• DAY 215: BEAR RESCUE ENDS MYSTERIOUSLY

    May 02 2013
    A chained monkey looks on as we enter the small community

    A chained monkey looks on as we enter the small community

    I’m in a strange situation.

    I’m walking into a small village accompanied by thirty policemen, many with guns.  We are looking for a single illegal bear cub. Our intelligence is rock solid, I’m told that Kartick has not failed on a mission like this for ten years but I fear we are about as conspicious as a burning meteor.

    What is the point of my cunning disguise? Will anyone appreciate my mascara?

    The police and Wildlife SOS team park the cars 100 metres from the entrance to the Muslim community.

    ‘Too dangerous to go closer’ says the officer with three stars on his shoulder. The informer seems mighty nervous.

    We all flow down the street and turn into an ever-narrowing alleyway, pushing onward ike a stream forcing new channels. Children poke heads out of doorways and then retreat to let us past.

    searching for the bear cub

    Police going into homes searching for the bear cub

     

    Monkeys

    I see monkey’s chained to walls, one seems blind and truly terrified.

    ‘Can we rescue these?’ I asked my guide/rescuer keenly while taking some photo. I am told to keep quiet and move on. The monkeys need help but first we must get the bear.

    An old, semi-blind, chained and very confused monkey.

    An old, semi-blind, chained and very confused monkey.

    bearraid-3

    bearraid-4

     

    Do not lose your man, Martin.

    We enter the main area of the community where families come out to see the commotion. It its a sunny day, no one in the community has guns, kids are around, I’m surrounded by police. Suddenly it all feels safe. What was I worried about?

    But my UK antennae are not tuned to Indian life. In London I can read undercurrents of aggression from a hundred metres. I learnt it at school when Louis Peterson threatened to beat me up for accidentally hitting him on the head when I threw a basketball and missed the hoop by about ten metres. He prowled the school and I watched his every twitch. But here it seems to me that all is calm. When a man brushes past me, knocking my camera I presume it is an accident. When it happens again I forgive him too easily. Thankfully in a few minutes I’ll be forced to get out of here before I find that on the third strike I might be out.

    Entering the main square. Things seem perfectly under control...

    Entering the main square. Things seem perfectly under control…

    Police start tapping on doors. No bear here. More doors are knocked. Then one is smashed down. People come to crowd around.

    Still no bear.

    I see two more monkeys tied by chains but this time their necks are held together by a few links. I go to take photos. The camera is a dangerous thing. When pushed to your eye its offers a safe and dark enclosure.

    I get lost photographing these two monkeys tied together by a tiny chain

    I get lost photographing these two monkeys tied together by a tiny chain

     

    My mind climbs into the camera and looks out of its neat window. Snap, snap, snap. When I put the camera down I see that my guide has gone. Do not lose your man, Kartick told me

    I call my man quicky. ‘Come, come!’ he says frantically. But I don’t know where he is. The police are dispersing in three different directions so I follow the ones with the biggest guns – as you do.

    ‘I’ll meet you by the monkey’ I say, which is about as useful as telling a farmer you’ll meet him by the sheep.

    ‘Come now, come NOW!’ he says more urgently.

    Has he found the bear?

    We go faster now. When I turn the corner I see my guide in the distance waving to me. I run over and he pushes me into the car and we race off down small streets which become ever wider as we reach safety.

    ‘Do we have the bear?’ I ask as I look back at the receding plume of dust behind the car.

    ‘No. We have to go. It was getting very dangerous.’

    ‘It was? ‘

     

    more monkeys tied by chains

    more monkeys tied by chains

    bearraid-8

    Undercurrents at work

    So we never saw the bear.

    Why?

    Only later did I find out the whole story.

    It is common knowledge in India that in order to survive most people in local communities set up relatonships with the lower ranking police officer – this is called a HAFDA which is a regular protection fee to make sure they don’t get in trouble. This was the first time in almost a decade that no bear was seized by Kartick’s team. There’s a distinct possibility that some undercurrents were at work here that allowed the community to be forewarned but we can’t be sure. Things certainly don’t stack up.

    Saving animals in India is not just physical and emotional. It is deeply political and divisive.

    The community we visited has a reputation for disorder and violence. Someone had found out that Kartick was involved and apparently people had threatened to kill him. He wasn’t present but things were escalating fast. I saw none of this in my ignorant haze but the police quickly recognized a tipping point on the near-horizon. We had to leave

    So we just left the bear there?

    Kartick later assured me that the bear would be saved soon and that the monkeys would as well. That just wasn’t our moment.

    To be honest, I am surprised sometimes that Kartick is still with us. I’ll let you know of any updates. But for now I am glad to be back and safe.

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  • DAY 205: HOW DANGEROUS IS IT TO RESCUE WILDLIFE IN INDIA?

    Apr 22 2013
    Driving into the Indian back country where leopards, elephants and bears roam. Bush and forest like this is becoming increasingly rare as human population and cities grwo

    Driving into the Indian back-country where leopards, elephants and bears roam. Bush-land and forest like this is becoming increasingly rare as human population and cities grow at a relentless pace.

    As we drive down the dusty track in the blistering heat I ask Kartick about the risks of his job. Just how dangerous is it?

    This is not so much journalistic interest as self preservation– I’ve offered to help with any rescue that comes up in the next few days. Gulp.

    ‘Yes, it can be fairly dangerous,’ he says, more calmly than I would like. ‘But life is short. We have very little time help these animals. I always say, no good deed goes unpunished. It’s worth the risk’

    I begin to wonder if my life will be short after this trip or what sort of punishment I will receive for my various good deeds.Probably nothing more than a slap on the wrist.

    Much of Kartick’s job entails intercepting traders who sell wildlife either alive or cut into bits for so-called ‘medicinal’ properties: tiger blood, bear penis, pangolin scales. Mostly it’s the Chinese that devour this but lets be inclusive and say we all like a bit of  good old trusty traditional medicine. Whenever I used to go out for a night I always found drinking tiger’s blood inevitably led to meeting attractive women. Equally I’ve found that every time I have a life threatening sickness I cure it by placing a dead pangolin on my head. Incredible, the power of these wildlife.

    A whole (or part) tiger can fetch a few thousand dollars in India - enough incentive to risk the often fairly small chance of prosecution

    A whole (or part) tiger can fetch a few thousand dollars in India – enough incentive to risk the often fairly small chance of prosecution

    bear paws are especially prized in the illegal wildlife trade.

    bear paws are especially prized in the illegal wildlife trade.

     

    This image, courtesy of FourPaws, is not from India but illustrates the risk to bears cubs in India that are stolen from their mothers for international trade. Bears typically spend a number of years with their mothers in the wild.

    A screaming bear cub is taken from its mother. This image, courtesy of FourPaws, is not from India but illustrates the risk to bears cubs over here that are stolen from their mothers for international trade. Bears typically spend a number of years with their mothers in the wild and if removed at too young an age suffer serious emotional damage

    Courtesy FourPaws

    Courtesy FourPaws

    If one thinks of saving wildlife as being all about running through jungles with a large net think again.Catching the traders can take weeks of preparation on the phone and in meetings and the juggling of sketchy intelligence, shady informers and a complex police system.

    And even after meticulous planning the raid can go totally wrong. One of Kartick’s employees was kidnapped whilst on a raid. ‘He disappeared and we thought he was dead. Then his wife got cryptic messages saying he was OK. Turns out that they broke his legs and left him somewhere remote. He was so mentally distraught that for months he couldn’t face returning home. He lived in the middle of nowhere to recover before he could face the world again’

    Again, Kartick is more calm about this than I would like.

    ‘I see’, I say.

    ‘But that’s rare’, he says.

    ‘Why do informers give you this information? Do they care that much about the animals?’

    ‘Not really. Often they want to settle an old score. Get someone else into trouble. They themselves may be part of the same shady world. I would make a fairly good criminal myself if I wanted to be. I have had to learn to think like they think to stay one step ahead.’

    I too know how criminals think. As a teenager, I once stole a Curly-Wurly bar from a corner shop. And when I felt decidedly guilty I managed to go back into the shop and un-steal it. I remember panicking about the punishment I might get if  caught re-stocking their shelves.

    Stolen goods.

    If you do steal, make sure to give it back.

    Snake bite

    But the risks of Kartick’s job don’t just come from humans. The animals are dangerous too. Naturally enough.

    ‘I was up most of the night.’ he told me ‘There was a rogue snake rescuer that got bitten by a snake last night- a cobra – and I got the call. It got him right in the stomach.  He’s now in a coma. He wasn’t one of our guys but we went to help out’

    Of the 274 indigenous snakes in India there are only four that are poisonous. The cobra is one of them

    Of the 274 indigenous snakes in India there are only four that are poisonous. The cobra is one of them

    The phone rings – again – and he has a brief conversation.

    ‘That was the sister of the snake bite guy . She seems pretty calm. Either she’s hard as nails or she wasn’t close to him’

    ‘Will the guy make it?’

    ‘Probably not. Not from a bite in the stomach.’

    ‘Really?’

    He looks at me with a half smile. ‘Occupational hazard’

    TOMORROW – I’m off to visit the bear sanctuary. In the meantime there are murmurings of a wildlife trade rescue I may be able help with involving a bear cub. But information is scant and – just in the nick of time – I seem to be coming down with an Indian illness.

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