The rebirth of a hunter

The rebirth of a hunter

They remain nomadic, their way of life subaltern, their skills dark and felonious but a closer look at the Pardhis in MP reveals that they are a tribe of protectors, writes Nilanjan Coomar

Stork-billed kingfisher. PHOTOS BY AUTHOR

Avatar Singh smiles wryly when I ask him if he’s killed, and that smile is neither a yes nor a no. It isn’t a question you can ask easily again, so when the answer doesn’t come, and all I get in return is the smile that which fills the vaguely awkward silence, I realise that, with a man, there are certain spaces that you cannot get into and there are lines that you cannot cross. A man’s past will shield his secrets, and you can’t prise them out easily, in spite of all recent and apparent familiarity.

Fortunately, not everything about this conversation that we’ve been having — sitting on the banks of the Ken River in Panna Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh — is as tricky. Thoughts soon return to the simpler sights: back to this sunset we’re watching, the river slowly flowing past, little ripples from the small boats that are out late on the water, ending in a gentle gurgle at the bank, this winter day drawing to the softest of closures. Lapwings occasionally burst out from this calmness, their shrill alarms fading with their panicked flight. The stork billed kingfisher gets active as the dark gathers; remaining hidden, only its croaking laugh heard from time to time, still looking for the last of the fish of the day.

Avatar is our host for the night. We are at Jhinna Night Safari camp in the buffer zone of Panna Tiger Reserve. It’s a small, rustic camp that allows guests to explore the buffer zone of the tiger reserve in the night, the darkness giving a different meaning to what a forest is, and providing rare glimpses of highly nocturnal creatures like owls, porcupines, hyenas, and wolves. Part of an eco-tourism initiative that is encouraged by the forest department and the clutch of private safari lodges that operate here, this provides employment to a small section of the local population and is a must-do for those who want to go beyond the rushed experience that tiger-centric tourism can often end up as being.

What adds an edge to this is that Avatar Singh is actually a Pardhi: a nomadic tribe of poachers who’ve been hunters for centuries. They were outlawed by the British in 1871, owing to their participation in India’s first rush for freedom in 1857.

Able to read the jungle more clearly than a book, the Pardhis were adept at catching partridges, quails and antelopes, but, criminalised by the system and ostracised by rural society, they are, today, the first and desperately-poor link of the chain that is behind the multi-billion-dollar poaching and trafficking of exotic animal parts operating out of India. This stigma — that not all Pardhis are poachers, but that virtually all apprehended poachers are Pardhis — has been difficult to shake off.

They remain nomadic, their way of life subaltern, their skills dark and felonious. Misfits in this modern world, their tenuous link to it are the mobile phones on which they call the middlemen of the international poaching syndicates after their grisly work is done.

As the night deepens, more stories emerge around the campfire. Avatar recalls a cousin who was 14 when he killed his first tiger.

Caught in a crude but brutally effective paw-trap, the tiger, all 200 kilograms of it, roared and shook the earth, swiping the ground in a great storm of dust at whosoever dared to approach. In a rite of passage, the boy was told to smash the tiger’s head, but the child was consumed with fear, and so the final deliverance was a thin spear pierced through the heart. It’s messy but shooting drew too much attention and poison (pesticide) ruins the fur. The art of skinning comes next: too rough and the hide’s value drops, too slow and the noises can give you away. They cooked and ate as much of the meat as they could. And at the end of it all, about Rs 50,000 were paid out to the group that did the killing, paltry in comparison to the tens of lakhs at which a well-preserved pelt sells in the international market.

Though such stories aren’t unheard of, hearing them in person is always sobering, especially when you know that in spite of all the work and all the might of the system, such stories, though fewer, are still very much a reality today. After dinner — which was one of the most tasteful and rustic meals we’ve ever tasted — we drive out into the night for a couple of hours, scanning the jungle with searchlights. Deer and blue bull are common, but the highlight is a ghostly mottled wood owl.

Then, Avatar, skilful as he is in discerning paw-prints even in the dim light, takes us on the trail of a hyena, of which we catch a memorable glimpse, its eerie yelp sending a shiver of chill down our backs.

At one point, the vehicle’s engine is switched off and we sit in silence, the dark shapes of the tall trees all around us, the sky above speckled with a million stars, the lightest cold breeze through the forest and only the chirping of crickets punctuated occasionally by the distant sound of an Indian scops owl. We missed a leopard pair as well, but Avatar showed us the jungle that night with an eye we can never have.

We leave in the morning after our last cups of tea, saying our goodbyes to him. When we shake hands, I wish the camp all the best. Avatar is thankful. And he simply says that he expects no forgiveness from the tiger or the forest, but that, in the time that he has left, if he can help both the tiger and the forest survive, he would have forgiven himself and that would be enough redemption for him.

There might have been a hunter in Avatar, but when I look closely at him, I am sure what I can see is just a protector.

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