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Researcher remembers time of terror
Rujuta Paradkar in Mumbai | October 21, 2004 19:42 IST
"In April 1997, we were returning in a jeep from a meeting with the villagers. It was 8.30 at night. We just weren't anticipating any attack by Veerappan's gang," remembered Prashant Mahajan, a wildlife enthusiast who joined the Bombay Natural History Society in 1993 as research assistant.
Mahajan and his group studied elephant migration and human-animal conflict in the forests on the Tamil Nadu-Karnataka border for six years. But in between they had to face a fearsome foe – the bandit Veerappan. His gang attacked Mahajan in 1997 and abducted his colleagues the following year.
Coverage: The Veerappan Saga Ends
Mahajan, who is currently in charge of the Conservation Education Centre at the BNHS, revisited those frightening moments.
"I was working in the Mudumalai wildlife sanctuary, which is on the border of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Kerala. The BNHS was doing research on elephants. We were a team conducting public awareness programmes on elephant conservation.
"The gang attacked us, but Veerappan was not to be seen. His brother Arjun headed the team comprising 10 other men. They had guns and were very aggressive. They suddenly appeared from nowhere and held us at gunpoint. They had been told that we were forest officers.
"Arjun searched our vehicle to see what we were carrying. One of our assistant researchers, Chanda, was from the tribal community. And they knew him. He tried to convince them that we were just PhD students doing research in the forests.
"But reasoning with the gangsters wasn't easy. It took an hour, or more. After a lot of effort and convincing, they let us go.
"All of us were petrified. We had managed to escape near death."
But that wasn't their last encounter with the bandit. Veerappan and his men would strike again, just a year later.
"It was raining that night in July 1998," Mahajan said. "Two of my colleagues, who are wildlife photographers, Krupaker and Senani, had come to visit me. They were staying in a guesthouse a few kilometres away in Bandipur village. They were filming wildlife for BNHS.
"That night, Veerappan struck. He and eight of his men barged in and ransacked the guesthouse. They took a lot of things, including their camera. They wanted to know where the forest officers were living and perhaps abduct them. Veerappan thought Krupaker and Senani were government officers and decided to abduct them.
"When he took them away, we didn't know what would follow.
"The next day, Veerappan and his gang stopped a bus 4km away from the guesthouse. He emptied the entire bus, abducted a scientist, and disappeared."
The news soon spread and by late morning everyone knew three persons, including Mahajan's friends, had been abducted.
"They made them walk the whole day," said Mahajan, quoting his colleagues. "They never halted in one place more than a night; they were always on the move. We were very worried for 15 days. No one knew what would happen."
But they got lucky and survived to tell the tale. "During their time together," he said, "my friends built up a rapport with Veerappan. They told him about the wildlife research they were doing. They discussed a lot of wildlife issues, ahimsa and Gandhi as well! Krupaker and Senani tried to convince him that they were not government officials and merely wildlife photographers. Veerappan's people had their stolen camera. They had eight rolls and filmed the incident.
"After 15 days they were released by Veerappan, since no one came to rescue them. Veerappan didn't get any ransom from the government as he had been expecting."
Six years on, Mahajan received an SMS on Monday from a colleague in Tamil Nadu: Veerappan is dead. He switched on the television to confirm the report. When he saw the news flash, he was disturbed. The terrors of the past came flooding back, and didn't allow him to sleep that night.
"I had such mixed feelings," he said. "I was happy that Veerappan was dead. It would have been better if he were captured alive. But I was also deeply disturbed why it had taken such a long time to get justice. But I know it is not really over. There are many other poachers who are less media-savvy. The cruelty to wildlife continues. There are many more Veerappans we need to deal with."
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