Poacher; a call to action - Hindustan Times

Poacher; a call to action

ByMaitreyee B Chowdhury
Apr 02, 2024 08:38 PM IST

Though animal-human conflict, hunting and poaching are rarely addressed in mainstream politics, films that highlight these issues, like Poacher, make an impact

The year was 1982, my sister had just been born, and I, a small child myself, lay in the dark with my father in our wooden-floored house. It was 10.30 at night and just a while before, we had received a call from a neighbour warning us about the herd of elephants headed our way.

A herd of wild Indian elephants at Corbett National Park (Shutterstock) PREMIUM
A herd of wild Indian elephants at Corbett National Park (Shutterstock)

Living in the area of Digboi in upper Assam, that was part of a national park, meeting wild animals was normal for us. The place is rich in biodiversity and sees a lot of animal movement, especially of the Asian elephant that often traces its path from these hills onto the paddy fields of lower Assam. But this was to be my first major contact with the majestic mammals. Our neighbour had warned us that the number of elephants could exceed 40, and that there were also a couple of baby elephants, which meant the herd would be on high alert. The standing instructions from the Department of Forests during such instances was to switch off our lights and stay as quiet as possible. My father and I lay on our stomachs and waited with bated breath for the elephant tread that we knew would surely come soon.

A publicity still for Poacher (Prime Video)
A publicity still for Poacher (Prime Video)

Every year Baba grew sweet peas. The stems were tender and sweet, with tiny blue and white flowers sprouting just before the pods made an appearance. Along the fence, he had also planted various kinds of banana trees, that gave the house a sense of privacy. Within the next 10 minutes, we could make out the shadows of the elephants that had taken over our backyard. One by one, the banana plants were uprooted and savoured, the peas trampled upon. Aghast at the devastation of our garden, I looked angrily at my father. Baba had a faint smile. He whispered in the dark, “The first right is theirs, always. Never forget that.” Later that night, the elephants had travelled further down the hills to the paddy fields near the town of Margherita – a distance of about 20 km. There, they had trampled over ripe crops, angering the villagers, who lit fire torches and shot airguns to scare them. My lessons at subjective realities began here. What was a matter of indulgence for our family (since we weren’t commercial crop growers) would be a matter of daily bread for farmers down the hill.

The history of animal-human conflict in forest areas is nothing new. Over the years, though, it has emerged as a complex problem, one that is often unaddressed, leading to increasing incidents of anger on both sides. Also, given the fact that very little attention is paid to these incidents as well as to animal welfare, hunting and poaching, in our national forest policymaking and mainstream politics, films with a mass media appeal that highlight these issues, make an impact. A case in point is the web series Poacher by Canadian film maker Richie Mehta.

The series pegs its storyline on real life crimes related to elephant poaching and ivory smuggling unearthed in 2015. The dramatisation in the script focuses on the enforcement and investigation conducted by the Kerala Forest Department in effectively exposing and dismantling a dangerous network involved in ivory smuggling in India.

According to the 1972 Wildlife Protection Act, poaching, trafficking and trading of elephants and ivory in India is prohibited. And yet, poaching has remained a constant threat to Indian elephants numbered at about 29,000 under present estimates. Elephants have historic memory power, and their patterns of migration are often governed by this memory that has been followed through the generations. India’s rampant and indiscriminate modernisation has led to further conflicts between man and animal. Areas that were earlier covered by jungles have been urbanised, leading to confusion and panic in the minds of these majestic creatures. Added to this is the constant threat of being chased by poachers, which has led them to move out of their core zones.

Sherni (2021) starring Vidya Balan engaged with the matter of saving the tiger while also looking at man-animal conflict. (Publicity still)
Sherni (2021) starring Vidya Balan engaged with the matter of saving the tiger while also looking at man-animal conflict. (Publicity still)

Elephants are revered across India and are considered a manifestation of the popular god Ganesha. But while religion might have protected this animal to a certain extent, the lure of good money and threats of dire consequences from international traders and prominent locals adds to the pressure on poor forest dwellers. Ecologically speaking, elephants have always been regarded as the engineers of the forest. They help change ecosystems, create waterholes with their magnitude, open up forests and more. And yet, in spite of their status as divine engineers, both poachers and regular people are killing elephants. Forest officials are worried because the idea that these animals are connected to divinity is vanishing fast. This is resulting in more killings and easier routes to poaching.

Poacher is an incredibly well-made series, one that not only highlights the heinous killing of many elephants, but also sheds light on the brains behind such activities, often governed by a well-oiled machinery of politicians, businessmen, and local thugs. Credit is due to the film maker and the film’s cast, who not only handled the story sensitively but also managed to deliver a work that is richly nuanced. Throughout the series, the shadow of the animals, and the spirit of the jungle itself looms large on what is depicted on screen. The jungle almost becomes a character that speaks out loud. The appearance of different animals on screen is always accompanied by information about that particular species. In a subtle departure from Westernised documentaries or films based on hard facts, Poacher retains a soft sense of mystery that highlights the dilemma of right and wrong in the killing of an animal that is deeply connected to religious belief in the subcontinent. The multilingual aspect of the show flows naturally, presenting the reality of India as a country of many languages and showcasing the pluralism of our existence. The subtle references to the north-south divide, the lives and dedication of forest officers, the heroism associated with local huntsmen, are all aspects that make Poacher relatable. The beauty of the dense jungle, the sudden witnessing of elephants moving through it, the government officials forming unlikely collaborations with locals, and ordinary people coming forward to help the cause, throw light on the individual’s propensity to be moved when it comes to working towards something that is larger than themselves.

Roshan Seth and Leela Naidu in Electric Moon (1992) (Courtesy IMDB)
Roshan Seth and Leela Naidu in Electric Moon (1992) (Courtesy IMDB)

I spoke to well-known ecologist, S Faizi, who specialises in international environmental policy, about elephant poaching in India, and the future of conservation. He believes elephant poaching has drastically decreased. According to him, the ivory trade is now struggling because of the strong sanctions against it. This is despite the fact that southern African nations have mostly opposed those sanctions as a large part of their revenue, including funds allocated for conservation, comes from the trade. He warns against sensationalising conservation especially when it comes to “charismatic animals such as elephants or even tigers”, and says caution must be exerted in sifting stories from facts.

Still, barring a few exceptions, there aren’t too many films that aim to raise awareness about poaching or man-animal conflict. Sherni (2021) is one such exception that engaged with the matter of saving the tiger while also looking at man-animal conflict. In this context, Pradeep Krishen’s Electric Moon (1992) was a film that was ahead of its time. The story is centred on a fading family of former royals operating a wildlife resort that lures foreign tourists into an oriental fantasy of tiger hunting. The humour lies in the fact that it is these families, once inveterate hunters, who later turned into conservationists, mostly to maintain their own image. This topsy-turvy relationship of speaking for the conservation of the animals when convenient, and bending the rules to accommodate their own fantasies otherwise, sets the conversation rolling about wildlife conservation and its many associated problems.

Many experts believe that, rather than imposing a total ban on hunting animals, it would be more sensible to set up strict regulations. This theory holds that allowing permit-based hunting of animals, whose numbers often grow too large, would help in maintaining better records of animal populations. Whether these suggestions are practical remains to be seen. It is, however, necessary to find solutions to the immediate problems of poaching, training of forest officials, information sharing, and the execution of faster action involving local help.

Talking of local assistance, Anay Tarnekar’s beautiful film, The Kill (2016), showcased a poor Adivasi’s deep fascination for the jungle and the tiger that makes him an in-demand person, even while he is incapable of doing any work. The deep sense of ownership that locals have about the jungle and the creatures within it must be nurtured. That’s when the greater job of protecting animals and the jungle becomes an act of togetherness.

In that sense, Poacher is a nuanced take on a gritty fight that we humans must fight if we are to save our environment.

Maitreyee B Chowdhury is a poet, and editor of The Bangalore Review

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