RANTHAMBHORE - WHERE DHARMANDRAS DARE
by Raja Chatterjee
It is the Tiger in India, for whom the bell tolls. At the time of launching of one
of the most ambitious conservation initiative ‘Project Tiger’ in 1972, India had
about 1800 wild tigers. Even after a four decade long quasi drama, the count of
the cats dwindled down to about 1500! It seems that money went down the drains.
Poachers ran amok to feed International markets in the Far East. Shuddering at
this systematic massacre, a maverick emerged to put a period on the onslaught
of Tigers at Ranthambhore. He is DharmendraKhandal, a dauntless, die-hard wildlifer
who set a new standard in NGO activism in India and is numerouno in our choice for
the award on the front.
In 2003, DharmendraKhandal joined Tiger Watch, a Ranthambhore based wildlife NGO, as a conservation biologist.
Having completed his landmark studies on spiders at the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, Maharashtra, with two
discoveries to his credit, he landed up at the most celebrated Tiger Reserve of India. He was unaware of
poaching or Moghiyas and had not even seen a tiger in the wild. Here, he was assigned the task of Tiger
Survey by Late Fateh Singh Rathore, the founder of TW, for off late, whispers made its rounds that some
tigers might have vanished from the Park. Dharmendra applied a unique method. He soon created a file with
profuse photographs of tigers of Ranthambhore, complemented with camera trap images spending a great deal
time to conclude there were only 25 tigers in the Reserve contrary to the claim of 43 by the Reserve authorities.
Eighteen tigers were missing!
Dharmendra’s report on the findings was trashed outright by the Field Director. As he did not budge, he was denied entry
into the forest with fake charges of snake removal from the Park. Meanwhile, by 2005, the Sariska fiasco (of all tigers
poached therein) triggered great commotion countrywide, forcing the government to send a task force to report on thirteen
Tiger Reserves including Ranthambhore. It revealed that as many as 22 tigers had gone missing and not 18, confirming
Khandal’s suspicion. Vanquished by logic and exposed by the media, Ranthambhore authorities changed their stance,
agreed to work with Khandal to curb poaching. Dharmendra by then had set up his own intelligence network. With a
motley group of volunteers, he captured the dreaded poacher RajmalMoghyia with confiscation of sambhar meat. Having
beaten him up severely, Dharmendra sent him to jail. Just after five raids, Reserve authorities refused to carry
on raids further with Khandal.
Their decision left Khandal bewildered and depressed. Feeling insecured, he went underground.
Dried of funds to feed informers, a desperate Dharmendra sent feelers to all his contacts around.
By the spring of 2006, a local NGO donated him a jeep while the students and teachers of Sri Ram
School, Delhi raised money for his crusade selling crafts and cookies! Desperate to find an insider
source from the moghiya community, dressed up in disguise, Dharmendra met RajmalMoghiya in Jail. He
threatened to kill him once he was out of jail, unless his son Ram Singh, an active poacher, cooperated
with Khandal. A terrified Rajmal relented. It was on 10th October, 2005, Dharmendra threw a private
party for Ram Singh, his new found friend from Moghiya community.
Much before the foot fall of his guests, he cut a hole on the curtain and placed a
video camera behind it and placed his table in front. All set to record. As the party goes in full galore,
he invites Ram Singh with drinks to his table. Dharmendra made
Ram talk prolific about his Moghiya friends and relatives with flowing pegs of whisky on the rocks. Ram spilled
out every detail before vomiting blood! Ram fell seriously ill (as he was suffering from Hepatitis-B) and was
hospitalised. On recovery, Dharmendra soon met Ram, blackmailed him with video tape, demanding all details on
the recent poachings. A panic stricken Ram, losing chance of survival either way succumbs to Khandal, divulged.
Khandal mapped their modus-operandii following details. Area specific five gangs of poachers were active ,
with about 10-15 men in each group who were interconnected through blood and marriage. Together they had
by then killed 20 tigers. Booty used to be sold out to several traders at Rajasthan and M.P. and that finally
made way to Delhi. Each tiger fetched around Rs. 40,000/- . But Ram was unaware of the Tibetan kingpin
NeemaKampa or about Sansar Chand, based at Delhi to transport consignments to Tibet and China via Nepal.
Khandal sketched a fool-proof strategy stitching every bit of information those were cross-checked before
drafting a dossier on the poachers and their massacre. Dharmendra rushed to Mr.AlokeVashisth, Superintendent
of Police (Rural), Kota district, seeking his support to nab the gangs. SP was awestruck hearing his version,
agreed to extend unqualified support. The battle cry heard.
“ Over a two-week period in the fall of 2005, Khandal and Vashisth, working with up to 17 cops and volunteers at a time,
conducted three raids that would break the back of the Ranthambhore poaching network. On October 28 they descended on
the home of their first bust, sidestepping a pack of ferocious dogs to arrest a man who had killed one tiger and trafficked
in the skins of many more. On October 30 they nabbed a gang leader who had killed four tigers. That man’s entire extended
family was in town for the funeral of his mother, and they chased Khandal and company with sticks and axes. Finally,
on November 15, they hauled away another gang leader, who admitted to killing five tigers. These three arrests yielded
intelligence that led to 27 more, including the bust of the kingpin, NeemaKampa, in Delhi on February 5, 2006. ” reports
Paul Kvinta of National Geographic, who made a story on DharmendraKhandal titled ‘Cat Fight’ in its June, 2009 issue.