What does a poacher do when he has hung up his boots and surrendered his guns?
At the Periyar Tiger Reserve located along the Tamil Nadu-Kerala border, he dons a government uniform and leads tourists and adventure-seekers into the very forests where he once hunted animals for their furs, skins and body parts.
In an experimental scheme that has boosted the anti-poaching campaign in the two southern states and helped curb the smuggling of animal skins and parts, a group of 40 former poachers has been roped in by the state governments by offering them jobs as tourist guides and patrol personnel.
The scheme got off to a wobbly start in 1998 as Periyar officials had reservations about letting hardened poachers, some with many cases pending against them, into the core areas of the reserve where protected animals and forest products like sandalwood and cinnamon are found.
But after one-and-half years of monitoring and psychological training, the former poachers have 'turned out to be the best intelligence agents working in sync with the state police as they know the whereabouts of smugglers and how their rings work,' Periyar Deputy Director Padma Mohanty told PTI.
"We offered them a chance to come into the mainstream, a better life for their children and financial security. We initially set up small entrepreneurship projects for them like barber shops or tailoring shops," she said.
But these ventures did not work for the poachers, who shied away from any job that took them away from the lush greens of the wilderness. Finally, the forest officials hit upon the ingenious idea of
Twenty-one reformed poachers were trained under an eco-tourism development programme on the Kerala side of the tiger reserve, and 20 more are undergoing similar training in Tamil Nadu after the success of the first phase of the project.
Almost 90 sq km of the Periyar reserve's boundaries are shared by Tamil Nadu and Kerala. But the going has not been smooth for most of the former poachers.
Apart from receiving threats from smugglers working inside the forests, the social transformation has also been bumpy. The head poacher of the Tamil Nadu team deserted from the programme and remains at large, Mohanty said.
"But mostly, they are elated to be back in the mainstream, to have a steady income and finally do away with the constant hide-and-seek with the police," she said.
Their salaries vary from Rs 2,000 to Rs 4,000 a month, depending on the type of work they do. Pending cases against most of them have been dropped by the states and they are allowed to maintain their own separate businesses.
The poachers are allowed to take groups of five tourists, along with armed guards, into the eight to 10 sq km of area within the reserve open to the public. Most of the core regions where tigers breed are out-of-bounds to anyone other than Periyar officials.
At night, the former poachers join 'jungle patrols' along with forest guards and trek through the reserve to curb the hunting of animals and smuggling of forest products, Mohanty said.