Inside the Secret Lives of India’s Independent Wildlife Rescuers

From facing murderous mobs to spending lonely nights in the forest, it’s a jungle out there for wildlife rescuers in India fighting for the survival of our animals.

Tanay Juvekar offers to hold a rat snake during our Zoom interview. He picks up the nonvenomous snake with familiar ease. The snake coils around Juvekar’s bony frame and never so much as hisses at the 23-year-old engineer from Mumbai. Behind him, thick groves of mangroves line the city’s coastal limits, brimming with other fascinating creatures. 

A tattoo circles Juvekar’s neck. “Run Wild,” it says. And that’s precisely what he does.

“I recovered him just before our call,” Juvekar told me. “It was caught in a fishing net for hours and was completely exhausted and dehydrated in the heat. These are cold-blooded reptiles who get disoriented when the temperatures soar.”

Juvekar is an independent wildlife rescuer in India, one among a handful of animal enthusiasts who rescue everything – at great personal risk – from snakes, monkeys and iguanas to even leopards and rhinos that stray into human habitats. A few years back during the monsoons, the locals complained of a crocodile sighting at one of Mumbai’s shallow lakes, also one of its most polluted. Juvekar then collaborated with government agencies and wildlife nonprofits and managed to lure the reptile out of the lake safely into a cage using a pig’s head as bait. The croc was later relocated to the nearby Sanjay Gandhi National Park. 

A rescued leopard at the Centre for Wildlife Rehabilitation and Conservation under the WTI in Assam. Photo: Madhumay Malik/WTI

“It’s always a race against time,” he said. “As soon as you get a call, you want to leave everything behind and reach the spot because even a minute’s delay would mean the animal getting killed by anxious, agitated locals.”

Independent rescuers like Juvekar, who are not affiliated to or part of wildlife organisations, receive no monetary compensation for their work. And yet, he manages to rescue at least three animals on any given day. His only motivation? Love. 

“The sight of angry locals clubbing a snake or any other creature to death breaks my heart the most,” he said. 

But for wildlife rescuers, facing an angry mob is never easy. In 2019, an endangered Himalayan brown bear was chased by a mob, only to fall to its death in a ditch. While in 2016, a royal Bengal tiger in Assam state was lynched by locals, some of whom extracted its nails and teeth after the grisly slaughter. This approach runs afoul of the rescue guidelines laid down by India’s Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, but shrinking wildlife habitats and a lack of awareness of what animals do for the world at large only mean increasing animal-human conflict. 

Instances of tigers getting lynched to death before the rescuers arrive are not uncommon. Photo: Suyash Keshari

An endless loop

According to Arjun Kamdar, an independent rescuer and herpetologist who works closely with wildlife agencies run by the government, most independent researchers are doing what is termed “mechanism zero” work. 

“Basically, what this means is that rescuers largely work as band-aids,” he explained. “It disappoints them greatly that this keeps happening every day because the systemic issues are much deeper. So, day after day, it seems that they are back to square one.”

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He said that a wildlife rescuer’s greatest responsibility then comes down to dispelling myths and superstitions people might associate with snakes and other wild animals, and also explaining the ecological reasons behind why they might appear in human habitats. 

“So, we explain that if you find a snake in your house, it’s mostly by accident because the snake usually knows the area very well,” he said. “Often, during monsoons, I tell people to clear the open trash cans and old furniture from their backyard too. Or, I explain that most seemingly “two-headed snakes” do not actually have a second head – it’s just their tail shaped like a head as an evolutionary response against predators who would attack them by grabbing them near the head.”

In India, dangerous myths are still associated with snakes, that often results in them getting clubbed to death even before the rescuer can arrive. Photo: Shreenath Chavan

One of the cardinal rules that most wildlife rescuers follow, particularly when it comes to snakes, is to never transfer them to a different area, or too far away from where they were found. In states such as Maharashtra and Telangana, this is also encoded in the rescue rules. 

There is a high number of cases of snakes coming into contact with humans in India. Snakebites claim almost 1.2 million lives in the country annually (the highest globally), and snakes were recently listed as a “conflict species” by the government. 

Sunil Shirke, an independent wildlife rescuer, attempts to rescue a king cobra. Photo: Ruturaj Tawde

“It is challenging to explain to the residents why this is so,” Kamdar said. “But if you rescue a snake from Mumbai and let it out in the wild miles away in some forest, chances of its survival are slim. There is unequivocal evidence for the same.”

Beyond utopia

In the biodiversity-rich northeastern state of Assam, away from the mangrove swamps of Mumbai, Samshul Ali – the project head of the Centre for Wildlife Rehabilitation and Conservation under the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) – was getting ready to perform orthopaedic surgery on a leopard the next morning. Apart from suturing injured animals for almost a decade, he has rescued roughly 30 leopards, eight tigers, 35 elephant calves and 25 rhinos. 

Samshul Ali with his team at the Wildlife Trust of India rescue an injured rhino. Photo: Madhumay Malik/WTI

“Although I’d been rescuing animals in a personal capacity for a long time, my first professional rescue for the WTI was of an elephant and her calves that were stranded on an island,” he recalled. “Almost every day, we would row a boat and reach that island. Soon, we found out that the mother had died. Witnessing the orphaned children and feeding them milk with my own hands is a memory I will always cherish. We released them in the wild soon after.”

Apart from learning the intricacies of rescuing, WTI's Samshul Ali also had to understand how to treat severely injured animals. Photo: Madhumay Malik/WTI

For every wildlife rescuer, expecting an ideal outcome from a rescue is a utopian dream. Regardless of how quick that rescue call was answered, some animals are inevitably clubbed to death before help arrives. In other cases, the loneliness that comes with the work can get crushing, too. 

Shreenath Chavan, an independent wildlife rescuer from Maharashtra state, said that he works on reuniting leopard mothers with their cubs – even if it means sitting in front of a camera for nights on end until the mother arrives. And yet he and his colleagues persist. 

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“It’s an intoxication, there is no other way to put it,” he said. “You have to be lonely in the forest and can’t help but worry about how traumatised the cubs might get if they are never reunited with their mothers or are brutally attacked by locals.”

Shreenath Chavan believes rescuing animals is also an intoxication — one that demands lonely nights. Photo courtesy Shreenath Chavan

One of Chavan’s proudest moments was identifying tiger marks on a buffalo carcass in a sanctuary where no tigers had ever been sighted. 

“Initially, the forest officials rubbished my observation because I was apparently ‘too young’ to know anything,” the 29-year-old said. “A few days later I got a call from their team confirming what I’d been insisting all along. All I did was read the bite marks correctly. This can only happen if you have dedicated your life to studying the jungle and its laws.”

He added that dividing animals and humans into two independent hermetically sealed chambers does more harm than good. 

“As wildlife rescuers, all we expect is understanding these animals,” he said. “This is not impossible because we do a very fine job in understanding why our [pet] cats and dogs behave a certain way. Why can’t we extend that same empathy for other creatures too?”

A rescuer from RESQ, a nonprofit, feeds a stray dog. Photo: Ruturaj Tawde

Mind the gap

Suyash Keshari, a 26-year-old wildlife presenter, filmmaker and conservationist, said that wildlife rescuers fill a critical spot left blank by the government. “We often believe that every social cause must be left to the government – this idea to let the government do its job while we stand by the side,” he said. “This is impossible, and that’s where the wildlife rescuers come in because they happily fill the gaps.”

In many ways, there seems to be an implicit understanding between the government and the wildlife rescuers on issues that might not always pass the legal test. The most prevalent: posing with rescued animals and snakes for the camera and sharing it on social media. 

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“This is illegal except for a few exotic species,” said Kamdar. “I’m not doubting the love for animals that these rescuers might have but there is also a display of a certain level of masculinity in those pictures.”

However, he clarified that some rescuers pose with the rescued animals and snakes simply to eliminate the fear that people hold. “Even then, posing with venomous snakes is never justified. But the government knows that if it starts penalising and imprisoning everyone who does this, there will be almost none left.”

Experts say that it’s important to give people ecological reasons as to why snakes land up inside homes as opposed to feeding into superstitions. Photo: Shreenath Chavan

More than anything, Keshari hopes that the rescuers are paid and would unionise themselves so that people understand their real value. 

“They are providing a professional service and must be remunerated for it,” he said. “It is not easy and can take up to three to four hours to rescue one elephant. Time is money. They have to first drive for hours and spend on fuel, anti-venom kits, and other tools required. We need to have a social entrepreneurship approach towards wildlife rescuers because that’s the only way they can be respected.”

Follow Arman on Twitter and Instagram.

Tagged:

ANIMALS, Conservation, forests, Snakes, climate change, animal rescue

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