons and their families helped us with intelligence that led to the capture of the remaining people,” Krishnan said.
“They know the forest better than us and ensure foolproof combing operations. The team helped in foiling several timber smuggling and poaching bids by providing information in advance,” he added.
Krishnan is currently the additional principal chief conservator of forests (vigilance and forest intelligence).
Also read: It’s a constant survival struggle for the ‘kings of the forest’
Reformed for good
Reformed poacher Nallayamayan said he had spent several years hunting wild animals, including tigers, langurs, gaurs and deer.
He had also specialised in smuggling sandalwood and rosewood. Each Vidiyal member had been facing three to 12 cases of poaching or timber smuggling when they surrendered.
The formation of Vidiyal was not easy, Francis recalled. Initially, the poachers were not cooperative as they suspected the Forest Department’s intentions.
Most of them could not believe that cases against them would be dropped. But continued persuasion by the officials forced them to lay down their arms.
“Initially, we thought the Forest Department was trying to trap us by giving us false promises. But a few rounds of talks proved these officials’ good intentions,” Mahamayan, another member of the team, said.
“They (officials) even discarded the objections raised by their Tamil Nadu counterparts who wanted to arrest us,” he added.
“The response from Tamil Nadu was not encouraging. They said the poachers and smugglers belonged a particular caste, traditionally engaged in stealing. They argued that these people would not change,” the officer said.
They did change, as time proved.
Also read: TN to set up biodiversity museum at Agasthiyamalai Elephant Reserve
Birth of a new generation
The reformed men were initially provided three-months training on the importance of conservation.
Now a close-knit entity, Vidiyal has a powerful intelligence network spread over Idukki and Theni, gathering information on poachers and smugglers.
Every month, they work 26 days for a gross salary of ₹22,000. The PTR operates eco-tourism and provides them with raincoats, sleeping bags, uniforms and umbrellas.
“After getting a steady monthly income, they started providing better education for their children. Several of the children are now post-graduates,” Francis said.
“One of the risky tasks Vidiyal undertook was arresting forest brigand Palappetti Murugan, while he was returning from Rameswaram with an AK-47 rifle,” the officer recalled.