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“So,” Khandal continues, “you want to surrender.”

“I was assured I would not be beaten,” Dashrath mumbles.

Khandal places a hand on the Moghiya’s shoulder. “You have nothing to worry about,” he tells him.

Dashrath’s concern is no small thing. Khandal will be turning him over to the forest service, and given the way Indian officials generally treat prisoners, and the fact that the department largely despises Khandal, Dashrath should be worried.

Sure enough, less than 24 hours later, those suspicions are confirmed. We’re in the middle of touring the two schools Khandal runs for the children of Moghiya ex-poachers, as well as the handicrafts cooperative for their wives (Khandal believes in the stick-and-carrot approach to antipoaching), when he gets a phone call. An informant tells him that Dashrath has been beaten by his forest service captors, despite their promises to go easy on him.

Khandal is livid. At the range office where Dashrath is being held, he lays into the forest official, who admits to “slapping around” his captive. “I’ve got three big poachers who are considering surrendering!” Khandal yells. “They’re waiting to see how you handle people who surrender. It doesn’t help if you’re beating them! These people are reforming. We should respect them.”

Khandal then blurts out something more. “I have beaten poachers too,” he says. “But you don’t beat people who turn themselves in.”

It’s a startling admission—especially in an age of torture memos—and one that raises all sorts of ethical issues. In the course of my reporting, I had heard one wildlife NGO official question Khandal’s approach to human rights and even refer to him as a “cowboy.” When I ask Khandal pointedly about this he admits that, yes, he roughed up poachers during his first couple of raids. “But we were new to antipoaching,” he says. “And we had no idea about the rehabilitation process.” Maybe more importantly, he stresses the climate of fear and mystery that gripped Ranthambhore in 2004. The park was losing its tigers, and no one knew why. Worse, the forest service wasn’t doing anything about it. “We were completely scared, and we were trying to stop whatever was going on,” Khandal says. “We wanted to send a message to the poachers that we were not going to tolerate them. We were not aware that this was organized crime.”

When Khandal came to Ranthambhore in 2003 to work for Tiger Watch, he knew nothing about Moghiyas, poaching, or even tigers. He’d just completed a successful spider study in Mumbai’s Sanjay Gandhi National Park, where he lived for six months with no electricity or potable water. Spiders and sparse living. Khandal was in heaven.

At Ranthambhore his first order of business was to conduct a tiger survey. Ranthambhore is the kind of place where the locals feel a certain intimacy with the tigers and often refer to them like neighbors on the block. Someone could always tell you if Bamboo Ram had killed a sambar, or if they’d seen Machali’s new litter, or if Broken Tail was lounging in a jeep path. But by late 2003 there were whispers that some cats had vanished, and Khandal’s boss wanted him to look into it. Khandal’s methodology was simple. From January through June 2004 he took hundreds of photographs of tigers in the park and gathered countless more from photographers who had spent serious time in Ranthambhore. He then compared those with the camera trap images taken during the last tiger survey here, in 1993. Khandal’s analysis concluded ultimately that Ranthambhore had 25 tigers—but it should have had 43. Eighteen were missing.

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  • Life of this man is really worth meaning
  • This is a great article. I have heard a lot about Dharmendra Khandal and his efforts to save tigers …
  • every park in this country should have an independent team working on the lines of Dharm but this is…
  • Being a huge wildlife the Jungle calls me every few months . I have seen tigers in Sariska ,Ranthamb…
  • Being a huge wildlife the Jungle calls me every few months . I have seen tigers in Sariska ,Ranthamb…
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