They aim to save: Meet India’s authorised hunters
They rein in man-eaters and pull the trigger as a last option. This tough job has earned them admirers and critics.
Rage drove Lakhpat Singh Rawat to his first kill. It was 2001. A leopard, believed to have killed 12 people, mostly children, had created terror in Uttarakhand’s Chamoli district. The sighting of a big cat in markets, on rooftops and highways is far more common now—it leaves people terrified, but it is not considered unusual. Back then, when the Chamoli man-eater allegedly killed a dozen people, leaving behind mauled bodies, it was very much out of the ordinary. A trained marksman, Rawat possessed a licensed gun and had won the district-level shooting competition. Frequent killings, attributed to the leopard, left him worried for his life and those of his children. “It could attack anyone anywhere at any time. Villagers used to take turns to sleep,” says 55-year-old Rawat, district education officer in Garsain town.
Rawat recalls that the Uttarakhand forest department had picked four shooters from other states to catch the leopard, and if the need arose, kill it. When they failed, Rawat told the department that he should be given a chance. The Chief Wildlife Warden (CWLW) issued him a permit. Rawat traced pugmarks, analysed corpses to look for bite marks, spoke to families who had lost someone to a wild animal, and camped in the jungle. It took him eight months to kill the leopard.
Almost two decades and 55 kills later, Rawat remains one of the most sought after authorised hunters who assist the state government in tackling, and when required, eliminating, problem animals.
The man-animal conflict is at an all-time high in India (data below). In many cases, the forest department is able to contain the fury of people in affected areas by caging, tranquilising, or rehabilitating the animal. In others, hunters such as Lakhpat Rawat are roped in.
Most of the authorised hunters were into shooting— some were experienced wildlife hunters —before they began tackling animals for the government (hunting for sport was banned in 1972). Every passing year, the government’s dependence on them increases in spite of the fact that their involvement in wildlife operations regularly comes under scrutiny.
“Private hunters are called in when we have tried every other resort including tranquilising. When there is a public outcry over killings by big cats, they play an important role in confidence building,” says Parag Dhakate, conservator of forests, western circle, Uttarakhand.
KILLERS OR SAVIOURS?
Authorised shooters think of their role as no less than that of conservationists. Rawat says that for every animal he kills, he indirectly saves many others. “If I don’t rescue or eliminate the man-eater, people will kill any leopard or tiger they spot. They cannot distinguish between a troublesome beast and a normal one. However, we are always perceived as killers rather than saviours,” he says.
Prashant Singh, a Dehradun-based dentist, got himself registered with the Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh forest departments after trophy hunting in Africa and Argentina for a decade. Singh says that he has never felt elated after killing a wild animal. But when he meets affected families, he finds motivation. “People don’t understand that the shooter is not a trigger-happy, half-crazy devil but a person who understands animal behaviour and does so out of his passion for saving human lives,” says Singh. “We have created man-eaters. We could not manage our forests because of which we find animals in our living spaces. Three of the leopards that I killed had empty stomachs. They are desperate when they kill humans. We have left them with no option,” he adds.
In hunting, the challenge is not confined to tracing the animal. Pauri (Uttarakhand) based hunter Joy Hukil shows a video shot in Devprayag — around 100 people can be seen standing around a caged leopard. “They wanted me to kill it. I was convinced that it was not a man-eater. It was quite a task to persuade villagers that we are not supposed to kill every animal we come across,” he says. Hukil has killed 31 leopards and one tiger. “Galat baagh maar diya aapne” (you have killed the wrong animal) is a response he often gets from people. “There are people who get to see a big cat for a fraction of a second, based on which they create an image in their minds. When the animal is killed, they match it with what they have seen or think they have seen,” says Hukil. “It is only after a month or two, when there are no more casualties, that they start to believe that the problem animal was eliminated,” he adds.
EASY WAY OUT
The idea of hiring private hunters to check cases of man-animal conflict is increasingly becoming controversial. Sandeep K Tiwari, wildlife biologist and conservationists, Wildlife Trust of India, says, “Involving private shooters raises multiple questions in the minds of the public and conservationists who are not trained to see if the animal is really dangerous and can be given a chance or it should be taken into captivity.”
According to Gauri Maulekhi, member, management committee, National Institute of Animal Welfare, “The forest department has a mandate to save wildlife. Instead, the department covers up its mismanagement by using wildlife as a political tool and appeasement of people by getting animals killed through private hunters.”
STORY OF T1
Perhaps no other authorised shooters have faced criticism like the Hyderabad-based father-son duo Nawab Shafath Ali Khan and Asghar Ali Khan, who were part of the team which pursued tigress T1 or Avni, supposed to have killed 13 people in Maharashtra’s Yavatmal district.
On November 2, 2018, Asghar fired the shot that killed Avni, ending a chase which lasted for two years.
In the backdrop of the widespread outrage over the killing, the Maharashtra government formed an inquiry committee to probe if norms were violated during the operation. Among other irregularities, the committee found that the Wildlife Protection Act was violated as the chief conservator of forest (territorial) hired the hunters and not the authorised officer i.e. the CWLW. Khan counters the committee’s findings. “This is not the first time that the chief conservator of forest asked for our participation. It has happened before also, at least in two cases. It is in compliance of the order issued by the CWLW. Let us assume that there was an error on the part of authorities, how can you blame the hunter for that?” says Khan.
The Maharashtra forest department closed the case earlier this month.
—With inputs from Nihi Sharma in Dehradun