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Confessions of an ex-thief

india Updated: May 30, 2010 00:12 IST
Praveen Donthi

In 1940, almost 21 years after the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre, Michael O' Dwyer, the person who ordered the firing, was shot dead in London. Udham Singh, an Indian freedom fighter, despite being under police watch, managed to find a way to avenge the massacre.

Decades later in free India, when R Sivaraman, 40, living on the fringes of Periyar Tiger Reserve in a tiny Tamil Nadu village — Gudalur — had a son, he named him after Singh. "Udham Singh waited for years to take revenge. That's the kind of determination I want my son to have," he says.

Sivaraman should know. For 30 years, he has waited on treetops for hours and sometimes even walked for 100 kilometres looking for the mighty tuskers. After all, his survival depended on it. Once the male elephants were found, he'd shoot them "right behind the ears" with his self-made muzzleloader. Once the elephant collapsed, along with his gang members, he'd remove the tusks that would fetch them Rs 600 per kg in the early 1990s and nearly Rs 3,400 per kg five years later.

But today, he is a reformed man working for Vidiyal Vana Padukappu Sangam (forest conservation society), a community initiative by Tamil Nadu green movement (TGM). Currently it has 27 members, all ex-poachers, who between them have poached around 300 elephants.

So what brought on the change? Emotions of the animals, they say.

As they killed the magnificent pachyderms, they got to analyse the animals' behaviour up close.

"Elephants are very intelligent and emotional. The first time I shot a baby male elephant, I couldn't get the image out of my mind," says 45-year-old Maha Mayan, who has killed more than 80 elephants.

He elaborates that after the baby elephant is shot, the mother would transform into a doctor. She'd perform all kinds of tests — pump air with her trunk; caress the genitals for response, make it stand on all its fours, crying all the while.

"When nothing would work she'd run back and forth, checking to see if someone removed its tusk," he says. "Sometimes we had to kill the mother because she wouldn't leave."

"If animals can have so many emotions, why can't we?" asks Sivaraman. "We were poaching to feed our families. But the way the animals were behaved really had an impact on us."

But it's not easy to get off the beast.

"Because of their past, poachers don;t find jobs easily. And since they've been poaching for decades, they really don't have any other skills," says Jayachandran, of TGM. But with some help from the Tiger reserve, they now run ‘bullock cart discoveries' which take tourists to spice plantations.

And while these ex-poachers barely manage to make ends meet, they also informally form anti-poaching squads, who receive regular threats from the poachers. Despite that, they won the best eco development committee award in 2007 from Kerala Forest Department.

"My father passed on two things to me. One is Communism and the other is poaching. If we had any land, I wouldn't have poached at all," says Sivaraman.