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Their job profiles come with the highest risk, their lives are in constant danger from poachers and illegal wildlife traders; yet neither has ever thought of quitting their work. K, P and M form the Forest Protection Squad of Sathyamangalam Wildlife Sanctuary. Their squad is a wing of the Forest Department that works to curb illegal wildlife trade.
Masters of disguiseThey do not dress in uniform, carry weapons, or patrol the forests to protect wildlife. Instead, they could be one of the guys at the tea stall dressed in plain clothes or a farmer in a lungi chatting with his community or a dealer searching for wildlife products in the market. Every day, they play a different character to mingle with the players in wildlife trade, and interact with local communities to develop an informant network around Sathyamangalam Wildlife Sanctuary. They must ensure they are not recognized as forest guards at any time, as they always work under cover! Their main job is to collect information about illegal trade activities, and work with the Forest Department to conduct seizures by acting on any clues they find. In the last three years since the team has been working together, their efforts have resulted in the arrest of 16 individuals in different cases such as possession of tiger and leopard skin, elephant tusks and bones, illegal weapons, and red sand boas.
In the death trapThe team particularly remembers one seizure operation of nabbing elephant poachers. M, the most experienced member of the squad,recounts “It was a case where we had got information about a gang of poachers dealing with elephant tusks. We planned the operation wherein we approached them as buyers for the elephant tusks. Convincing the poachers that we really meant business, we spend a lot of time bargaining them down for the price, and when they finally revealed the tusks, one of us informed the Forest Department team, who got ready to raid the place. Throughout the operation, we were at risk of getting caught as frauds by the poachers.”
The team is lucky to be alive to tell this tale. In all such operations, they let themselves get arrested by the Forest Department, so they look like a part of the trading community. This ensures the poachers never suspect they are working against them, and they can continue their work towards reducing illegal trade and poaching, which is the biggest threat to wild tigers in the world today.
*The faces of the team members have been blurred and their names changed to protect their identities while working undercover.
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