In this area of wooded hills, slippery dirt tracks and villages hidden behind thick green cover, getting a lead on poachers is not easy. Here a cluster of villages – Hanol, Chadra, Tiuni, Parola – have become the epicenter of poaching, especially of leopards, musk deers and bears. Located on the border of Uttarakhand’s Govind Wildlife Sanctuary – a valley through which the Tons River flows, the villages are also close to the state’s boundary with Himachal Pradesh. Their location gives a perfect cover to the poachers who kill at will and vanish.
These criminals have their eyes everywhere . Laying a trap for them by trying to strike a ‘deal’ for animal skin can lead to one getting hunted himself. During two such ‘deals’ in 2011, Sharma had almost got lynched when the poachers realized that it was a trap. For an enforcement agent, entering a village alone is dangerous . “Almost every house here has at least one leopard skin. But going into the villages is risky because the villagers can spot the headlights of an approaching car from a distance and alert the poachers ,” says Sharma.
But the villagers too are victims of their conditions. Dependent on farming and animal husbandry, they have been trapped in poverty for as long as they can remember. In this area, where the poachers call the shots, the villagers or the actual hunters hardly make any money. The real killing is made by the middle-men and traders who deal with their rich buyers at home and abroad.
Chasing a lead, we meet Sharma’s informers who update us on two ‘deals’ they have struck. One involves two villagers who have killed a leopard and want to trade the skin; the other deal involves Shyam Prasad, a notorious poacher who has already been arrested twice.
It has taken the informer months to win Prasad’s confidence. The criminal has a dried gall bladder or the bear-bile (BB) of a Himalayan black bear. The BB is small enough to fit in one’s palm. Used in Chinese traditional medicine, its demand has almost trebled here because of tightening of screws in China over the cruel practice of bile farming from live, caged bears. So, now it’s being supplied from India. “He’s had it for a while. But he’s smart. He’s hinted that he might have a leopard skin on him and the BB is just a test to confirm the authenticity of the buyer,” whispers the informer. This revelation is followed by another from Sharma. Prasad’s wife worked with the radio section of the forest department and in the past he has managed to avoid arrest because of crucial information leaked to him.
Next day, the informer returns. “I know where the bear-bile is hidden and he’s ready to sell it. But we’ll have to go into his house.” On hearing this, Sharma springs into action and informs the forest department officials and police about the lead on the poacher. They are willing to help, but the risks of working in these villages with limited resources makes them jittery. But Sharma has a plan: the informer would get Prasad “ready” and the team would walk out of the village before the villagers set up a resistance.