At the beginning of the 20th century, India had 40,000 tigers. Today, there are an estimated 3,200 wild tigers left in the entire world—more than half of them in India—and the species’ survival hinges on whether habitat losses and rampant poaching can be stopped.
The Indian government has invested more than $400 million in Protect Tiger, its flagship conservationist effort, since establishing it in 1973. But it’s uncertain how much impact the program has had. Even as the number of tigers in India seems to be slowly climbing, last year was the deadliest in seven years, according to Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI). An estimated 42 tigers were poached in India, many of them killed by Pardhis. “Members of Pardhi community are the major threat to the survival of tigers in the wild,” says Jose Louis, an expert at Wildlife Trust of India who specializes in trade control initiatives and works closely with poaching communities. “The organized trade in tiger and leopard parts is virtually handled by them at ground levels.”
Government efforts to improve the lives of the Pardhis is dismissed by experts as mostly cosmetic, creating a vicious circle in which some Pardhis see no other alternative to poaching. The Indian government has occasionally tried to appear tough on the poaching issue. In 2012, Maharashtra introduced a controversial law allowing forest rangers to shoot and kill suspected poachers with impunity, although this has yet to be done and the deterrent value remains questionable. At the same time, conservation efforts are frequently trumped by corporate interests: Near Rajesh’s home, mineral mines have already destroyed much of the region’s thick jungles.
Rajesh’s childhood was one lived on the run. His clan—15 to 20 families of about 40 hunters—traveled by train and bus. Whenever they spotted a promising hill or forest, they got off at a nearby station to see if it was a “tiger area.” The women sold forest goods while the men scanned the jungle for traces of tigers or leopards. From deer carcasses and pugmarks, they tried to determine the size and gender of the cats. Sometimes they heard or saw them. Sometimes they moved on after just a few days. Most nights they slept under trees.
Most Pardhis today work as low-paid day laborers in urban and rural areas. Some work as farmers and others hunt deer, wild pigs, and birds, selling meat and trapped pets at local markets. The tiger hunters are relatively few. Belinda Wright, executive director of WPSI, estimates that around 500 “hardcore” poachers have at some point been involved in big-cat poaching—a very small proportion. But those who do possess “phenomenal” knowledge of tiger and leopard behavior, Wright says.
While over 40 poachers were apprehended last year, experts say they are easily replaced. “There is good money involved,” Louis says. “They have the skills to hunt and chances of getting caught by authorities are very low. They all know that even if they get caught, they get bail after a few days. In short, this game is a low risk, high profit one.”
To battle tiger poaching, local organizations have circumvented India’s famed red tape by setting up their own schools and training programs, providing alternative livelihoods, and putting the Pardhis’ knowledge of wildlife to better use. The hunters’ unique understanding of animal habitat behavior, combined with their own tracking methods, make them more qualified for conservation work than most staff working in India’s national parks.
In fact, the Pardhis could become instrumental for saving India’s tigers. Rajesh, the Pardhi former hunter, now guides an international wildlife organization through the jungles of central India that are among the country’s most promising tiger habitats. Approaching 30 years old, Rajesh still looks boyish, with bright white teeth and a childlike enthusiasm as he navigates the dense forest in bare feet. He recognizes the numbers on his cellphone only from their shape, and he can’t read the Hindi letters on his spotless white T-shirt. He has never been to school and is only just learning to write his own name. Even today, Rajesh is largely invisible to the state: After unsuccessfully applying for an ID card from the government, he still can’t vote and has no record of Indian citizenship.
Altogether, Rajesh has killed 25 to 30 tigers, the last one in 2007. Now he is hunting the hunters. His younger sister and brother, the only two of nine siblings who attended school, helped convince him of the error of his ways. They learned about the evils of poaching at school and convinced the rest of the family to quit. Rajesh’s parents became farmers and Rajesh and four of his siblings began offering tips to a global wildlife protection organization. He was offered amnesty for his past in return for insider knowledge of the poaching syndicates. Rajesh says he has secured the arrest of 20 to 30 Pardhis. He has cut ties with most members of his clan, who continue to poach, killing two to four tigers a year for the past decade in a designated reservation park. Rajesh now lives under a secret identity—the tribe has no tolerance for perceived traitors.
Still, Pardhis are often desperate for a normal, mainstream existence—a way out of a life of poaching and petty crime. The idea of a secure livelihood is a powerful incentive, says Chittaranjan David, of the World Wildlife Foundation India, who currently works with 18 Pardhi communities trying to promote the idea of pursing alternative livelihoods in Pardhi youth. “We need them to tell the others: There is someone who will support you if you settle down and give up your poaching,” David says. “You’ll have a good life, and you don’t have to commit crime again and again. You don’t have to run away continuously, because no one is hunting you.”