Who Killed One of India’s Wildlife Commandos?

On a cold January night in 2014, Shitanram Bishnoi woke up to the sound of a gunshot that carried over the desert expanse. He peered into the darkness and saw a light beam, as though from a motorbike’s headlight, bobbing over uneven terrain.

That meant only one thing—poachers were hunting gazelles. He had seen a similar scene two years ago and had given chase but the men had escaped. He was looking for a second chance.

Taking his brother and two farm laborers along, Shaitanram followed the motorbike in an SUV. From a distance, they saw the bike had stopped and a man was perched on it. Its headlight was illuminating a gazelle that had frozen in fright, Shaitanram’s brother Mangilal recalled. A few feet away, another man was hiding behind shrubs and slowly creeping towards the animal. Mangilal remembers this man clutching what looked like a topidar—a basic rifle commonly used by hunters and security guards in india.

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Gazella bennettii, a gazelle native to India, are sacred to the Bishnois, a Hindu sect.

Seeing their SUV approach, the biker raced off. Shaitanram jumped out of the vehicle and ran after the armed man, who the police later identified as 20-year-old Farooq Khan.

“That man had a gun, so I told my brother to stay in the car. But he wasn’t listening,” Mangilal recalls telling his brother that night. “He ran out, and we three followed.”

There is considerable disagreement about the events that followed; accounts from the police and the assailant’s family differ in key details. But one thing is clear—that night, Shaitanram was shot point blank. The bullet tore off portions of his mouth and neck.

The armed man, who Mangilal recalls was wearing a ski mask, fled. The others rushed Shaitanram to the government hospital where he was pronounced dead on arrival.

‘Tiger Force’

Gazelles were sacred to Shaitanram, who was an ardent follower of Guru Jambheshwar, a Hindu mystic who founded a sect known as the Bishnoi in the 1500s. The sect’s name translates to “twenty-nine,” which refers to the number of rules disciples need to follow. Many of these rules are meant to protect the delicate desert environment.

Over the centuries, Jambheshwar’s followers have staunchly followed his rules, even at the expense of their lives. In one bloody instance in the 18th century, 363 Bishnois were decapitated or speared after they blocked soldiers from felling a stand of sacred trees. The incident led to the slogan, “give head but save tree,” which is posted in numerous magazines, calendars, and photographs.

Today, the Bishnois are particularly protective of gazelles which they think are reincarnations of Guru Jambheswar. Young men from the community have even formed vigilante groups with names like “Commando Force” and “Tiger Force” to protect the animal from poachers. Shaitanram Bishnoi was one such foot soldier. Even though incidents like the one involving Shaitanram are rare, they’ve helped cement the image of Bishnois in popular culture as the nation’s fiercest protectors of wildlife.

The Gazelles and the ‘Immortal Martyr’

Last year, I arrived in Rajasthan, an arid land bordering Pakistan, to investigate this reputation, my notebook filled with seemingly contradictory information.

Gazelles in the vicinity of Bishnoi villages far outnumbered the cumulative population in all of India’s 670 protected areas. The animals’ population in the state had increased by 11% in the three years up to 2013, government data showed. Yet a zoologist who has been working in this region for the past nine years told me that the government’s count was off because it relied on an ineffective survey method developed a century ago. His work has shown that gazelle numbers in a representative area in Rajasthan had plunged by 38% in the seven years to 2009, and the trend continues unabated.

Populations of predators in the entire state have also collapsed. In the 1800s, royals would hunt lions, tigers, gazelles, and blackbucks in the grasslands and arid scrublands, and paintings of their exploits grace the walls of art galleries around the world. The charismatic predators were mostly gone by the 1950s, their niches taken over by wolves, foxes, wild dogs, and jackals. But now, as far as I could tell from sparse data, even these are in decline. The government’s census shows that there were 1,164 wolves in 2014, a 16% drop compared to the previous year.

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Barbed wire fences, including this one along Shaitanram Bishnoi’s land, have transformed the arid landscapes of Rajasthan.

With so few predators and so much prey, is the Bishnois’ protection of the gazelle—and Shaitanram’s ultimate sacrifice—helping the fragile ecosystem? Or are they merely reinforcing imbalances that have thrown it into disarray? Also when nature is imbalanced, can it spill over into society? These were some of the questions I was wrestling with when I arrived.

Like most others in the village, Shaitanram lived with his extended family. Caste is an important part of Rajasthani society, and Bishnois tend to be higher caste and are often landowners. Shaitanram’s family appears to be fairly well off as they own 20 acres of land, which is leased to sharecroppers who plant wheat, cumin, and a spiky local vegetable called indi. Their six-room house has power and cable TV, but, like all homes in this area, no toilet.

Just outside their home, we’re sitting on a wood and rope bed that’s found in nearly every north Indian village home. Inside the living room is a frame with pictures of two men—one a slim boyish-looking lad with a light handlebar mustache—Shaitanram—and the other a painting of an elderly man wearing a red cape, a flowing, white beard, and a devout expression—Guru Jambheshwar. Between the two is a citation hailing Shaitanram as an “immortal martyr” for dying to save animals.

I asked Shaitanram’s father, Arjunram, a 75-year-old man with a thick gray mustache, what happened after his son’s death. He says Farooq and his accomplice were immediately arrested. It seemed like an open and shut case.

The day after the shooting, thousands of people arrived at their farm to pay respects, Arjunram says. He sweeps his arm to indicate a swath of the scrub encompassing about two football fields. Elected representatives and leaders from several conservative Hindu groups also showed up.

Arjunram gives me a tour of the land—there are gazelles, or chinkara as they’re called in Hindi. The name roughly translates to “the sneezer,” because its alarm call sounds like a sneeze. Four of the shy creatures are foraging in the scrubland beyond the barbed wire fence. One of them looks up as I walk towards it, freezes, and locks its eyes on me. Soon the others follow suit, and when I’m 20 yards away, the pack quickly sprints off. “This is a Bishnoi area, so you’ll find lots of chinkara,” Arjunram says. The skittish antelopes settle back down to forage about 50 yards away.

The state of Rajasthan’s forest department estimates there are about 40,000 chinkara in the state. Those numbers are considered suspect because they are based on an archaic technique that involves counting all animals that come to drink at waterholes during a 24-hour period in summer. The so-called waterhole census has its beginnings in the colonial era as a way to determine good hunting spots for the British military elite. For forest departments strapped for funds, the method is a quick way to monitor all major wild animals in a region, says forest officer Devendra Bhardwaj.

Counting errors are common with this method as the staff assigned to each site may fall asleep or confuse animals in the dark, Bharadwaj says, recounting incidents from his three decades at the forest service. “Unless someone comes up with a foolproof system, this is good enough,” he says. “But we cannot make broad strokes about the population increase or decrease from this.”

Up until the 1970s, tigers and leopards were also counted using this method. But after populations of the majestic cats dropped precipitously at key national parks, the government switched to pugmarks and, later, camera traps.

The Decline

When Sumit Dookia completed his graduate degree in 1999, most of India’s zoologists were studying more charismatic mammals like tigers and elephants. The humble chinkara wasn’t on anyone’s radar. But following the advice of one of the state’s most prominent biologists, he chose to focus on the shy gazelles for his doctoral thesis. “The chinkara project was close to my heart, but there was never enough funding for it,” Dookia says. In the last 15 years, he’s been working as a geological surveyor and ecologist while moonlighting on chinkara research.

In 2006, he received a grant from the Britain’s Rufford Foundation to census chinkara over a small area—about 100 square miles. He and his team of volunteers drew imaginary lines across the landscape then counted animals at fixed spots along that line. Known as the line-transect method, it’s widely used in ecology to arrive at reasonable estimates of mammals. Over the next four years, he received more funding to keep studying the same area. The results were unambiguous—chinkara density fell to 1.98 per square mile in 2009, from 2.67 in 2007.

His results, though not peer reviewed, suggest that chinkara populations are declining even in Bishnoi-dominated areas, and it’s not due to poachers bullets. “The habitat is disappearing, and that’s all that matters,” Dookia says. Traffic accidents are now the biggest killers, as the animals’ traditional territory is bisected by new highways where 14-wheeler trucks thunder down carrying the region’s famed marble. The open scrubland is being transformed into fenced farmland. Feral dogs and barbed wire fences also kill hundreds each year.

The Aftermath

After spending a night sleeping on a cot outside Shaitanram’s house, I head off to the district police headquarters to find official records of the incident. The cops refuse, saying the case is in court. So I go to the police station near Shaitanram’s house to chat with the inspector who led the investigation. When I sit down to speak to his deputy, the first thing he asks me after my name is my caste.

Since the incident, the lead inspector on the case, Ghewarsingh Ghunsaiwal, has been transferred to a different station, but he’s quite chatty over the phone. “I clearly remember the Shaitanram case,” he says. “We only had some five to six poaching incidents in five years.”

The details Ghunsaiwal gives me differ significantly from the Bishnoi family’s account. Shaitanram and Farooq knew each other from before, and there was a fistfight on the sand dune that night, Ghunsaiwal says. Eventually the gun went off—it wasn’t clear if it was an accident, a misfire, or a purposeful shooting. Finding the culprits was easy, Ghunsaiwal says, as Shaitanram’s brother Mangilal identified them by name (Mangilal had told me the men were wearing ski masks). All of the witnesses were members or employees of the same Bishnoi family, but that didn’t seem like a red flag to the authorities.

Ghunsaiwal estimates there were about 6,000 people who descended on Salasar in a show of support the next day. Religious leaders gave fiery speeches. The police were on “high alert,” he says. “It was a very sensitive situation. It could have quickly become a communal riot,” Ghunsaiwal says, vaguely comparing it to Gujarat, where 1,200 people died in Hindu-Muslim riots in 2002.

Salasar lies in a district with many Muslim-dominated villages. As often happens in heated incidents, the facts of the case were whittled down to a simple narrative—Bishnois are vegetarian Hindus whereas Muslims eat meat. One is branded a hunter, another the protector.

That story idea is what drew the thousands of like-minded Hindus to that sand dune the following day. Donations poured in—Shaitanram’s family got nearly 5 million rupees, or about $80,000, from people who showed up, Arjunram says. That’s ten times the compensation paid by the government.

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A shrine to Shaitanram in his family's home

Wanting to hear the other side of the story, I ask my taxi driver to head to the Muslim-dominated village where Khan, the accused gunman, was from. The driver, a high-caste Hindu who had cheerfully accompanied me the previous day, hesitates, offering a litany of excuses. Frustrated, I decide to trek the three miles in the scorching summer heat, stopping each passing motorist to ask for directions. Each time the experience is the same: They ask me my caste, then demand to know why I want to meet a Muslim family.

Eventually I reach a three-room house with buffaloes and goats tethered to the front. Farooq’s father’s name is painted above the door. After about ten minutes, an elderly woman walks towards me, flanked by her teenage daughter and a laborer in his 30s. All of them are covered in a thin brown dust, likely from threshing hay.

They owned farmland adjacent to Shaitanram’s plot and the two families were embroiled in a land dispute, says the woman, who is Farooq’s mother. Farooq was there that night chasing a herd of nilgai antelopes that had entered their fields, she added. Nilgai are hefty ungulates that look like a cross between a cow and a horse and are among the most damaging agricultural pests in northern india.

Police had arrived at their home the day after the shooting and escorted Farooq to a jail cell. The official investigation report is based entirely on the testimony from Shaitanram’s brother, and there is no mention of the families’ earlier dispute or on Farooq’s claim involving the nilgai.

“The police, they just came and took him away. We told them repeatedly that he was just there to drive away the nilgai, but no one listened to us,” Farooq’s father Nihaldeen says a few weeks later over the phone.

Deadly Imbalances

Farooq’s parents’ insistence that he was driving away these antelopes could be a plausible explanation for him carrying a gun into the scrub. As irrigation-driven agriculture has spread in Rajasthan, so have the ungulates, and the state now has more nilgai than any other large wild animal. Even though culling is permitted, most Hindus are reluctant to kill the animals because their name literally translates to “blue cow,” and cows are considered holy in Hinduism.

In dozens of other villages, chinkara are also proving to be pests. For instance, farmers in Churu, 55 miles north of Shaitanram’s hamlet, are demanding subsidies from the government to build strong fences. “A big chinkara herd comes and eats up everything—they are like big lawn movers,” says local ecologist Hemendra Khandal. “The farmers are angry, but they tolerate the chinkara because of religion.”

The local population of the chinkara has gone from almost nothing to about 800 in a decade, he says. He credited the resurgence to the Bishnoi and other communities who actively feed the animals. Thousands of overseas tourists also stop at villages like these each year to see the animals, and the local economy has grown reliant on tourism dollars.

When asked about this inherent contradiction—showing chinkara populations rising in some villages—Dookia, the chinkara ecologist, says that these localized population spikes could be a result of herds that’ve shifted to areas where food is bountiful. “Localized data is misleading. Only way to be sure is to do a systematic study of a large area over two or three years,’’ he says. A state-wide multi-year government census currently underway is likely to present a more accurate picture.

These days the Bishnois’ food handouts are no longer limited to gazelles. Thousands of migratory damoisielle cranes from Siberia flock to ponds adjacent to Bishnoi habitations each year, lured by the abundant supply of grain donated by the villagers.

The situation with the cranes in Rajasthan is an “extreme form of taming” of wildlife, as the birds are now solely reliant on villagers’ handouts, says Asad Rahmani, director of the Bombay Natural History Society and one of India’s best known ornithologists. Yet he stopped short of condemning the practice and added that we should be glad that at least some species are thriving in a heavily modified landscape.

Expanding villages have taken over barren scrubland and ravines bordering rivers, both of which are prime habitat for wolves, the region’s major predator. Farmers have turned the landscapes into farms, grazing pastures, and even lakes.

Like elsewhere in the world, wolves in Rajasthan have become adept at stealing goats and sheep. “Everybody hates the wolf—it not only kills the sheep but also the chinkara that they love,” says Nandkishore Saraswat, an editor at the widely-read newspaper the Rajasthan Patrika, under a shaded canopy surrounded by two dozen rescued chinkara, peacocks, monkeys, and nilgai convelescing at the city’s shelter for injured wildlife. “The rate things are going, the wolves will go extinct in a few years.”

“The Bishnoi are taking care of the chinkara, but they have unknowingly destroyed the wolf habitat,” says Khandal, the ecologist. “They are protecting just one animal, not the ecosystem.” In doing so, they may be endangering the very ungulates they love.

A more comprehensive approach would focus on protecting the chinkara and the wolves, but such solutions are almost always complex and typically require sacrifices on the part of herders, farmers, and landowners. Habitat destruction is a complex, nuanced issue. Poaching, on the other hand, is a more compelling tale, one with clear heroes and villains.

Those competing narratives seem to have played a role in the conflict between Shaitanram and Farooq that, regardless of who was at fault, has cost one his life and sent the other to prison. Farooq has been awaiting his trial for the last two years, and there is no indication of when the proceedings will begin, his lawyer Kamal Singhi says. In the country’s notoriously slow legal process, Farooq has become another statistic. Nearly two-thirds of the inmates in India’s prisons are people like him, charged with a crime but awaiting trial for months or years on end. Legal aid lawyers are often reluctant to take on their cases, and most of them are too poor to afford bail.

Such violent incidents are rare—the last one I could dig up was in 2006—but each has an outsized influence in strengthening the Bishnoi community’s belief that poachers, rather than an imbalanced ecosystem, remain the biggest problem. “It is not possible to make a pyramid without the top or the bottom,” Dookia says. “But the people just don’t understand that.”