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A wild chase

Based on a 2015 probe that bust a major ivory smuggling racket in india, ‘Poacher’ provides a rare glimpse into the work of forest officials

By Dakshiani Palicha, Midhun Vijayan
Published: Sunday 07 April 2024

Exploitation is the price wildlife pays, as one character in Poacher puts it, “for being on the same planet as us”. The eight-episode series on Amazon Prime Video is the story of a group trying to reverse this punishment—by catching the exploiters and securing the future of a vital species.

Directed by Richie Mehta, who has also helmed the documentary India in a Day (2016) and series Delhi Crime (2019), Poacher is a dramatised narrative of Operation Shikar, a 2015 investigation to bust a large poaching and ivory smuggling racket. The operation recovered nearly 500 kg of ivory obtained from the illegal hunting of wild elephants in the forests of Malayattoor, Kerala.

The series portrays how a confession on the prevalence of the illegal hunting in Kerala—a state that prided itself for eliminating elephant poaching in the 1990s—by Araku (played by Sooraj Pops), a guilt-ridden forest watcher who was helping the illegal hunters, caught the forest department off guard and drove it to find the perpetrators. Leading the charge are range officer Mala Jogi (Nimisha Sajayan), field director Neel Banerjee (Dibyendu Bhattacharya), and analyst Alan Joseph (Roshan Mathew) of the Wildlife Trust of India, a Delhi-based non-profit that aided Operation Shikar.

For those well versed in the aspects of wildlife conservation, Poacher touches several familiar themes. These include understanding the role that each species—from the smallest of frogs to the mightiest of elephants—plays in the ecosystem, human-wildlife conflict with fragmentation of habitat, dwindling food and forest resources, and the plight of communities that have depended on the jungle for generations.

photographs courtesy: primevideo

What’s different is the glimpse it provides into the lives of forest officials, an underexplored section of law enforcement in films and series. Nimisha Sajayan is brilliant in her portrayal as Mala—a headstrong officer that reminds one of Vidya Balan in Sherni and even Shefali Shah in Mehta’s Delhi Crime—for whom finding the poachers is in some way, atonement for the sins of her father, who was also a hunter. But as nuanced as the character is, at times, she fails to see beyond her own bias. For Neel, justice and integrity prevail over everything else, even at the cost of his own health. For Alan, the case is a way to realise his true passion for wildlife conservation, which his family may accept, but cannot understand. Another notable character is forest officer Dina (Kani Kusruti), who manages to nab a key player in the poaching ring but must then deal with allegations and internal enquiries on her “methods”. What keeps them all going is their conviction that the survival of elephants—engineers of the forest who help in making pathways and in dispersing seeds, among other things—is vital.

The series reminds one of the importance of this animal, and of nature itself, through visually stunning effects and cinematography by Johan Heurlin Aidt. The beauty of the Western Ghats is starkly contrasted with metropolitan Delhi. Wildlife, even apart from the majestic yet vulnerable elephants, appears in several poignant scenes. But the situations are sometimes a bit overdone—such as a scene where a high-speed vehicle chase is paused to let some ducks safely cross the road.

PoacherThe narrative is also slowed down by the hurdles in the investigation due to procedural inefficiencies, powerful and connected people trying to erase their links to the crime and most of all, jurisdictional conflict in finding the poachers: “Too many people [departments] hunting the same animal [poachers],” as Neel explains.

The bureaucracy, in particular, is justifiably panned at the end of the series. The officials spend a painstakingly long time just trying to figure out how to work with, or sidestep, other agencies as well as the public, who are unable to wrap their minds around the seriousness of the crime. Perhaps, it is an attempt to give the viewers a sense of the convoluted protocols that exist in these cases.

For those familiar with Operation Shikar, the climax of the series does not hold many surprises. But the epilogue brings up unanswered questions, the most resounding of which is asked by Mala: “Can poachers be reformed?” Conversations on ending the illegal hunting and smuggling of wildlife always include the need for behavioural change and community involvement. But there is little exploration in the series on how this could be done. It does dwell into the lives and struggles of these illegal hunters, who are not just portrayed as villains consumed by greed, but also as people who are working to escape deprivation. But the solutions shared to deal with the poachers do not dwell too much on their reform, and seem to start and end at tighter law enforcement. Araku the whistle-blower, for example, was forced to participate in the poaching activity by financial need and threats to his life, yet must face harsh judgement by the forest officials.

Perhaps, a spiritual sequel with greater focus on the perspectives of the poachers and the local communities is in order.

This was first published in the 1-15 April, 2024 print edition of Down To Earth

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