Animal poaching is rampant in some parts of the world. India is no exception. But over the years, park officials at the Periyar Forest Reserve have stepped up their efforts to protect animals and have even recruited some former low-offending poachers to help them in conservation efforts.
The 357-mile spread is located in southern India, and is home to several species including elephants, tigers and Indian wild dogs. Once a hotspot for elephant poaching, forest smuggling and illegal hunting, the Periyar Forest Reserve has evolved into one of India’s premier reserves for conservation progress. The Kerala Forest Department claims that animal poaching in the region has decreased 90 percent over the past 25 years.
Kerala officials credit the decrease in poaching to their Eco-Development Committee (EDC) projects. In a joint effort with the World Bank of India, the objective is to develop conservation projects aimed at protecting forest regions, while promoting ecotourism.
The program is primarily known for recruiting former low-offending poachers and forest smugglers to become part of the conservation effort.
“We wanted to give low-offending poachers a chance to protect the forest rather than harm it,” said Francis, director of eco-development at the Periyar Forest Reserve.
In the Periyar region, there are more than 10 different EDC projects with former poachers among some of the tribal EDC groups. One such group is made up of former forest smugglers. That group is called the “Ex-Vayana Bark Collectors.” They’re named after a specific tree bark that was commonly smuggled during the early 1990s.
The duties of the ex-poachers center on giving eco-tours and conducting wildlife patrols in the forest. The workers also lead weekly trekking expeditions for tourists to view the various wildlife the reserve has to offer.
Circa spoke with some of the former poachers and they expressed their satisfaction about earning an honest living.
“Since the inception of our program we’ve only had two members quit and return back to illegal activity,” said Sandeesh, a poacher who is now a tour guide. “The rest of us are happy with our monthly paychecks.”