The Reformation: Poachers Turned Protectors

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has,” Margaret Mead.

As we at TheVibe get down to celebrating the ‘World Environment Week’ in all its gusto, a new paradigm is being defined globally in our collective battle against the sixth wave of global extinction, and unsustainable living, largely described as ‘The Third World War.’ From climate change protests sprouting all over the globe, inspired by Greta Thunberg’s impassioned vitriol of our grim future, to finding plastic in the deepest bowels of Mariana Trench, the ask for a sustainable future has never been so loud. We stepped out to find a few stories that reclaim the humanity of such an ask. Here is one such encouraging story that restores faith in humanity.

The survival and conservation of once critically endangered Lesser Florican, the smallest member of the Indian bustard, from the brink of near-endangerment, has lessons to teach as the battle cry for eco-conservation gets louder by the day.


Our focus today is on a centuries-old nomadic tribe of poachers from India called the Pardhis. The tribe, since its origins, has survived on age-old hunting and gathering tactics. The Pardhis were unequivocally one of the largest tribes to be outlawed by the erstwhile British Raj in India, owing to their participation in India’s first revolt for freedom in 1857.

Since then, the stigma against them, their traditional practices and notorious perceptions, continued unabated, till Kaustubh Pandharipande — an eco-conservationist and change-maker got involved with his NGO Samvedna (empathy) to develop an inclusive strategy that rehabilitated the poachers to turn protectors. The success story would prove to be empathetic to man, creature and system while becoming a replicable model that promises to change the game of eco-conservation here in India.


The lesser florican is the smallest bustard of the species which once thrived abundantly in the sub-continent. If the last census is to be believed, the numbers have dropped from a dramatic 3,500 (in 2000) to just 264 today (as per last estimates in 2018).  The lesser florican is a delight for birdwatchers, and during the mating season in the monsoons, the male jumps as high as two meters in the air. These shy birds live on the grasslands, but as these grasslands were converted for farming, their numbers fell due to a variety of reasons, such as poaching, excessive livestock grazing, and the changing landscape.

The bird is very elusive, rarely spotted in the thick grasslands of Maharashtra; it is no wonder then that it is only the phase (pronounced ‘phaasee’) pardhis who know how to locate the nests and sight the bird. And there is a reason why they are so good at locating these birds. The Pardhis were the original poachers.


The word ‘Pardhi’ is derived from two words: ‘phase,’ meaning trap, and ‘pardhi’ meaning hunter. Claiming their descent from the Rajputs of Rajasthan, the tribesmen have traditionally been expert hunters, catching only partridges, quails and antelopes with their sophisticated traps.

Even as poachers, the tribe was mindful about protecting the species — catching only live male birds, leaving the eggs untouched, and regulating poaching practices to a particular area so as to not disturb the natural order of the food web. The tribe is adventurous and can read the forest just like alphabets.

The poachers, however, share as grim reality as the birds they once poached. They are a vulnerable tribe,  who have no means of surviving as hunting became illegal. They don’t own land, property, lack education etc. to survive.

Yet, one man could see the potential of this gritty tribe.


Enter, conservationist Kaustubh Pandharipande, the man who dared to see beyond the obvious. The man with his NGO SAMVEDNA meaning empathy started a movement to include the phase pardhis into the fold and converting them into the protectors instead. They already came equipped for the task, all they needed was a bit of direction and more inclusive incentives.

With the conviction that Pardhis could play a critical role in the conservation of Lesser Florican, Sanvedana started working with the community spread across Akola and Washim districts in Maharashtra. The NGO convinced the Forest Department and the Pardhi Community that Pardhis could be the conservators of the Lesser Florican. And the conviction turned into reality. The Pardhis identified the nest of Lesser Florican after 100 years. Lesser Floricans have been slaughtered by the British in the early 20th century as a game. In the last decade of the 20th century, their population began to rise thanks to Sanvedana and the Pardhi Community.

Evangelised by the forest department, and made rightful conservationists, the largely uneducated tribe soon became the biggest champions of the protection of the bird.


Thanks to the efforts of Samvedna, Kaustubh Pandharipande and the phase pardhis, today a new model has developed where the poachers have turned protectors. A mere change in incentives has started a domino effect in the region with more sustainable practices and conservation. A beacon that shines ever so brightly for the rest of India to follow. Encouragingly, these efforts are now being studied, replicated an applied elsewhere in the country.

All the brilliant humans that made this happen

Kartik Rao


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