Once poachers now guards

A forest guard sets out on his nightly patrol in the Periyar Tiger Reserve (ptr) in Kerala's Idukki district with the most unlikely companion: a former smuggler of vayana, the bark of the cinnamon tree. The two appear to get along well especially that now both are on the same side of the law. After a while, the ex-poacher suddenly stops and motions to his senior colleague. They can hear the almost inaudible thud of an axe. Approaching the direction the sound came from, they see a man walking away quickly, with a large piece of sandalwood. A walkie-talkie relays the message to a ranger. The patrol team is beefed up and the forest thief accosted and overpowered.

Fully aware of the modus operandi of poachers and knowing the reserve like the back of their hands, ex-poachers are valuable assets. Every evening, one of them goes to the local bus stop in Kumily, the town closest to the reserve, and surveys the crowds for suspects known from their earlier days. The old network now works for the forest department (fd).

How did this come about? In 1997, fd personnel caught a few people collecting vayana bark illicitly from ptr. fd offered to drop cases against them and instead asked them to lend their services in protecting the reserve. They were told they would also be trained in different ecotourism-related activities.

The bark collectors were in a tight spot and accepted the offer. "We were running away from here and some of us had escaped to Tamil Nadu. We could not come back as there were at least 15 cases pending against each of us. It was then we decided to give up our activities,'' says M M Naushad, who is the chairperson of the ex- vayana ecodevelopment committee (edc) formed in 1998.

The ex- vayana edc was set up with an initial project fund of Rs 3.5 lakh under the India Ecodevelopment Project (iedp). The edc has 21 members who not only patrol the forest but are also involved with several ecotourism projects. The earnings from ecotourism activities are pooled into a community development fund (cdf) from which each edc member gets a monthly salary of Rs 4,000.

Like the ex- vayana edc, several other edcs were formed with local groups/communities/villages under the World Bank-funded iedp. The project targeted conservation by providing people living inside, and on the periphery of wildlife parks with sustainable livelihoods. The project began at ptr in 1998 and ended in 2002, but was extended for two more years. Subsequently, the Kerala government set up the Periyar Foundation to be run as a trust to carry forward the work begun under iedp.

Poaching declines
The formation of edcs saw a sharp drop in poaching as the economic state of the local people improved with earnings from ecotourism programmes. Besides, the edc members, also involved in the protection of ptr resources, have a detailed knowledge of the forest (see graph: Turnaround).

"There were two cases of ivory poaching that we stopped.

Hundreds of sandalwood smugglers have been caught, at least 500 of them, and the smuggling of cinnamon tree bark has also been checked (since 1998),' says M S Surendran, a member of the ex- vayana edc. Surendran recently availed a loan of Rs 75,000 from the cdf to get his daughter married. (see table: Local gains)

Ask about poaching incidents at ptr and you hear the common refrain : "Not for some time now.' Forest guards have to think hard about when the last incident occurred. They say it was probably in 1997 when they caught poachers carrying ivory.

What about the tigers? According to Pramod Krishnan, deputy director of Project Tiger, only three incidents of tiger poaching occurred over the past two decades, for which the evidence is mere hearsay. "One in the mid 1980s, another in the late 1990s in Mangaladevi and another in 1994 at Pambavalley-Koruthodu where villagers hacked a tiger dead,' he adds. The last tiger census in 2002 at ptr put their number at 29 plus or minus three. Sightings of the animal are frequent. Krishnan files away two notes on tiger sighting with a satisfactory "good'. The records of forest offences at his office in ptr mostly show a downward trend over the years (see table: Law reigns).

Community shield
Not to be left behind, the local women have formed a body called Vasanta Sena to look after ptr. The Vasanta Sena comprises 100 women belonging to eight different edcs who form groups of seven and patrol the forest on a rotation basis from 10 am to 4 pm daily. Carrying bags with the ptr logo, members of the Vasanta Sena come from the nearby villages. The day this Down To Earth correspondent met them, they had jotted down in the entry book that a sandalwood tree had been felled.

The women do not get any salary for tending the forests. They do it in reciprocity for benefits accrued through the iedp that gave each family a loan of Rs 12,500 at the start of the project through their respective edcs. The loans repaid went into cdf, which in turn helped setting up of self help groups, benefiting the community.

Communties: a crucial link
Unlike in other reserves where iedp merely resulted in luring tribals out of their homes in the forest with utensils, sewing machines and sundry other items, the experience in ptr has been quite different. Here fd has not severed the connections fringe communities have with the forests. Instead, it has made them a crucial link in protected area management through edcs.

It was in 1998 that the Kerala government gave orders to constitute edcs at the community level. The edcs working for ptr are of three types:

• Neighbourhood-based edcs: constituted in hamlets with 50-80 households. The investments went towards building community assets such as schools and provision stores and for generating livelihood.

• User group edcs: for people who depend on a particular resource within ptr, such as graziers and fuelwood gatherers. These edcs are meant to reduce the adverse impact on ptr by providing such groups with an alternative source of livelihood.

• Professional group edcs: for groups who have acquired specific skills in tourism. These edc s have been able to generate a regular monthly income from the forests itself and forest protection is one of their objectives.

ptr has four professional edcs