Wire snare traps are one of the biggest problems plaguing Indian wildlife, especially outside protected areas. Every harvest season, the fresh yield attracts herbivores to the peripheries of forests, and snares are laid to trap them. Snares are a widespread threat to wildlife. The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS-India) works in corridors and outside protected areas in Maharashtra and Telangana to spot these snares. They detect about 200-500 snares a year which cause at least 25-30 deaths of a range of animals, including wild boars, chitals, chousinghas, and honey badgers. In 2019, two tigers were trapped, electrocuted, and killed by a snare in the forest corridor connecting Kawal Tiger Reserve, Telangana, and Tadoba Tiger Reserve, Maharashtra.
Fortunately, WCS-India has locals, like field assistant Shivaji Kutikela, 47, to help. Kutikela understands the landscape intimately and has a soft spot for wild creatures. Here’s what a day in his life looks like.
4 am: During winter, though the sun rises over the hills of Telangana’s Kawal Tiger Reserve only at 7 am, Kutikela’s alarm goes off at 4 am, shaking him out of his slumber. A quick cup of chai, and he’s off to the field. He works in the Kagaznagar forest division within a forest corridor connecting Kawal Tiger Reserve, Telangana, and Tadoba Tiger Reserve, Maharashtra. December and January are peak harvest months and also when the highest number of snare deaths occur. Villagers put snare traps around their farms primarily to deter wildlife from feeding on their crops, but also to gain some bushmeat.
Usually made from motorcycle clutch or brake wires, supplies to make snares are easily available at garages or hardware stores. Wires from an electric fence or a bike’s brakes are tied around paths animals frequent. Occasionally, a wire is connected to the nearest electric pole and taken into the forest or set along the boundary of a farm. These wires have the potential to electrocute any passing animal. Sometimes these can be set up for more than a kilometre into the forest.
Today, Kutikela’s job is to identify the location of snares and inform the forest department, so they can remove them before an animal is trapped. However, to identify traps, Kutikela must first think like a hunter.
4.30 am: Kutikela is joined by two other team members, and they head in the direction of the farms as the time between 4.30 and 6.30 am is critical. Snares are usually laid in the dead of night. Once the sun rises, they are removed, and trapped animals taken away, butchered, and consumed. On the previous evening, Kutikela went on a quick walk to spot pugmarks and identify the trails that animals had taken. Now, walking on the same path through the dark pre-dawn, with a flashlight in hand, he checks if anything has changed (pugmarks, disturbed grass etc.). This time he isn’t just looking for a wild boar or chital’s hoofmarks. He is also looking for human footprints. “Sometimes, I notice that a wild boar’s trail had no human footprints with it one day, and the next day they have appeared. This means someone has followed the trail, and there is probably a snare,” he says. If he spots a snare, he sends a photograph to forest officials who arrive at the spot and undo it.
6.30 am: Dawn breaks, Kutikela takes a quick break, and then continues his walks. “During peak season, I find myself walking without a break for four to six hours every day,” he says. Often, he spots wild boars, chitals, or porcupines trapped in snares. “If an animal is caught in a snare, death comes slow and is excruciatingly painful,” he says. Shivaji alone must have spotted about 1,000-1,500 snares in five years of work in Kagaznagar. But, more often than not, he only reaches a spot once the animal is dead. On one such morning, at around 7 am, Kutikela was tipped off about a wild boar caught in a snare. He immediately contacted the forest department and rushed to the spot. By the time he reached, the wild boar had been killed, and the spoils were being divided among 14 members of the village. The forest department arrived quickly and fined the villagers. “Reaching a spot after an animal is killed is the hardest for me,” he says. “You feel helpless.”
10.30 am: It’s time for a short rest. Kutikela was 12 when he dropped out of school to earn money to support his family by herding cattle on the edges of Kawal Tiger Reserve. For eight years, he directed his cattle deep into the forest to feed on lush pastures. He may have learned little about conservation and snares during these days, but it helped get rid of his fear of the forest. “Once, a tiger took my most beloved calf away in front of my eyes. I was sitting by the tree and having lunch when the tiger pounced, grabbed him by the neck, and dragged him away,” he says. “I was afraid then, but little scares me now.”
He also learned to read the forest like the back of his hand. How do you tell the direction of the wind? Whose do pugmarks belong to? What trails do animals take?
2 pm: A quick lunch of bhakri and bhaji, and Kutikela resumes work. Kutikela must regularly talk to villagers about snaring and how it is illegal. This is perhaps the most challenging part of the job. “Humans can talk to each other and resolve their issues, but who will animals go to if they are in trouble? In the villages, I am their voice,” he says. It is also his job to build a trusted network of informants who will report back to him. “Our team cannot be everywhere, can we?” he says.
Building a network of informants requires an intimate understanding of the local setting and politics. He needs to identify people with a soft corner for animals, those who work in the farms late at night, or individuals willing to tell on neighbours and tip him off. Kutikela invests a significant amount of time building trust with people willing to report wildlife crimes such as snaring.
5 pm: By evening, Kutikela sets off with his team to make another round. He spends hours looking for tiger pugmarks along corridor areas. His excellent tracking skills have helped prove that tigers frequent the corridor and he has alerted the forest department to snaring activities in the area. A vigilant forest department has managed to rescue several animals and tighten surveillance.
Over the years, WCS-India’s work, mainly driven by Kutikela’s inputs, has led the forest department to apprehend poachers in more than 30 incidents, dismantle more than 2,000 snares, and identify about 60 locations set up for electrocution. These efforts may have played a considerable role in reducing snares inside the reserve forest area. The team’s efforts have helped the forest department in doubling the detection rate of poaching threats over the past four years.
6 pm: By the time he returns home to Vanjaragudi, a village that also lies in the same corridor, it’s late evening. Kagaznagar is about two hours from where his family lives. Kutikela visits his family for 3-5 days every month. “When I return home, a spicy chicken curry and good conversation make my day,” he says, smiling. His 23-year-old son, following in his footsteps, also works as a field assistant with WCS-India.
10 pm: On most days, Kutikela retires by ten. But, every once in a while, an informant calls with a tip. Snares are set up in the dark, and Kutikela must inform his team and the forest department and make a quick note to head there in the morning. “My working hours end in the evening, but with a job like this, I am on duty 24×7,” he says.
The rewards his job brings are priceless, he adds. In 2016, while patrolling the area, Kutikela had climbed up a tiny mound and saw a tigress with three newborn cubs lounging in a stream just beneath. “They were under 50 metres away! It was easily one of the best days of my life!” he says.
The camera trap he set that day with forest department staff captured an iconic photo of a wild tigress in Telangana. Later, in 2018, the Indian Postal Department published the same photograph of the tigress on a postal stamp, honouring the big cat’s instrumental role in raising the population of endangered tigers in the region.