How journalist Jayan Menon broke the story on which 'Poacher' is based

Poacher, which released on Amazon Prime Video, is getting rave reviews

68-a-still-from-Poacher A still from Poacher

It all began in May 2015, when an emaciated man walked into a forest office in Kerala and confessed to a crime. He was part of a gang of ivory poachers with links to middlemen of an international ivory trading racket.

Kunjumon became Aruku in Emmy-winning filmmaker Richie Mehta's hard-hitting show Poacher, which released on Amazon Prime Video on February 23, and has Alia Bhatt as executive producer. Mehta, however, has remained true to the story and as a result, the show is receiving rave reviews.

The suicide of a prime accused at a pineapple plantation, a race against time, inter-departmental squabbles, the country's largest ivory raid at a secret location in Delhi―these are all fiction rooted in fact, says Jayan Menon, the reporter who exposed the racket on the front page of the Malayala Manorama on June 29, 2015. Menon sketched out how 20 wild elephants were killed by poachers in the forests of Kerala. Here, he tells THE WEEK what really transpired, and how, sometimes, the truth really is more gripping than its own dramatisation.

As depicted in the series, it all started with a man approaching the Karimbani forest station with a confession.

Poacher, the web series on Amazon Prime Video, comes at a time when several man-animal conflicts are being reported from Wayanad in north Kerala. The story of the large-scale poaching in the forests of Kerala in 2015 was broken by me when I was the Malayala Manorama's chief reporter in Thiruvananthapuram. As depicted in the series, it all started with a physically and mentally broken man―Kalarikudiyil Kunjumon, 62―approaching the Karimbani forest station in Kerala with a confession that he was the cook in an ivory poaching gang. He said they went hunting five times, killed seven elephants and extracted their tusks on four occasions, which were then sold to a person from Thiruvananthapuram. He was paid Rs57,000 by the gang.

The officers at the forest station, however, did not believe him and thought he was deranged. He then went to another forest station with his confession. When the forest officials conducted a preliminary search, they found the remains of an elephant at the spot shown by Kunjumon. A court remanded him in custody for 18 days. Though he gave the mobile numbers of seven culprits, no detailed inquiry was conducted.

Then came an honest forest officer, whose sincerity and commitment to the truth are proof that even hardened elephant poachers can be brought to their knees by the efforts of one man. When forester N. Sivakumar of the Perumbavoor Flying Squad came to know of what was happening, he alerted me. In fact, his role has been taken out of the show and that, according to me, is its one missing link. Unlike in the show, Nimisha Sajayan's character came into the picture much later. But other than this, the show is spot-on in portraying the reality, except for some obvious dramatic elements, like a love interest and a cancer diagnosis.

Sivakumar told me that nothing had been confirmed and the investigation had just begun. Both of us tracked the leads for days. Two weeks later, he came to see me in Thiruvananthapuram with Kunjumon's recorded statement. He was disappointed at the apathy of top forest department officers, three of whom had dismissed his conclusions, despite him providing concrete proof.

After the Malayala Manorama broke the story of large-scale elephant poaching in Kerala, efforts were made to suspend Sivakumar for bringing the forest department into disrepute by colluding with the media, but the authorities were left helpless as each poaching incident was brought to light through the newspaper.

Elephants in the room: A raid at Umesh Agarwal's workshop. Elephants in the room: A raid at Umesh Agarwal's workshop.

Thiruvanchoor Radhakrishnan, who was the Kerala forest minister at the time, ordered an investigation, and one by one the ivory poachers were trapped. Following the news, the forest department launched a high-level inquiry into the killing and dehorning of 20 wild elephants from the Vazhachal and Athirapilli forest areas in Kerala. The investigation was led by Surendra Kumar, additional principal chief conservator of forest vigilance. The forest guards searched the valley in three teams. The gang members mentioned in Kunjumon's statement were taken into custody. The forest guards went into the “unexplored forest” with them.The remains of five wild elephants―mostly bones and teeth―were found. These samples were sent for testing.

Even though there were efforts from within the forest department to thwart the investigation, ultimately nine people were arrested after Preston Silva, who bought ivory from the poachers, and a few of the gang members surrendered before forest vigilance. Then it was discovered that the racket extended internationally, after the investigators found out about a Kolkata woman, Thenkachi, who was smuggling the tusks abroad. Currently, she is still at large.

Another middleman in the ivory trade was Umesh Agarwal, who was arrested from a four-storey house in Delhi's swanky Shakarpur area by a team of forest rangers, members of the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau and the Delhi Police as part of 'Operation Shikar'. Within 24 hours, Agarwal was brought and remanded in the Muvattupuzha court. The call records of Aji Bright, Preston and Eagle Rajan, who were arrested from Thiruvananthapuram, helped nab Agarwal. He had bought ivory from them, carved it into sculptures and smuggled them to countries like China, Japan and Nepal. The workshop operated from the ground floor of his house. He had been trading in ivory since 1990, but this was the first time he had been caught.

In August, the government handed over the probe to the CBI, as there was inter-state and international involvement. But the CBI did not find anything more than what was found by the forest department. Nineteen cases initiated by the forest department are still in court. Kunjumon, who gave the first statement and became a prime witness in the case, died in 2022. A case that would have ended with the arrest of one man finally led to the arrest of 73 people and the recovery of ivory worth around Rs25 crore, thanks to the intervention of a forest employee and a journalist. A pen, sometimes, is mightier than a poacher's gun.

Menon is currently chief of bureau of the Malayala Manorama in Kozhikode, Kerala