What we know for certain is this: Two days ago Khandal’s target had a significant stash of homemade guns in his possession, and he’d recently sold three to a pair of notorious wildlife poachers, both members of a seminomadic tribe called the Moghiyas. Although extremely marginalized in India’s stratified caste system, ranking down near the Untouchables, Moghiyas do command respect for their significant bush skills. You won’t find better trackers and hunters. The poachers once belonged to gangs that operated in the heart of Ranthambhore, India’s most celebrated tiger sanctuary, and during a 2003–04 killing spree, those gangs reduced the park’s tiger population by half. The way Khandal figures it, the only way to prevent that from happening again is to limit the poachers’ access to weapons.
Khandal’s informant points to a solitary hut at the edge of a field outside the village, behind two scrawny trees. Five cops peel off to the left, flanking the workshop from behind. The rest of us stay on the dirt path. It’s a footrace now, the cool morning air rushing across our faces, with Khandal, young and tall, sprinting ahead. The fivesome beats us to the hut, and when we get there it’s already being turned inside out.
But no one is home. Two white, tethered cows stare at us dumbly.
“Over there,” Khandal says, racing off toward a single cot and a fire pit 50 yards away, located in the middle of the gunmaker’s wheat field. When I get there Khandal has already discovered a muzzle-loading rifle, and he proceeds to empty a bag of rusty tools onto the ground—mallets, files, wrenches, a hand drill, a makeshift forge, along with all manner of gun components, everything from hammer locks, triggers, springs, and barrels to green plastic bags of gunpowder. But no gunmaker.
Khandal scans the horizon and shakes his head. In the early morning glow, you’d never figure him for the religiously devout, soft-spoken scientist that he is. He’s wearing dark shades, a camouflage bandanna, fatigues, and a black jacket, with a pistol protruding from his waistband. “He has to surrender,” Khandal mumbles, to no one in particular. “He has a house here. He has land, a family. Maybe not today. Maybe tomorrow.”
It’s easy to understand Khandal’s disappointment. Over the past five years he has successfully busted dozens of poachers, many connected to an illegal international wildlife trade that generates some $20 billion a year. His efforts even helped trigger the most significant change in Indian tiger policy in a generation. You’d think that, given everything Khandal has done for Ranthambhore and its endangered cats, the Indian Forest Service would be pinning medals all over the guy.
You’d be wrong.
A few days before joining Khandal and his antipoaching crusade, I had experienced Ranthambhore’s tiger magic firsthand. The park is one of two tiger reserves in the northern Indian state of Rajasthan, and I’d been admiring the crocodiles along one of the park’s big lakes, Raj Bagh, when my guide noticed several monkeys raising hell in some trees lining a boggy inlet. We turned off the doubletrack, inched toward the trees, and that’s when she emerged, glistening wet in the midmorning sun, a two-and-a-half-year-old female known as T-17. She parted the tall grass, gave her coat a good shake, and then nearly brushed the jeep as she strolled past, ignoring us altogether.