Hunting wild animals has been an important part of the culture of many Tribal communities and villages of India. Preventing this is a laborious task. How do you stop people from committing this crime when they don’t consider it as a crime? Whom will you imprison if 90% of the people in the village engage in hunting wild animals? And even if you try to imprison a few of the most notorious poachers of the village, none of them will even have 1000 Rupees to post bail. This was the situation in Bejjur, a small town in the corridor areas of the newly formed Telangana State.
On our journey though the corridor forests of Telenagana, I met Mr. Asarla Appaiah, a Range Officer who had a possible solution to this problem.
Mr. Appaiah was the Ranger officer of Bejjur Reserve forest from 2008 to 2012. When he was first posted in this region, he realized that the wildlife crime in that area was very high. People in this village were so used to eating wild meat, that a day’s meal would not be complete without it. In every function, it was almost mandatory that the hosts serve wild meat to all their guests. When he realized what was happening, he initially resorted to catching them and filing cases under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. But this only worsened the already negative impression which the people had about the forest department.
Protecting a forest and its wildlife is a tough job, but protecting the wildlife without the support of the local people is almost impossible. Mr. Appaiah realized that using the given protocol and guidelines would not solve the problem. He thus resorted to a new approach. He zeroed in on Gondapally and Ellur, the two villages which had the most notorious poachers.
In Gondapally he visited very house in the village along with his forest staff. He introduced himself and applied Teeka (a red powder applied on the forehead) to each and every person in the village. While applying this teeka, he took the promise from each person that they would stop hunting wild animals and cutting trees. In India the tradition of applying teeka is a common practice among relatives and family members. It is a symbol of respect. By applying teeka, Mr. Appaiah was able to create a bond with them. He showed them that he respected every one of them. He treated them as a member of his family. This approach was very impactful as it was able to spread the message that hunting was morally wrong. He also educated the women in the village about their importance in preventing poaching. Slowly, within a few months of working with the village, he was able to bring about the change in their mind set. This brought down the crime rate in that village to almost zero.
His second innovative approach was carried out in Ellur village. This was another village which had a few high profile poachers. One of them was Sambaya. Sambaya would place live high tension wires that stretched kilometers into the forest. Any animal that would cross these wires would immediately get electrocuted and die. Mr. Appaiah spoke to Sambaya’s family. His wife explained to Mr. Appaiah that all the money Sambaya would make through poaching would never come home. He would all spend the money on alcohol and physically abuse her when he got back home. She said that she is willing to support Mr. Appaiah in changing her husband. On a Sunday, Mr. Appaiah called for a public meeting. He felicitated Sambaya with garlands and told the people in the village that Sambaya, from that very moment, would never hunt again. He symbolically presented him with vegetable, suggesting that the days of hunting for Sambaya are over. In this way, he ensured that all the villagers got to know what Sambaya was involved in. This prevented him from repeating this act, as it would tarnish the respect he had now gained in his village.
It is inspiring to see the change that can be brought about by a single dedicated officer with a little creative thinking.