The stage was set to honour distinguished personalities near Baripada city of Northern Odisha, about 40 kilometres from the UNESCO World Heritage site of Similipal Biosphere Reserve. Among the local luminaries of medicine, art, music, literature and other fields of excellence was a petite man in his late forties – Dhonuram Soren.

Soren’s earthy demeanour set him apart from the other honourees at the function. Yet he was the centre of attention because of his rare story. Once a notorious poacher in Similipal who led a gang of more than 1,500 villagers, Soren and his group had become protectors of the forest and its wildlife. The function was to honour him for spearheading this transformation in the villages in and around the reserve.

Far from being enthused, Soren looked dejected.

“I have been honoured many times during the past 3-4 years,” he said. “But is this paper certificate enough to feed my family?”

In September 2013, Soren and his accomplices had surrendered before the Forest Department with their arms – pledging to quit poaching. In return, they were inducted by the department as protection assistants of Similipal, for a monthly stipend of Rs 6,000.

The arrangement worked well for two years, until there was a change of guard in 2015. “While we still honour our word and protect Similipal, the Forest Department has gone back on its word,” said Soren.

Dhonuram Soren was honoured at a recent function. Photo credit: Bhanumitra Acharya

Similipal Biosphere Reserve is a treasure trove of biodiversity. Amidst a host of wildlife species, it harbours the endangered Royal Bengal Tigers and Asian elephants. The park witnessed its worst period between 2005 and 2011, when, according to Soren, poachers killed more than 40 elephants for their ivory in and around Similipal.

Local villagers rampantly killed other wildlife too – the deaths of deer and sambar peaked during Akhand Shikar, a mass hunting ritual in April, observed by the tribals of the region for generations. The bush meat of the hunted animals was then consumed by villagers amidst revelry.

“The communities living in the surrounding villages are tribals and hunting is embedded in their ways of life,” said Bhanumitra Acharya, former Honorary Wildlife Warden of Similipal. “Poaching of wild animals for their livelihood comes easily to them, without realising the consequences.”

Akhanda Shikar, observed in Similipal till a few years ago, took a heavy toll on its wildlife. Photo credit: Bhanumitra Acharya

In 2012, when the Forest Department’s team of 59 members entered Similipal to arrest the hunters, they were captured by Soren and his gang. Armed with around 600 country-made guns and traditional weapons, the hunters held forest personnel captive for about four hours.

The area where they were held was littered with the flesh and remains of hunted animals, recalled Acharya. The founder of Sangram, a nonprofit working for wildlife conservation in the region for more than two decades, Acharya identified around 35-40 carcasses of barking deer and sambar.

The poaching situation was getting out of hand, remembered Anup Nayak, Field Director of Similipal.

If a solution had to be found, it was possible only with the assistance of the local community. The Forest Department staff, accompanied by members of Sangram, began to visit the villages, in a bid to spread awareness about wildlife conservation and convince them to give up poaching. “But far from being convinced, the villagers turned even more antagonistic and we faced greater resistance,” said Acharya.

Photo credit: Moushumi Basu

There are 1,220 villages in and around Similipal. Of these, about 700 villages were involved in hunting, with each household in possession of traditional weapons like bows, arrows and spears. The clandestine but booming wildlife trade around the villages was a big lure – body parts and exotic meat fetched instant cash.

Realising these challenges, the Forest Department announced incentives to rope in poachers. “We were trying a twofold strategy,” said Acharya. “On one hand we intensified our raids against poachers with the help of the local police. They were either constantly on the run or compelled to stay in hideouts away from their villages.” On the other hand, poachers were offered the choice for voluntary surrender along with their weapons.

It took nearly six months for Acharya and his team to gain access to the villages and convince residents of the seriousness of the Forest Department’s mission. Finally, at a historic function known as Pratyabartan or homecoming, Soren and the other hunters laid down their arms and promised on behalf of their gang to give up poaching. The Forest Department assigned them regular protection jobs, to be carried out in tandem with the forest guards. They were also given uniforms.

A police official announces the "mainstreaming" of Soren and his aides at an official function in September 2013. Photo credit: Bhanumitra Acharya

“Their knowledge about the ways of poaching and their connections with organised poaching syndicates helped us to preempt or bust poaching attempts and strengthened our intelligence network,” said Nayak.

The new protectors also participated in strategic meetings at various levels of the park management, offering valuable suggestions. In addition, the ecological development committee was strengthened to generate sustainable options of livelihood for them.

While poaching in Similipal has since come under control, Soren and his gang are facing financial distress since the past two years. “Our stipends have stopped and we are forced to scourge for our livelihood here and there,” said Chhotray Marandi, one of Soren’s accomplices. “After all, we poached elephants and wildlife in the past for our livelihood and sustenance of our families.”

According to HK Bisht, the current Field Director of Similipal: “Poaching is kept under control in the reserve by acting tough on poachers, arresting them and trying to get them convicted.” Bisht confirmed that the earlier programme of engaging surrendered poachers as protection assistants does not exist today. However, local communities are being discouraged from participating in Akhand Shikar by organising parallel sports events and archery competitions.

Soren (extreme left) rests after patrolling with the forest staff. Photo credit: Bhanumitra Acharya

Patrolling in the reserve has become more high tech with e-patrolling, through which it is possible to keep tabs on the movements of patrolling parties. A process is also in place for the procurement of drones for better surveillance in the future, Bisht confirmed.

“While it is good to go high-tech in monitoring and managing the park, there certainly needs to be greater involvement of local communities in conservation,” said Acharya. “They have been living near Similpal for generations and know its forests and wildlife best. Their traditional knowledge and expertise will always be valuable for conservation.”

Most importantly – the villagers here are poor.

Earlier, the Forest Department had provided them with a better alternative to poaching by allowing Soren and his gang of hunters to go mainstream, thereby greatly improving their socio-economic conditions. Had this continued, other poachers could have followed suit. “But if the prevailing situation continues, who knows – the local villagers may slowly revert back to their old ways,” said Acharya.