Read about a chance encounter during a trek, an unexpected reaction and a quick move that helped save a pangolin.
After a couple of showers, the summer heat had come down a bit. It was a rainy morning on March 16th, 2018 and I was working in my farm when my cousin called me and suggested we go for a trek up our gudda (hill in Kannada). After some discussion we decided to trek around noon. I had a quick lunch and reached my brother’s house which is located just on the edge of the hill. Even though he has been living there for years, he had no idea how to reach the top of the hill. In fact he had never explored the forest behind his house. My uncle suggested we take a local tribal with us who knows every inch of the forest. He called him and asked if he could accompany us for the trek to the peak and the guy he agreed. Around 2.30 post-noon we both went to his house and parked our car there.
We took our bags, water bottle, binoculars and started moving towards the forest. It’s a beautiful, moist deciduous forest and the day was cloudy and pleasant. After few showers in peak summer the whole forest had turned lush green. As we were approaching the forest, it started raining again.
It’s not a tourist place, nor is it a place visited by people regularly. It’s a forest near a small village where only local people go to collect firewood or forest products. Other than the locals, the only people who visit the forest are the poachers. Hunting of wild pig is frequent and is even considered a cultural norm by many people in the Western Ghats. Poaching of other mammals like Sambar deer, Muntjacs, mouse-deer and spotted deer is done stealthily. Some sell the meat, some distribute it among themselves.
We climbed for 45 mins and it wasn’t an easy path. There were no signs of any beaten track that we could follow. The local tribal who had come with us as a guide was navigating inside this deep forest with just one local-made sickle. After a few minutes I observed some leaves dumped in one place. Initially, I did not understand what it was. When I asked our local guide about it, he explained to me that it was a hide-out made by poachers to sit behind and shoot at prey. He told me how poachers come to the forest, build such hide-outs near a stream or an animal path and wait for animals to pass by. I believed this after I found another one just alongside an animal path. A few steps away I found porcupine spines. It was very clear that poachers had killed a porcupine and cleaned the spines and carried the body for meat.
Porcupine quills spotted inside forest
We had climbed seventy percent of the way to the top and found a beautiful small water pond with no water. Nearby was a small stream flowing downhill. Close to this water source, we found some stone stoves and half burnt firewood. We even found a full pack of salt, which was a clear sign of camping of poachers inside a notified state forest. We took some photos and started moving towards the peak.
When we started gaining elevation, the vegetation was changing from what was seen at the bottom. It was an evergreen forest with very low light hitting the ground.
Moist deciduous forest
I was enjoying the beauty and serenity of the forest. The local guy was leading in front and my brother was in the middle while I was trailing behind the two. We were walking with difficulty and suddenly I noticed something unusual just a few feet away. It was so well camouflaged that the other two had missed it totally.
While keeping my distance, I took a good look and realized that it was the critically endangered species Indian Pangolin. It was my first sighting of a pangolin in the wild. I could not see the pangolin’s face as it was bent down. I called my brother by whistling. He too was surprised to see the pangolin and called the local guy to show him.
The local guy saw the pangolin and was overjoyed. I thought he shared my excitement to spot this endangered animal. His tone turned remorseful as he yelled, “One Lakh! How did I miss spotting that one lakh Rupees!” He started moving towards Pangolin with his sickle raised. His reaction was so quick that I had no time to think. As soon as I realized his intentions, I grabbed his hand and twisted it to get the sickle from him. Luckily I managed to stop him from killing it for scales and meat. He continued arguing with me to let him kill it. Somehow my brother and I convinced him against and we continued on our trek.
We reached the peak but he did not stop blaming me for the monetary loss I had caused him by saving the Pangolin. After spending a few minutes on the top (peak elevation 1100mtrs) we started moving down. Around 1830hrs we reached down and bid goodbye to the local guy and drove back.
After a wonderful rainy day spent trekking, I was very happy to see the blooming forest but what made my day had been the saving of the most illegally trafficked and poached mammal in the world. In fact I was surprised by the act of the local guy who lives in a remote place on the edges of the beautiful forest. Yes, he knows about the price and market value for scales of a pangolin. I wondered how big must be the pangolin trafficking industry. How strong must be the trafficking links? It left me with the fear that the guy would go back, try to find it and kill it.
This reaction of a tribe and the poaching signs inside the state forest disturbed me. Being a wildlife enthusiast, I’m involved in a local conservation group. However, I needed expert advice and I called my mentor D V Girish, founder of WildCat-C and explained the incident to him. He suggested I talk to the local forest department staff and inform them about the sighting. I did as advised and requested the staff to increase protection.
In addition to the government effort, it will be extremely helpful if we can get support from the local tribal communities in conserving the flora and fauna. These people have better knowledge of the forest than anyone else. It is also all of our responsibility to conserve the wildlife around us. If we can actively engage the tribal community and educate them about the implications of mindless poaching, it will make a huge difference in saving the wildlife population.
Written by Madhu Makkikoppa Venkatesh