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BHORAMDEO, India—Rajesh was only 10 years old when he killed his first tiger, and 20 years later, he still remembers it vividly.
He was frightened. The tiger, a paw caught in a foot trap, was furious. The boy’s father said there wasn’t much time. First, Rajesh (a pseudonym) smashed the tiger’s head with a stick, but it remained conscious. Other hunters attacked the animal with thin spears as the boy stabbed through the tiger’s mouth down its throat. Then, piercing its ribs, he aimed for the heart.
Rajesh’s tribe, a sub-clan of the Pardhi tribe, hunted as their ancestors had—a dangerous but effective strategy refined and handed down over generations. Shooting drew too much attention, and bullet holes decreased the value of the hide. Poisoning, a cheap and easy method often used by villagers in retaliation for killed cattle, risked ruining the fur. Instead they used homemade spears and traps, forged by nomadic blacksmiths over campfires. The community took great pride in its quiet hunting techniques, for a Bengal tiger is no easy kill. An adult weighs between 240 to 500 pounds and measures 7 to 9 feet head to tail, one of the largest tiger subspecies in the world.
Outside India, the Pardhi community is virtually unknown. But almost all of India’s tigers are poached by its tribesmen: an anachronistic, nomadic people whose primary link to the 21st century is the mobile phones on which they call the middlemen of the international poaching syndicates. Although exotic animal parts have become a multi-billion-dollar global business, the first link of the chain remains desperately poor societal outcasts. Inside India, the Pardhi tribe has long been synonymous with criminality and lawlessness.
It wasn’t always the case. The Pardhi were once prized for their exceptional skills handling exotic wildlife and their knowledge of India’s jungles. During the Raj era, the Pardhis assisted in royal tiger hunts and trained the now extinct Asiatic cheetahs, which they kept as pets and hunting companions. Even their name is believed to stem from the Marathi word for hunting—paradh.
Today, hunting any animal is illegal in India and the Pardhis have been driven to a destitute existence on the fringes of society. Few options and lax enforcement of India’s wildlife protection laws and surging demand for animal parts in China have motivated some tribesmen to hold on to their traditions.
After Rajesh’s first kill, the tribe went to work on the carcass, quickly and systematically. Skinning is an art. If done too roughly, the hide’s value would decrease. Too slow and nearby villagers might hear. The children were warned to stay absolutely silent. The tribe tried to synchronize their excursions with the full moon to ensure they could see in the night.
The pelt was separated from the flesh—jaw to paws to tail—with thin saw blades, and the muscles cut loose from the bones. Doused in salt for preservation, the skeleton was wrapped in the skin and hidden under a tree for at least 24 hours. Meanwhile, Rajesh’s father dialed a number on his cellphone to arrange the sale—a rare interaction with the outside world. The parcel would sell for 42,000 to 50,000 Indian rupees (approximately $700 to $830), which would be divided between the clan members.
That night, they ate as much tiger meat as they could. Cooked in a curry, it was similar to mutton, only softer. For strength and stamina—according to the tribe’s superstitions—they started with the heart. Then the most tender parts—flank, ribs, and thighs. What the tribe couldn’t finish, they threw away. The kill would give them enough cash to eat for some time.
Today, most dead tigers end up in China, but the road there is long. India itself has virtually no demand. After the Pardhi tribesmen kill the animal, Maoist guerillas, Nepali smugglers, and other middlemen transport various parts across the Himalayas or through Burma before reaching China, where they fetch astronomical prices due to the animal’s perceived benefits for health and virility. Entire skeletons soak in gigantic tanks to make tiger bone wine, believed to increase vitality, or qi. Skins become interior decorations and claws are made into lucky charms. Even the animal’s feces is used in Chinese traditional medicine.
Not all Pardhis poach, but virtually all tiger poaching in India involves Pardhis. Soft-spoken and shy, Rajesh doesn’t seem like a natural-born killer, but in a country where career paths are still often hereditary, hunting, he says, was in his blood. He has since quit, and agreed to tell his story on condition of strict anonymity; he still lives under the constant threat of reprisals from the clan he left behind.
Like many of the socioeconomic challenges facing India today, the Pardhis’ unfortunate situation is rooted in colonialism. The British outlawed Pardhis in the 1871 Criminal Tribes Act—effectively marking them as criminals as birth because of their caste. The measure sparked a witch hunt against the community that still lingers. Though the Pardhis were relieved of this label and elevated to “nomadic tribe” status in 1952, the stigma has yet to wash off.
“The level of disenfranchisement of the Pardhis, even in contemporary India, is dreadful,” says Gaurang R. Sahay, an expert on the Pardhis and an associate professor at Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai. Sahay notes that the group’s living conditions have not improved in line with those of other tribal communities, despite official attempts at affirmative action. “The government effort on this count is highly inadequate. That is why the Pardhis are still by and large extremely poor, illiterate, and marginalized.”
No one knows with certainty how many Pardhis exist today. Estimates tend to hover around 150,000 to 200,000, though this may be conservative. The majority of Pardhis live in central India, their ancestral home, but permanent settlements are still rare, mostly concentrated around national parks and forests. A growing number now dwell in Mumbai’s slums.